Nebraska Rancher Seeks Markets for Bison

Nov 20, 2015  | Ep4113

It’s been said that good fences make good neighbors.  But for one Nebraskan, these fortifications are a gateway – to his vision of restoring magnificence to the Great Plains.

Dave Klingelhoefer/Watertown Bison Ranch – Amherst, Nebraska: “The bulls – especially the bulls.  They’re so majestic.  They just…the way they walk, you know they’re the boss…And they’re just kind of the king of the prairie like the lion is the king of the jungle.”

Watertown Bison Ranch in Amherst, Nebraska is where Dave Klingelhoefer and his family house 150 head of bovine behemoths – which can stand six feet tall and weigh up to a ton.

Dave Klingelhoefer/Watertown Bison Ranch – Amherst, Nebraska: “We were going to buy two calves, one for each grandson, and we came home with 11.  So I guess we got into it that way.”

Klingelhoefer grew up with 11 siblings on a farm just 5 miles away, raising hogs, cattle and farming row crops most of his life.  And his own corn and soybean operation has afforded the opportunity to sow a few hundred acres with seeds from the past.

Dave Klingelhoefer/Watertown Bison Ranch – Amherst, Nebraska: “Yeah, ever since I was a little kid I’ve been fascinated with the Wild West and fourth grade American history we did a lot of stuff with bison and Indians and always liked that.”

Estimated at a herd size of 30-60 million in North America in the year 1600, bison, bizon or buffalo as they’re known somewhat interchangeably, were hunted to near extinction over a century ago.  According to figures from the National Bison Association, by 1900 the American buffalo population had dwindled to less than 1,000 head.  But conservation have resulted in a rebound of sorts.

Industry trade groups claim 20,000 bison now roam public lands in the U.S. and Canada.  And while far short of a stampede, comparatively, USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture adds over 160,000 bison – valued at nearly $95 million - on more than 2,500 private farms and ranches on domestic soil. 

Government numbers indicate less than 100 private buffalo herds exist in the Cornhusker State.  But the modest resurgence has served up niche markets for Watertown Bison Ranch - starting in nearby Kearney. 

Yousef Ghamedi/Cunningham’s Journal Pub and Eatery – Kearney, Nebraska: “You know he kind of approached us and said, hey listen, we have this bison.  We’d like to see how it would work on your menu.  So we have introduced it as a special item and it has gone over extremely well.  So it kind of sells itself.  People come in specifically for it and we’ve done very well with it.  It’s local.  That excites people.  And it’s different.”

While exotic steaks and burgers spur sales, proponents also tout nutrition, citing the meat’s leanness and omega 3 fatty acid content, which they say rivals that of fish. 

Spencer Loescher/Head Chef, Tru Cafe – Kearney, Nebraska: “Bison is a beautiful protein.  Bison itself, as we know, is a lower fat ratio than beef.  It has a higher iron content and it is very delicate, no gamey flavor to it.”

Klingelhoefer attributes potential health benefits of bison consumption to his animals’ simple grass diet, which excludes growth hormones and antibiotics.

Dave Klingelhoefer/Watertown Bison Ranch – Amherst, Nebraska: “The difference in a pound of beef and a pound of bison is, when you’re done frying it you still have a pound of bison where the beef you dump half a cup or whatever you dump out as grease.  It’s expensive up front but you actually get what you pay for.”

Minimal supplements keep input costs down, but the buffalo man says time is a top hurdle.  It takes 3 years to get bison to market, but similar ruminants, like cattle, are ready in less than half the time. 

Dave Klingelhoefer/Watertown Bison Ranch – Amherst, Nebraska: “It’s a pretty slow process and kind of frustrating a little bit because there’s no money coming in.  With the beef cattle you can sell all your calves at one time and get a big check – whereas these things it’s more of sell one or two at a time.”

Premiums, typically a third or more higher than beef, are the payoff.  Consistent prices help lure customers willing to pay 12 to $16 per pound for bison cuts.

However, the bison farm anticipates the extended shelf life of jerky will help provide the backbone they seek for their business.

Upping their ability to provide a larger volume of merchandise has led to an arrangement with Tennessee-based Tractor Supply Company that provides cured product to coastal and southern test markets.

Charlie Emswiler/Owner – Wahoo Locker, Wahoo, Nebraska: “We have never packed one ounce sticks of jerky before.  But it’s working well.  It was a challenge and it’s a learning experience a little bit but it’s fun.”

When it came time to find a processor, Wahoo Locker was a no-brainer.  A small, well known packer a couple of hours away, Wahoo Locker draws clientele from Nebraska and surrounding states.  With a reputation for high quality meats among mainstream and niche producers, owner Charlie Emswiler says variety – from the barnyard to wild game - sets Wahoo Locker apart from larger businesses which handle only one type of animal.

Charlie Emswiler/Owner – Wahoo Locker, Wahoo, Nebraska: “The process is similar to beef.  The meat is leaner.  Therefore it’s going to be a lot leaner product and higher in protein and very healthy…healthy snack compared to beef.  Beef you can only get so lean and bison resembles deer in a sense of the leanness so it makes very good jerky.”

In the hunt for ancillary markets, the rancher from Big Red country aims to borrow from Native American ways – by utilizing all parts of each beast.

Old west entrepreneurs used buffalo hide to make leather, bones were ground for fertilizer, and manure was burned as a fuel source.  In the absence of wood or coal, natives and later settlers used buffalo chips, or “Plains oak” to keep warm and cook meals over.  And with abundant supply, Klingelhoefer draws modern parallels to outdoor enthusiasts.

Dave Klingelhoefer/Watertown Bison Ranch – Amherst, Nebraska: “It burns clean and hot and gives off a nice smell.”

As opportunities arise, and barriers break down, Watertown Bison Ranch will continue its multi-pronged approach to the marketplace.  And while working to increase the size of his herd, Klingelhoefer hopes this icon of America’s past propels   his business into the future.

Dave Klingelhoefer/Watertown Bison Ranch – Amherst, Nebraska: “I think as long as we can have a quality product, people get used to the prices, used to the quality…I think they’ll stay with us.  That’s going to be our job is to make sure people are happy.  If they’re happy, they’ll buy it.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.





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