The American bison’s brush with extinction is well-documented, as massive hunting during the United States’ westward expansion almost wiped the animal off the face of the earth. Thanks to careful conservation and environmental stewardship, there are more than 500,000 bison in North America, and bison meat has become a small but steady niche in the meat-processing industry.

The largest bison processor in the country is Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, located in Henderson, Colo. Founded in 1986, the company processes about 20,000 bison a year, which according to USDA reports, accounts for roughly half of the total amount of animals processed in this country. With strong markets in both the foodservice and retail side of the business, the company has experienced consistent growth.

“When I started here about 10 years ago, we did about $2.7 million dollars in sales,” points out Ty Ward, chief operating officer. “This year, just in buffalo sales, we’re going to do right around $35 million, and we’ve got some beef sales on top of that.”

On the retail side, Rocky Mountain’s bison products are found in many of the major chains and natural foods stores under the Great Range Bison brand. Among the items sold under that brand are steak medallions, burger patties, chili and ground bison.

“Our one-pound ground buffalo is our bread and butter,” says Paul Bernardo, vice president of sales. The company also supplies Whole Foods and other stores with fresh buffalo cuts. “Every cut that’s available in beef, we do in bison.”

Foodservice sales account for about one-third of the company’s overall sales, and its largest customer is Ted’s Montana Grill, which has 42 locations nationwide. The company is owned by media mogul and buffalo rancher Ted Turner.

“We buy all of Ted’s animals, receive the carcasses here, and we fab and grind for his restaurants,” Bernardo says. “He serves a fresh bison burger, so we do a coarse grind here and ship it to his distributors. They regrind it at the restaurant level and form it into a fresh patty. That’s why it tastes so good,” he says.

Almost all of the company’s retail products are sold fresh. Ward says the company’s consumers tend to desire high-quality fresh ingredients so they can make their own meals. The typical bison consumer, he says, are “people who really care about what they eat and want really high-quality raw materials for their family. Whole Foods is a good customer for us, and that’s exactly where those people shop if they’re looking for high-quality ingredients.”

Ward says that many consumers have misconceptions about bison, which the company has to overcome before it can gain a new customer. Contrary to what some people believe, bison meat isn’t gamey, and the company describes its taste as more flavorful than beef.

“Most of what we do is a grain-finished product,” he says. “There have been a lot of poor-quality animals that have been passed off as that kind of thing by other people. There have been a lot of people who have tried bison and didn’t enjoy it because of that, so we’ve had resistance. You just try to get past it, and hopefully they’ll try [bison] again.”


Buffalo sellers

Rocky Mountain’s bison products are all natural. While the ground bison is the leading seller with placement in about 3,000 stores nationwide, the company’s other retail products also sell briskly. A package of steak medallions contains two 6-ounce steaks, perfect for someone who’s looking to try bison without making a substantial cost investment. The medallions are also popular among bodybuilders, Bernardo notes, because they are 98 percent fat free and contain 74 percent of the daily protein requirement.

The company has introduced bison hot dogs, both as a mixture with beef and an all-natural version from 100 percent bison. They have sold well in the summertime and show strong potential for future growth. The hot dogs are cooked elsewhere, as Rocky Mountain’s plant is strictly a raw facility.

The biggest problem that Bernardo has when selling bison to a new customer is getting the retailer convinced that the product will sell. Unlike a known commodity like beef or pork, many stores have never sold buffalo before, so that market has to be created from scratch. He says it’s a natural progression to get them to add on bison products.

“I’ll bring in the fresh grind first,” Bernardo explains. “Once they’ve established that, we’ll show them the steak medallions or the hot dogs, and roll it out to the high-ends, the ribeye and the strip.”

He says that volume has steadily increased in every chain that carries Rocky Mountain’s products.

Rocky Mountain ships its products across the country, but the East Coast is a particularly strong market. Atlanta, given Turner’s strong presence there, is a successful market, as is the Boston area. What typically happens, Ward says, is that one or two retailers in a market add bison products, have success with them, and then competing retailers add the products as well. What starts off in a local grocer eventually expands to the area’s Targets and Wal-Marts.

Managed growth is the key to the company’s success at retail, Bernardo says, by striking the balance between finding new customers and making sure there is enough of a supply to handle the new customer. There limits to the available bison population, which can create inventory issues. When a major player like Ted Turner decides to retain some bison to grow the herd rather than selling the animals for slaughter, it may be better for the herd in the long run, but it does create some short-term difficulties for processors.

