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Bison, the Other Red Meat

Bison meat isn't cheap. It's selling for $7 a pound, $2 more than a year ago.

And they can't sell enough of it.

"We could easily be marketing 30 percent more than what's being marketed," says John Flocchini, President of the National Bison Association. Flocchini runs 2,500 head of bison on 50,000 acres out where the buffalo roam in Gillette, Wyoming. "There's good money in it right now."

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CNBC

Why is this business suddenly so profitable, considering the economy is still recovering and everyone talks about fears of food inflation? Because it's a niche market catering to a consumer attracted to the animal's history, the fact that there are no hormones involved, and the meat's high protein, low fat content.

This week at Flocchini's Durham Ranch, the thermometer consistently dips below zero degrees, but these animals have been surviving such temperatures since long before humans arrived. But the industry is facing what some might call a crisis in supply. "I would call it a challenge, not a crisis," says Flocchini. There's not enough bison to provide enough meat to meet demand. His association is trying to recruit more ranchers into raising bison. The live animals cost more to buy than cattle, but they're cheaper to raise. Another barrier to entry, females don't have calves until they're three years old, compared to two years for cows. On the other hand, they'll continue producing calves "up into their '20s."

Flocchini also says the brucellosis affecting bison in Yellowstone Parkis contained to that area only, and he brags his vet bills are cheaper than if he was raising cattle.

When I asked Flocchini if the industry may risk ramping up too quickly at the same time prices get too high for consumers, he answers, naturally, "I don't think so. We have a foundation in this market that was not there in the late '90s," when the industry collapsed. A lot of credit goes to Ted Turner, by far the world's largest bison ownerand a man who sells the meat in his restaurant chain. "Everywhere he goes he talks up bison, and that's good for our industry."

I sampled a local buffalo burger, steak, ribs, and even a skewer with satay sauce. It tastes a lot like beef. Though it has less marbling, it is a tad sweeter. But it ain't cheap. That may keep buffalo meat a niche market. The total number of bison slaughtered last year doesn't even add up to one day of cattle. "Room for growth!" is Flocchini's response.

One other difference in raising bison, ranchers do not castrate the males. Flocchini says it's all part of marketing a natural animal. "We don't wanna mess with that." Good news for the bison.

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