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Booming Buffalo Market Comes With Growing Pains

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

2011 was not a banner year for the stock market, and anyone heavily invested in the eurozone might be biting their nails right now. But if your business is buffalo you may be looking at some very happy holidays. The market for buffalo meat is booming right now.

And as South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray reports, that comes with some growing pains for the industry.

CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: Turkeys gobble, cows moo, chickens cluck, and buffalo? Well, buffalo do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRUNTING BUFFALOS)

RAY: These buffalo are ambling across the wide open South Dakota prairie, munching on grass as they go. The iconic image of free range bison is part of marketing for this animal. Bison raised on grass don't require corn or grains to fatten up, and that's part of why they're seen by many as better for the environment.

Dan O'Brien is the founder of the Wild Idea Buffalo Company. He raises free range, grass-fed bison near the South Dakota Badlands. O'Brien says the market for buffalo is exploding.

DAN O'BRIEN: We've put 10 people to work during this recession - this horrible recession that we're going through. And, geez, that really makes me feel like we're moving the ball up field a little bit here.

RAY: This year, O'Brien opened a new processing plant to package and ship buffalo meat. His company hopes to hit the million dollar mark, double last year's revenue. The demand for buffalo is consumer-driven. And one of the buyers of O'Brien's buffalo meat is Tally's Restaurant in Downtown, Rapid City, where Kevin Weiland is chowing-down on a buffalo burger.

DR. KEVIN WEILAND: I took a big bite and it's just one of the best I've had in a long time, one of the best.

RAY: Besides being a lover of buffalo meat, Weiland is a medical doctor who wrote the book "Dakota Diet." It touts the health benefits of buffalo.

WEILAND: Everyone talks about salmon and how healthy salmon is, and how much omega-3 fatty acids are in the salmon. Well, the buffalo, the grass-fed buffalo is I call it the salmon of the prairie.

RAY: But the spike in demand for buffalo has lead to a shortage in supply. To make up for that shortage, bison industry officials are lobbying traditional cattle ranchers to switch to buffalo, but it's not an easy sell. The cattle market is so strong right now that investing in the new fences and equipment can be unappealing.

In addition, Sylvia Christen, with the South Dakota Stock Growers Association, says that buffalo prices have a boom and bust history.

SYLVIA CHRISTEN: The buffalo market has been very volatile. It's really strong right now. It's been strong in the past. There were some years where you couldn't give them away. And beef, it tends to be - while there is up's and downs in the market, beef tends to be a lot more steady.

RAY: Buffalo are still a tiny market. There are about 105 million cattle on this continent compared to about 400,000 bison. South Dakota is the country's largest buffalo producer. And the biggest bison rancher is media mogul Ted Turner. He owns more than 50,000 head.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thirty, 73...

RAY: Back at the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, workers are counting and packaging ground buffalo meat; some is bound for holiday gift boxes. The company is riding the tide of Internet sales this season and filling more orders than ever.

Jill O'Brien says her free range, grass-fed bison are the fastest growing part of the industry.

JILL O'BRIEN: And the more that people become educated and aware about what they put in their mouth has a direct impact on their health and the health of land, I don't see it slowing down at all.

RAY: If O'Brien is right and the bison market continues to boom, the rolling hills of the Dakota prairie could end up with even more of this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRUNTING BUFFALOS)

RAY: For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles Michael Ray grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota on the banks of Boxelder Creek downstream from the town of Nemo.