Canada’s bison market on the rise

(Commodity News Service Canada) — Many agricultural markets across the world have been gaining strength of late, and prices for Canadian bison are no different.

“If the past four years are any indication, demand has been growing at about a 17 to 20 per cent rate over that period of time,” said Mark Silzer, president of the Canadian Bison Association (CBA).

“That sort of mirrors what we are seeing in North America for the demand in natural and organic food. Bison fits into that category, so that is where we’ve seen a fair bit of growth.”

Silzer, a producer at Humboldt, Sask., said the biggest problem the market is facing is a lack of product to meet the demand.

“We’re in a situation where we are seeing markets getting shorted because we just don’t have the product,” he said. “I don’t see demand falling off, but production in Canada definitely has to get ramped up.”

Canada, he said, has a total herd of about 200,000 animals. Of that, 95 per cent is in Western Canada, with Alberta having just over 50 per cent of the herd and Saskatchewan just over 30 per cent.

The Regina-based CBA’s executive director Terry Kremeniuk said it doesn’t appear Canada’s bison herd will grow in the 2011 calendar year.

“There has been some consolidation and liquidation in the industry, and prices are at a point where producers are interested in growing the herds again and growing the bison industry. Growth in numbers doesn’t take place overnight,” Kremeniuk said.

Demand for bison meat has been growing in Canada, but the primary user is the United States, Silzer said.

“There’s been a bit more of a focus on the market in the U.S., and Canadian marketers have invested a bit more money there,” he said. “Also, you have to look at the population base. If you’re to spend money to go into a market, you get more ‘bang for your buck’ in those more populated areas.”

The European Union has started showing some interest, he added, but it is still nowhere near the rate in North America.

While retail sales vary, ground bison is being sold for around $15 per kilogram, compared to a little over $10 per kg one year ago.

Bison prices could be higher if not for the strong Canadian dollar, Kremeniuk said, but added it doesn’t have the same affect on a small market like that of bison.

“When you’re dealing with a small niche market, currency has some impact; it may not have the same impact that it does on commodity trading,” he said.

The U.S. government’s mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) restrictions do not apply to bison meat.

Per capita

Even though demand for bison meat continues to rise, it has not cut into demand for beef or pork.

“We are so small in comparison to beef and hog production. Bison is a niche product,” Silzer said. “It is growing, but the per capita of bison production in Canada is about the equivalent of maybe two ounces per person. Compare that to beef demand on a per capita basis of 800 ounces; it’s pretty small.”

Bison consumers, he said, are looking for something different.

“The health attributes have been driving the demand,” he said. “It’s lower in fat, lower in cholesterol, and for health-conscious consumers, that’s what they’re looking for.”

According to the National Bison Association, based out of Westminster, Col., there were 92,000 bison processed last year in North America, which is about the same amount of cattle processed in one day.

All provinces have some form of processing facility serving the food markets within provincial borders. There are also three federally certified processing plants in Alberta and two in Quebec, used for interprovincial trade and exporting.

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