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Bison: Omnivore’s Delight

Alan Rousseau is not your typical rancher. But then, the buffalo he wrangles aren’t your typical cows, either.

He wears Crocs, not cowboy boots, to show visitors around his central Oregon spread. And his bible is a New Age self-help book that convinced him that if he focused on what he wanted, he would get it. Rousseau made a list of 200 goals. He hasn’t gotten to Fiji yet, but he’s crossed off 197 others. One of them was to own a buffalo ranch.

The buffalo — bison, technically — came first. Rousseau bought his first two in 1997 and pastured them at a friend’s ranch in California. He joined local and national bison groups and studied up on the creature. “Buffalo are extremely intelligent. Majestic,” he says, as though this explains how a guy who used to run the nursery for a Home Depot and rewire houses became a bison rancher.

In 2000, Rousseau bought Pine Mountain Ranch in the high desert just east of Bend, Ore. It was 41 acres of run-down buildings and overgrazed pastures that had once been part of a 5,000-acre cattle ranch. Today, he raises 150 bison and Tibetan yaks, 4,000 heirloom chickens and a handful of Dall sheep on painstakingly restored grasslands.

Rousseau is riding a trend. Conscientious carnivores have become wary of eating beef from feedlot cattle — which is to say, the vast majority of beef sold in the United States.

A lean meat machine

Most cows in the United States are raised on grass for their first six months, then sent to huge, enclosed feedlots to be “finished” on corn. In recent years, muckraking journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have written best-selling books on the environmental and health hazards of cornfed beef.

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In short, growing vast amounts of corn to feed livestock requires heavy use of fertilizers, which pollute waterways. Feeding corn to cows makes their stomachs more acidic, allowing a new strain of the bacterium E. coli — which can sicken or kill humans — to evolve. The rampant use of antibiotics to treat cows weakened by stress and overcrowding causes these and other bacteria to develop resistance to common drugs.

Antibiotics, along with hormones and endocrine disrupters, are used to speed growth while producing ever-bigger cows. It used to take four to five years to reach the slaughterhouse, Pollan points out in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Now, cows can go from 80 pounds at birth to 1,100 pounds and the knife in a mere 14 months. “We’ve bred our beef to be fatter and fatter and fatter,” Rousseau says. It’s no coincidence, he adds, that humans are growing fatter too.

There’s nothing miniature about bison, the largest animal indigenous to North America. But beneath that shaggy fur is a lean meat machine. Bison is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork or even skinless chicken.

Despite their enormous size, bison are relatively gentle on the land. Cattle tend to stick to one spot and zero in on their favorite plants, eating until all of them are gone and trampling the rest. Plus, they wallow in streams and potholes, destroying riparian vegetation. “If these were beef cattle, this would all be dirt,” says Rousseau, pointing to the spiky grass peeking out of the frozen ground one December morning.

Bison have more catholic tastes and are natural roamers, which Rousseau facilitates by regularly rotating them among pastures. They are not wallowers, instead drinking once a day and moving on. When they gallop, the pounding of their thundering hoofs scares away sage rats and other rodents that eat the vegetation.

Since Rousseau bought the property and moved in bison, grass in the once-overgrazed pastures reaches 1½ feet in the summer. Bison are hardier than domestic cattle, using their giant heads to plow through snow and reach buried grass in winter. Still, Rousseau supplements their winter diet with hay, a potpourri of meadow grass, orchard grass and bluegrass.

Watching the stately beasts up (relatively) close is a reminder that they are not truly domesticated. They watch back with canny eyes. They are strong and unexpectedly fast for their size, capable of running up to 40 mph — faster than you can sprint to the nearest fence. They can jump, too.
American bison
As the sun sinks on this short winter day, the bison calves begin to — there is no other word to describe this — frolic. Soon, even the giant bulls join in. They do this every day at sunset, Rousseau says.

Do we save what we eat?

If dining on one of these playful, majestic creatures seems sacrilegious, Rousseau and other buffalo ranchers, including media mogul and bison pioneer Ted Turner, argue that eating them, in fact, saves them. The great herds once estimated to number 40 to 60 million bison were down to about 300 at the turn of the last century, the final slaughter aimed at eliminating not the animals as much as the Indian tribes that depended on them. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the number of bison on private lands at 198,000, with another 25,000 in public hands. Although the rebound began on national preserves such as Yellowstone National Park, it increased dramatically once ranching bison caught on.

Not all bison you buy in grocery stores, even natural food stores, spend their whole lives frolicking on grass, though labels won’t necessarily tell you that. Rousseau estimates that 90 percent of the bison sold in stores are finished on corn or other grains.

Dave Carter, executive director of the Colorado-based National Bison Association, doesn’t know the exact figure, but he believes grass-finishing is on the rise.

When buffalo ranchers were first trying to entice consumers to try something new, they followed the example of cattle ranchers. Corn-finishing was the gold standard for tasty beef because it produces the internal marbling that consumers craved.

Bison doesn’t marble like beef does; at some point, any fat that’s added accumulates on the outside of the animal, Carter says. But all meat picks up the flavor of whatever the animal was eating near the time it was slaughtered. So, as with beef, grain-finishing makes bison taste the same no matter where it is produced or when it is harvested. And consistency, too, is something many consumers want, just as they prefer the familiar McDonald’s or Applebee’s to local diners.

But grain-finished bison differs from grain-finished cattle in key ways, Carter says. For one, bison are not fed grain for as long as cattle because there’s little financial incentive. Since the fat accrues on the outside, most of it is just cut off as waste. They also continue to be fed hay and roughage so they can digest the grain. And regulations forbid the use of antibiotics or hormones.

Nonetheless, he adds, the new interest among consumers in grass-finished beef is pushing more bison ranchers to skip grain-finishing. And variability in taste is no longer seen as a bad thing.

Bison terroir?

“The wine guys figured this out,” Carter says. “A lot of consumers are now saying, ‘I want to eat a bison that carries the taste of high-country Colorado or eastern Oregon.’ That has really helped to drive the growth of grass-finished.” According to Rousseau, the only way to know your bison’s terroir is to know your rancher.

To this end, he travels to 10 farmers markets a week, going as far as Portland, a four-hour drive, to sell his bison, chicken, lamb and yak. (Yak, he says, is a savory meat that is not as lean as bison, so it can be an easier transition from beef.)

Even bison, which has been sold commercially since the late 1960s, remains an alternative, even exotic, meat to most. According to the national association, about 75,000 bison were processed under federal or state inspection in 2008, in contrast to about 125,000 cattle a day. Still, that’s more than double the number of bison processed in 2002, the year the industry began a resurgence from a five-year slump.

Rousseau’s sales, too, have grown each year, although this year has been tough because of the recession. Sales are down 40 percent in Bend, a ski resort whose once-booming housing market has been particularly hard hit. But the foodie haven of Portland “keeps me alive,” Rousseau says.

“My life’s purpose is raising good food for people,” he says. “And there’s a demand for what I do.”

Mary Engel is a former editorial writer and health and medical reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Photos by Nolan Hester.