Published July 1, 1993 | July 1993 issue
In May, the North American Bison Cooperative began construction on a $1.4 million processing plant in New Rockford that is likely the first committed solely to the slaughter of bison.
The plant will employ 10 to 15 people when it begins processing in November and expects to handle about 2,000 animals in its first year.
New Rockford, a town of about 1,700 north of Jamestown, is in the heart of North Dakota's bison-raising country. The majority of the cooperative's 181 members are from North Dakota; the remainder come from South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming and Canada.
While it is difficult to estimate the number of bison ranchers in North America, the numbers are increasing as people see the potential for profit, according to Ken Throlson, the co-op's acting chairman. "There is a much higher profit ratio for bison than for cattle," Throlson adds, citing minimal overhead and less time commitment.
"If things are done right, there is no limit for potential growth," Throlson says. But at this time, the demand for bison, which is low in fat and cholesterol, is much greater than the supply. "If the same amount of bison were slaughtered per day as beef, the entire domestic herd would be depleted in one day," Throlson says.
"I don't see the supply catching up with the demand until about 20 years down the road," says Brad Lodge, plant manager. "The most important thing to do at this time is to increase the number of ranchers and build up the herds."
Lodge warns that the co-op needs to be cautious about marketing when there is not enough of the product to go around. "We do not want to take the chance of losing the market entirely," he says.
"Any time you get more people marketing a product, the more successful it will be," says Domink Luond, owner of Country Pride Meats in Ipswich, S.D., and a member of the Minneapolis Fed's Advisory Council on Agriculture, Small Business and Labor. Luond, who has raised bison for the past eight years, says he's seen a steady increase in bison prices and he can't keep up with orders for the meat. "The demand, the high prices and the new plant will get more people involved in the industry, and that's good for all of us."
The demand for bison meat is greatest on the East and West coasts as people are introduced to the product, Lodge says. And Throlson adds that inquiries have been received from Europe as well.
Not only will the plant benefit the community by encouraging an increase in producers and herds, and as a result an increase in plant employees, but spinoff industries are expected to develop. Requests have already been made for bison hides.