Lean red bison meat is at home on the range — or the grill
The American buffalo, an animal that once grazed Kentucky’s land in massive herds, was hunted to near extinction in the 1800s. More than 100 years later, the bison is back in demand for its lean red meat and a Kentucky business is blazing the trail.
The Louisville-based Kentucky Bison Co. is the leading producer east of the Mississippi of bison meat, which is gaining popularity among health-conscious consumers and chefs. In the past year, the regional demand from area groceries and restaurants has exceeded local supply, said J. B. Wilson, 35, president of the company that was founded in 1996 by entrepreneurs Laura Lee Brown and her husband, Steve Wilson, father of J. B. Wilson.
The bison evolved on America’s grasslands and are built to survive sub-zero temperatures as well as blazing heat and drought. Their hooves stir the soil and manure fertilizes seeds as they efficiently graze pastureland.
“When you think of taking care of the land, bison are a natural fit,” said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association in Colorado.
Despite their resilience and high-protein meat, bison are expected to remain a niche farm product. They are wild animals with such a strong herd instinct and communication system that if one animal discovers how to escape a fence or gate, the lesson will be swiftly passed to the rest of the herd.
“It is fight or flight with them,” said J. B. Wilson. “You have to manage them slowly and carefully and keep them calm or very quickly it becomes a train wreck. They are very strong, fast and agile.”
The number of bison producers nationwide is tiny compared to beef cattle farmers. For example, there are 1,500 bison farmers in the United States while there are more than 38,000 beef cattle producers in Kentucky alone.
Raising large, wild animals requires investment in specialized equipment. That is one reason why the number of bison farmers is low, according to Dave Maples, executive director of the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association in Lexington.
Of the U.S. bison producers, CNN founder and philanthropist Ted Turner is the largest with about 50,000 animals on more than two dozen Western ranches.
Sustainability, healthy food and the ethical treatment of animals are tenets of Kentucky Bison, which has been a leader in producing bison as naturally as possible and without steroids or other stimulants. Founder Steve Wilson also has been a leader within the bison association, serving as president and chairman of the association board.
Kentucky Bison’s operation on the historic Woodland Farm along the Ohio River in Oldham County began with 25 buffalo calves purchased from Custer State Park in South Dakota. The 1,100-acre farm now is home to a herd of about 360, including about 150 new babies each year.
“We had a bumpy number of years,” as the company learned to manage the bison and build its herd, said J. B. Wilson.
With the right supplement mix of vitamins and minerals, the herd stabilized and the company began to see results. Wilson declined to divulge sales figures, but said the company’s sales have increased 20% to 25% in the past five years.
Kentucky Bison supplies meat to nearly 100 area restaurants, 19 groceries, 12 country clubs, 11 hotels, nine schools and three sports venues. They also have a weekly presence at the Bardstown Road Farmers’ Market.
Nationally, growing consumer interest in the product is reflected in these statistics: The number of bison slaughtered for meat almost tripled in four years from more than 20,000 in 2004 to nearly 60,000 in 2008.
People appreciate three things about bison meat, said Carter of the bison association: Bison is low in fat and high in protein; it is a sustainable food raised without hormones or stimulants; and it tastes good. When the animals are fed only forage (“grass-finished”) they have a high proportion of omega-3 fatty acids.
Bison meat, which is higher in iron and lower in calories and fat than beef, pork or chicken, is a hit at Brownings Brewery on Main Street. When the Louisville Bats are playing at the downtown stadium, Brownings sells 100 pounds of bison burgers in a week, said Jonathan “Smoky” Jackson, one of the restaurant’s kitchen managers.
Customers also eagerly devour slowcooked bison short ribs in the winter months, he said. “Customers like it and come back for it,” said Jackson, who noted that chefs in other regions are becoming more interested in bison dishes.
Not only does Kentucky Bison raise and market its meat, the company also processes it at a plant in nearby Memphis, Ind., which is more cost-efficient and environmentally responsible than shipping the animals to other states.
Bison producers are not interested in replacing beef cattle or modeling the production of bison after traditional beef cattle farming, Carter said. Their goal is to maintain the integrity of bison as a wild animal and to responsibly raise it as a healthy meat choice with no growth hormones or stimulants.
“We want bison to keep being bison. We don’t want to build the rump and lose the hump,” he said.
THE BUFFALO ALMOST VANISHED
Mighty herds of bison once grazed Kentucky pastures and the vast Western plains. Their existence was integral to many Native American cultures. Each sustained the other.
The plant-eating behemoths survived the Ice Age but nearly disappeared after Europeans arrived in North America. Exploitive hunting, called “bison running,” in the 1800s decimated herds and hastened the destruction of Indian tribes.
By the end of the 19th century, the bison population had shrunk from millions to no more than 1,500 animals. In 1905, they were facing extinction when the American Bison Society formed to save them and protect their rangeland. Those efforts, along with other preservation measures, may be considered the first environmental success story in America, according to the National Bison Association.
Today, many Kentucky locations and businesses reflect the state’s link to the bison herds of the past. Big Bone Lick State Park in Northern Kentucky and Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, for example, recall the time when bison herds created trails through the wilderness as they moved across the lush grassland. Those trails were followed by the pioneers who settled the state and beyond.