Alberta bison producers have 'supply issue'

Alberta bison ranchers say they are having a hard time keeping up with demand.

Alberta bison ranchers say they are having a hard time keeping up with demand.

"Consumers are buying more product, looking for it and we're running into a supply issue," said Paul Kolesar, who used to be a cattle rancher but now has 500 head of bison. Kolesar has had sales more than double in the past five years, from 45,000 pounds to 95,000 pounds, he said.

Sales of Alberta bison reached $35 million in 2009, up from $21 million in 2003, said Jayson Galbraith, a bison specialist with the Alberta government. The price also has risen with increased demand over the past few years, he said.

There are 85,000 to 90,000 head of bison in the province, in herds ranging in size from 20 to 1,000 animals, Galbraith said.

"The meat from bison falls into what consumers are looking for in terms of a low-fat, high-in-iron, high-in-protein meat product," Galbraith said. "I think with consumers being, you know, more interested in what they're eating and where it comes from, I think that bison meat offers … something that consumers are looking for."

As much as three-quarters of the 15,000 to 20,000 animals processed annually are sent out of the country to the United States and Europe, Galbraith said.

"In Europe, the romantic idea of the Wild West and the bison, I mean, that's really how in many cases it's marketed there," he said. "And they have a notion that, you know, it's raised in a more pristine environment. I think that that is exactly what our good producers are doing."

Marvin Moore, chair of the Bison Producers of Alberta, said his buyer in Denver, Colo., is also working to meet demand.

"They're so short of animals there, they're phoning every once in a while, saying, 'Is there any way we can get another load?'" said Moore, who has a ranch east of Grande Prairie, Alta.

When the disease known as BSE hit Alberta cattle in 2003, restrictions on export to the U.S. were also applied to bison, and some producers went out of business, Moore said.

Now they have the opposite problem.

"That's one of the challenges our industry has now — we've got to get more new producers into the business and produce more animals and that takes some time," Moore said. "There's going to be a tight market for quite a long while yet."

Bison contains less fat than beef. The tender cuts sent to market these days have no wild taste, Moore said.

"Once people try it, they realize how delicious it is."