Bison producers back from market black-hole

There was a sense of hope and optimism at the recent meeting of the Bison Producers of Alberta meeting and for good reason: bison breeding stock and meat markets are back from depths not seen in known memory.

There was a sense of hope and optimism at the recent meeting of the Bison Producers of Alberta meeting and for good reason: bison breeding stock and meat markets are back from depths not seen in known memory. Prices were so bad at one point that the cost of marketing and transporting bison to sales outlets exceeded the price received for the animal. Stories abounded of bison just being shot to reduce further losses.

So what happened – well, it seems the bison industry was hit with one calamity after another over the past ten years. It started back in 2000 when the red-hot bison breeding stock market collapsed. Well, that’s not an unusual event with non-commodity type livestock species. Ostrich, elk, llama, etc.. all had their high-flying markets and then crashed. Although bison are quite different than those exotic species having been farmed for almost 100 years in Alberta. Still prices for bison cows reached levels never seen before.

One thing that separates bison from exotic species is that they have always had a market for bison meat. That gives some stability to the industry and provides producers with a steady marketing basis to work towards. But then producers were hit with two body blows which just about destroyed the industry. They lost a major bison packing plant in Edmonton to a fire and then BSE hit closing the border to US exports, a very significant market for live and meat sales.

The BSE crisis was particularly cruel and unwarranted for the industry, being bison have never been implicated in any BSE outbreak. US authorities simply lumped them in with all ruminants and banned them all from being exported to the US. There wasn’t a shred of scientific basis for including bison, it was simply US officials abusing the power they had as a precautionary decision. To make matters worse governments simply ignored the plight of bison producers who were caught in the cross-fire, as governments desperately tried to save the cattle industry. That industry also saw billions in government support money with bison producers only added as an afterthought if at all.

Then throw in a few droughts and it didn’t take long for bison markets to crash to new lows. The market depression almost lasted ten years and its only been the last few years that has seen prices slowly recover. The survivors that hung on will need many years of good prices to gain back the equity losses.

Meanwhile bison producer groups underwent a transformation that is still affecting them today. Ten years ago there were two main producer groups in Alberta, an Alberta group and a Peace River group. To unify the industry the two groups were amalgamated into the Bison Producers of Alberta, which is a commission-type organization that is similar to other ag commodity organizations like Alberta Beef Producers and Alberta Pork. It gave them checkoff powers to finance their organization but being refundable it failed as the organization was able to retain only 10 per cent of the checkoff.

Now that the industry is in recovery, producers are reflecting on how to revitalize their organization and to expand bison production. They may want to look at history before repeating it with rash decisions.

Here is some free advice from an outside observer: If you are interested in attracting new producers give them a break; establish realistic cost-of-production benchmarks including capital investment costs at different levels. Be realistic with price expectations – sky-high breeding stock prices are not the basis for a long-term stable industry. Newcomers need to go into bison production with their eyes open with real hope of making a living.

If you want more government attention, don’t abandon your present commission-type organization. If you want to be treated the same as other livestock commodities by the government, you need to act like one with a similar political basis to your producer group. Retreating to society status puts you on the same level as other minor exotic species like ostrich and llama. The bison industry needs to think of itself as part of the mainstream commercial livestock business.

Bison producers produce the most environmentally friendly meat product and from a native species. This has to be a surefire recipe for some sort of link to green lobby groups, that connection should garner all sorts of synergies and give bison a very positive image in the eyes of consumers. Green lobby groups are masters at manipulating public opinion and getting media attention – placing bison as being positive for the environment would fit in perfectly. Remember image is everything and good luck this time.