“We’re not going to take on somebody if we’re going to be short on meat,” Bernardo says. “It’s been a perfect balance so far.”

One of the strongest selling points for the ground bison is its 28-day shelf life, which reduces some of the retailer’s risk of having to discount it for a quick sale. Rocky Mountain receives bison carcasses from two different slaughterers, both of which use Rinse-and-Chill™ technology on the carcasses. The system uses a solution of cold sterile water and 2 percent simple sugars that is flushed through the animal’s circulatory system via the carotid artery. The process quickly removes the blood, which is a major bacterial growth medium, and also lowers the carcass temperature. The process is widely used in Australia, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the USDA granted trial approval in the United States. Today, Rinse-and-Chill technology is in about 14 plants in the United States and Australia.

“It’s not real widespread because it slows down the line so much,” explains Ward. “It takes two to three minutes for each animal to be rinsed out, so these big facilities would never do it; it just takes too long. But it helps Paul get customers, because there’s a lot less risk with that long shelf life.”


Upgrading the plant

Rocky Mountain Natural Meats built a 49,000-square-foot plant and moved into it in December, 2007. By way of comparison, the previous plant was 14,000 square feet. That facility only did further processing, whether it was grinding or cutting steaks. The new facility receives carcasses in quarters, and employees break them down for further processing, which gives the company more controls over the product. Where the company used to receive raw materials in a combo bin, it can now visually inspect each carcass before it is processed.

The new facility has the capacity to fabricate about 200 animals a day. Currently, the company fabricates about 400 head of bison and 100 head of beef a week, and it can grind about 20,000 pounds of bison meat per day, the majority of which goes to the retail customers.

The company has added on a commodity boxed beef program, in addition to the bison processing. Along with the additional sales, Ward says, the beef program also keeps the plant and the company’s 60 employees busy.

Fabricating a bison carcass isn’t very different from working with a cattle carcass, according to Ward. The skeletal structure is slightly different, and the bison quarters may be smaller, but the cuts are all the same.

“I think the bison is a little simpler, because we don’t pull out all of the thin meats and try to sell them,” he adds. “There’s so little volume for bison, and it’s hard to get any good customers for low-volume products like that. So a lot of it goes into the grind, which means we have to get a lot of value out of our grind, which we do. We sell what we can and grind the rest.”

Adding on the fabrication room required additional employees. Fortunately, there are a number of large beef-processing facilities in the area, so Rocky Mountain was able to bring on an experienced work force. Ward notes that the plant is laid out as a scaled-back version of the massive beef-producing facilities, so the employees are working in a familiar environment and may appreciate the smaller plant size.

The Rocky Mountain facility is federally inspected, and bison meat is under voluntary USDA inspection. The company has its own stringent test-and-hold program on all pre-grind materials, as opposed to finished product testing.

“We don’t even let it go [into the processing room] if we get a positive,” Ward says. The fabrication room can be used for beef and bison, but the processing room is for bison meat only.

With only four or five major processors of bison meat in the country, food safety is of paramount importance.

“If in the bison industry anybody has a problem or a recall, even if it was a different manufacturer, people could easily stop eating bison meat altogether,” Ward says. The company’s test-and-hold program costs a considerable amount of money, but he says that the company believes the cost is worth it.

The North American bison herd primarily exists in the Western states, as well as Canada. Some of the economic factors that are affecting the beef industry, such as commodities and fuel prices, affect the bison industry as well.

“There are a lot of expenses that the ranchers have, so we have to basically pay them more to create more incentive for them to raise the animals, or to switch over from beef to raising bison,” Ward says.

As Rocky Mountain’s overall volume numbers have grown, the company has been able to become more efficient and take advantage of some of the efficiencies beef processors have enjoyed. The company processes enough carcasses and generates enough offal that it can sell offal to a company that makes all-natural pet food. Previously, the volume wasn’t high enough for any company to market a bison pet food program, so hauling away the offal was an expense.

Ward says that he and Bernardo started with the company at about the same time. When they first arrived, the company was using other companies to do the patty-making, the steak-cutting, the killing and the fabbing. The slaughter process is likely to remain a third-party process, but bringing in all the other processes in-house has served the company well.

“Instead of everybody padding their margins on us,” Ward says, “we actually get to recoup some of that, and it works out better.”