Turn down Road 88 North in Manitoba’s Interlake and you can still see the “Gunton Bull Test Station” sign.
But don’t expect to see any cattle.
“I’m kinda glad they left the old sign up,” said Len Epp. “It’s nice to have the history, even if it’s all bison now.”
The co-owner of the Rockwood Bison Ranch bought the site after it became a casualty of the 2003 bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, which saw the Canadian beef industry pummelled.
Today the site is home to one of the about 75 bison operations in the province.
But Epp — who also heads the Manitoba Bison Association — believes the province could support many more.
“I think the potential is astronomical right now — there is such a demand for the meat that we can’t keep up with it,” he said. “We just don’t have enough supply to meet the demand.”
While larger herds on bigger operations continue to grow, the rancher said that some smaller operations are closing shop as producers head into retirement.
“I’d say it is sustaining itself right now, but we would love to see growth,” Epp said, adding he estimates that there are between 14,000 and 15,000 bison on farms across the province.
Prices are also strong at the moment, ironically motivating some producers to sell more animals, rather than build up their herds. But over time, those in the industry believe that the premiums bison get will encourage more production.
“We’re seeing hot, hanging carcasses in the U.S. are anywhere from $4.10 to $4.20 (per pound) for prime bulls, in Canada it’s as high as $4.80 to $5 for a hanging carcass,” said Epp.
Lorne Nagorski, general manager and master butcher at Oak Ridge Meats in McCreary, said he’s seen prices above the $5 mark in recent months.
What he hasn’t seen is an increase in supply, although he’d like to.
“There is huge interest in bison,” said Nagorski. “It’s a niche market and it’s way easier to sell bison than some of the different other kinds of exotic meats… people see bison as a very Canadian, very original, type of wild meat still, but it’s one that they can still buy in a store.”
Oak Ridge Meats, which slaughters 30 to 50 elk and bison each week, sends its product into grocery stores in Winnipeg and some farmers’ markets.
But Nagorski has also worked with chefs to ensure they get the cuts and product they’re looking for, as the lean, protein-rich meat gains popularity in urban eateries and country establishments alike.
A representative from Winnipeg Specialty Meats, a bison distributor, said they have seen about a 30 per cent increase in the amount of bison offered in restaurants over the last two years.
“The restaurants are putting it on their menus more and more,” he said.
Epp believes that there is more than one reason for bison’s growing popularity.
“What I’m noticing in our industry is that people want to know where that animal came from… they’re not looking for the mass production,” said Epp. “They’re looking for the local farmer who treats his animals right, they want to know where it came from… bison is an all-natural meat, and the public tunes into that really quickly.”
There is also a distinct taste, which the rancher describes as slightly sweeter than that of beef.
Few new entrants
However, that consumer demand has yet to translate into new bison producers, something Epp believes may be tied to startup costs.
Bison are not just large cattle. They require tough fences and reinforced chutes. Epp uses a system of hydraulic gates, locking each door behind him and herding with a specially modified BobCat.
“A normal barbed-wire fence isn’t going to cut it,” said Epp. “They can jump, we have seen a herd bull go over seven feet… so there are just certain aspects of the industry where we have to be careful.”
But bison also require much less handling than cattle.
“So it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other,” he added.
The animal’s size and agility also mean that slaughtering them takes some specialized equipment.
“When this plant was built, it was built with the intention to slaughter bison… even the big bull bison,” said Nagorski. “The plants out west don’t want to try and handle them anymore, they’re very dangerous to handle.
“Of course, once we get them inside here, we have no trouble,” he added with a chuckle.
And while fencing costs may run high, all other costs run low, said Epp, who sold off his beef herd last winter to focus solely on bison.
“They’re not very picky on their pasture, they’re accustomed to eating your normal, perennial June grasses. A lot of producers do put in the tame alfalfas and forages, but they do really well on straight grass; they are really good converters,” he said. “They also like a little bit of bulk in their grass, not necessarily the second cut of alfalfa. In fact, if you put a bale of timothy in front of a bison, compared to a bale of second-cut alfalfa they’ll probably go for the timothy.”
Bison also calve on their own and are extremely disease resistant, he added.
“They are very self-sufficient, the biggest hurdle, like with any industry, is capital costs,” said Epp.
But interested producers could turn to Growing Forward 2 programs if they’re interested in shifting gears and investing in bison, said Michelle Gaudry, an industry development specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
“They could be tailored to bison,” she said, adding that existing producers are excellent resources for those testing the waters.
“We would love to see the industry grow, not just in Manitoba but across Canada,” said Gaudry.
Back at the old Gunton Bull Test Station, Epp is preparing to ship another load of bison to the United States. He sends between 400 and 500 head south each year, roughly 45 or 50 animals at a time.
Because there is no federally inspected bison-processing plant in the province, bison meat can’t be shipped from Manitoba to the U.S.
Epp hopes that True North Foods in Carman, which has begun handling bison, will receive a federal designation in the near future.
“It would be convenient to have that option,” he said. “Because I think the demand will continue to grow.”