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Bison meat now on shelves at Wal-Mart, Target stores in U. S.

“We learned a lot of lessons throughout BSE, and now it’s working out for us.”

– LEN EPP

Cattle producers who may have smirked when the bison breeding stock bubble burst just over half a decade ago, may now be biting their lips.

Driven by strong demand from the United States, the shaggier bovines are currently bringing $2.45/lb. hot hanging weight, and buyers are scrambling to buy enough slaughter animals to keep up with demand, according to Len Epp, president of the Manitoba Bison Association.

“We learned a lot of lessons throughout BSE, and now it’s working out for us,” said Epp, who operates Rockwood Bison in Stonewall.

“I think a lot of beef producers – and I don’t want to knock the beef guys because I’m one as well – are a little bit – not jealous – but maybe envious right now and would like to see their market do as well.”

Demand growth south of the border, at 17 per cent a year, is swiftly outpacing supply, which has only managed seven per cent annual growth, he said.

“We’re seeing big shortages. We don’t know what’s going to happen in May and July, when most of the bison usually have already been shipped,” he said.

Now that big-box chains such as Wal-Mart and Target have begun stocking bison meat on their shelves, the industry is nervously awaiting the reaction to dwindling supplies.

Because Canada’s herd, at nearly 300,000 head, currently supplies up to 40 per cent of the U. S. market, the industry’s counterparts south of the border – unlike R-CALF– haven’t adopted an adversarial stance to imported product.

“We’re in a good state when dealing with the U. S. because they know that they need us,” he said.

The European Union is also a significant market. Gains there were mainly achieved due to aggressive marketing by Canadian producers, he added.

With a better demand outlook than in previous years, Epp predicted that many former bison producers who were forced to exit the industry during the lean years may be lured back in, especially if they haven’t sold their farms and their fences and handling facilities are still intact. Cattle producers, fed up with seemingly endless border issues, may switch over to bison, he added.

“They’ve got it all there. It’s just a matter of getting some capital and buying some animals,” he said.

Manitoba’s top grazing areas, especially in the Interlake and Dauphin area, enjoy a strong advantage over provinces and regions when it comes to raising bison, Epp added.

“Bison like to have their head down in the grass. They don’t like to have it up in a bale. They are very efficient at converting grass into profit,” he said. Manitoba’s herd is the smallest on the Prairies, with just under 25,000 animals.

Breeding cows are bringing $800 to $1,200, while good bulls averaged $2,500 at a sale in December. The reason that breeding stock prices haven’t caught up to slaughter prices, said Epp, is due to the speed of the industry’s reversal in fortunes and the lack of new entries into the business.

“What’s the average age of a farmer in Canada? Those guys are saying, ‘I’ve lost money long enough, and now I’m going to make some money on my animals by selling them, so I’m just going to get out,’” said Epp, adding that

the general trend is towards ever-larger bison operations.

On the Canadian side, there are slaughter plants in Ontario and Alberta, with Manitoba’s own Winkler Meats handling much of the local market. South of the border, there are killing plants in North Dakota, Colorado and Kansas.

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