Jonathan Ahl / Harvest Public Media
Bison produce very lean meat, but are wild animals that can be difficult to keep on a farm. Cattle are very docile, but their meat can be high in fat and not very healthy.
That’s why supporters of a cross – called beefalo – say they have what should be the future of meat production in the United States.
“As we like to say, when they created the beefalo, they bred the pettiness but they kept the bison thin, so they kept the good qualities of the bison,” said Kelly Dietsch.
She and her husband, Andrew Dietsch, run the A&K Ranch in Raymondville, Missouri, where they have about 25 beefalo females who attempt to give birth each year.
The bovine is bred to include more bovine traits than the bison. The American Beefalo Association states that beefalo with 37.5% bison genes is considered purebred beefalo and the perfect mix for the breed. But cattle with as little as 18% bison genes are labeled as purebred beefalo.
Although there have been some unintended crosses between cows and bison over the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1970s that a reliable and fertile cross was produced. The intent was to transform the lean bison meat into an animal that could be raised as easily as a cow.
The Dietsche have found this to be the case. They raised cattle when they lived in New Jersey, but switched to beefalo when they moved to the Midwest.
“I like doing beefalo because it’s so much easier to work with them,” said Andrew Dietsch.
But it’s the quality of the meat that will bring more farmers on board, according to John Fowler, a board member of the American Beefalo Association.
“If I can take a person who has a herd of hybrids and put a beefalo bull in his herd and have him eat some of the meat, he is sold. He will want to produce the beefalo,” he said.
Jonathan Ahl / Harvest Public Media
Fowler, who also raises beefalo in northern Missouri, calls it a superior animal over cattle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has certified beefalo as having higher vitamin levels and more protein, while having nearly a third less cholesterol, 79% less fat, and 66% fewer calories than conventional beef.
But beefalo has its opponents.
“We just don’t think there should be beefalo,” said Martha McFarland, farmland traffic coordinator for the Practical Farmers of Iowa defense group. She also raises cattle and bison, but she said she would never mix the two.
“Nature has done very well to produce bison. It is an excellent animal that is also good to eat, and mixing it with cows is unnecessary and weakens the bison genetic line.”
Yet McFarland empathizes with beefalo producers, who are trying to breed, promote and sell a niche meat, just like he does bison.
“A lot of times it’s hard to find that middleman to take my meat to the supermarket. I’m not part of this huge mechanized system,” he said. “My challenge is that your average consumer just wants to, like, go to the supermarket, get some food and get it over with.”
Kelly and Andrew Dietsch sell most of their beefalo at three farmers’ markets, where they have gained loyal customers who have come to prefer lean meat. But beefalo isn’t found in many grocery stores and costs even more than beef, especially since it comes from small producers.
Nonetheless, the Dietsches are optimistic about the future of meat specialties. Andrew Dietsch points to new leadership on the American Beefalo Board, as well as Americans’ growing interest in where their food comes from.
“It’s competitive, but it’s much better than before,” he said. “They have new people [on the board] who have many good ideas. They are really reaching out there. They have a Facebook page and you can find beefalo all over the country. “
Jonathan Ahl reports from Missouri for St. Louis Public Radio And Collect public media, a collaboration of public media editors in the Midwest. He deals with food systems, agriculture and rural issues.