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Buffalo Trend: Grass-Fed Bison Key to Marketing the Lean Meat

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“For the last two years, [buffalo has] been one of the fastest-growing categories in our meat department,” said Theo Weening, the global meat coordinator for Whole Foods Market, one of the nation’s largest retailers of buffalo, according to The New York Times.

Customers made the natural transition from grass-fed beef to lean bison meat, Weening told the Times. “Both categories went hand in hand,” he told the newspaper.

Feeding the animals grass and no grain “is more natural for the animal and produces the kind of low-fat, environmentally sustainable product that they say best competes with beef for a place on the nation’s dinner table,” reported the Times.

The Stillaguamish Tribe is Washington turned to grass-fed bison in 2008 to improve the health of tribal members and hopefully stem high rates of diabetes, reported News from Indian Country.

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Grass-fed bison, a low-caloric meat rich in vitamins, has been shown to decrease diabetes rates, said Ervin Carlson, president of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, a South Dakota-based organization that aids new, developing bison herds under tribal management, reported Indian Country. “Some of the tribes have gone straight back to buffalo meat, and it has cleaned up their diabetes,” Carlson told Indian Country.

While the grass-fed meat may be healthful, some veteran ranchers disagree that grass-feeding bison is a promising business solution. They point to meat consistency as the prime selling point over time. Each slice of bison should maintain the same taste and texture, which requires some grain feeding, they attest, reported the Times. Many bison producers recommend introducing corn in the diet right before slaughter. Bison eaters have most likely tasted “grain-finished” buffalo, they say, whereas strictly grass-fed buffalo is harder to come by and can vary in “taste and tenderness from region to region and season to season,” reported the Times.

Last year, the bison industry experienced its strongest year on record in the United States, according to a National Bison Association (NBA) press release. Accounting for price fluctuation, ground bison has been selling for about $7 a pound, compared with a little over $5 a pound a year ago, Dave Carter, executive director of the NBA, told the Associated Press.

Rising customer interest is good news for many tribes, like the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. Recently, South Dakota State University (SDSU) researchers launched a project to help the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe revive its bison production with the aid of a $43,809 United States Department of Agriculture grant, according to the SDSU news release.

As part of the “complete organic revitalization of the tribe’s herd,” the SDSU team will enforce a “strict diet” on the cattle–although the release did not specify whether the bison would be limited to grass feeding; eliminate the use of herbicides and pesticides; and the bison will graze in chemical-free pasture lands. “The goal of this program is to help producers make the transition and develop markets for their agricultural products that are organic,” said SDSU experiment station economist Scott Fausti.