by Jordan Strickler
HARTFORD, Ky. – Five years ago, Tyson Sanderfur was looking to expand on his family’s Ohio County farm. Already growing tobacco, grain, turkey and cattle, after doing his research, Sanderfur ended up adding bison to the mix. In 2015, he and a college friend purchased their first 15 head of bison from a seller in Pennsylvania. From that original 15, their bison herd has now grown to about 60.
“I came across an article that intrigued me,” said Sanderfur. “That sparked me looking into the bison industry even more. After some research we decided to jump in.”
Bovid species evolved over millions of years in Africa, Asia, Europe, India and North America. While historically bison (American and European) are found in North America and Europe, buffalo are really old world species that evolved in Africa and Asia.
Prior to 1600, the numbers estimated to have roamed North America were anywhere from 30 – 60 million. Those numbers dwindled to less than 1,000 in the 1800s due to overhunting as they were prized for their for their skins and tongues. Thanks to preservation efforts to bring back the species, the population has ballooned to almost 184,000 as of 2017 according to USDA data.
Unlike cattle, bison cannot be domesticated says Sanderfur, and an increasing number of bison today are kept on pasture throughout their lives. Producing grass-finished bison is challenging because of the variable nature of seasons, grasses and periodic droughts. Federal regulations also prohibit the use of growth hormones in bison, as well as antibiotics administered to promote growth.
In the last few months before the meat is harvested, many bison are finished on a diet of grains and roughage in order to provide a consistent product which many customers desire. Finishing facilities used for bison must accommodate the animal’s natural social behavior, with ample space and quality nutrition. Some of these bison are finished in the pastures, with grain and roughage provided on a “free choice” basis.
Research by Dr. M. Marchello at North Dakota State University has shown that the meat from bison is a highly nutrient dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, mineral and fatty acids to its caloric value. Comparisons to other meat sources have also shown that bison has a greater concentration of iron as well as some of the essential fatty acids necessary for human well being.
While bison can be tougher to raise than cattle, Sanderfur says the trouble is worth it due to the increased price at market. According to the National Bison Association, sales of bison meat in restaurants and retail stores now tops $350 million a year, and marketers report continued opportunities for increasing sales.
“I would recommend anyone looking to get into the business to find another bison farmer to study and see the ins and outs before jumping in,” he says. “The more research you do, the less surprises there will be.”