Winter is bison auction season, and this one on the Cannonball Ranch in North Dakota is one of the biggest in the country.
The auctioneer, Greg Ryken, has a clean white cowboy hat and jeans. He calls out: “All right do we have $2,000 for ‘em..."
The bidders are wearing muck boots and dirty Carhartt jackets. They bid by catching the eye of the auctioneer’s assistants, who run between them yelling out whenever bids are made.
“First ones of the day will be the cheapest all day, I got $1,800, give me $1,900," Ryken said. He tries all kinds of mind tricks to raise the price. And then, suddenly, he calls it off. “Sold for $1,800 right here. Number? 206. You want em all?”
That's $1,800 for a yearling bull, and it's pretty expensive. Ten years ago, yearling bulls were selling for less than $800 at comparable auctions.
It's a great time to be in the bison business. Think bison burgers, steaks and chili.
“I remember the day when you couldn’t give a buffalo away," said buyer James Thompson.
He’s talking about in the '90's, before bison meat was as in demand as it is right now. Thompson bought 275 bison today, or buffalo. People here use those words interchangeably. That’s two semi trucks and around half a million dollars worth.
“Luckily we’re spending someone else’s money!” he said. He’s buying for another rancher.
Beverly Fischer and her husband are on the selling side of the auction, “I’m very satisfied," she said.
She’s a bit worn out, so she sits down on a trailer and lights a cigarette. Last year, she and her husband borrowed a bunch of money and bought 800 bison as an investment. It worked.
“I’m gonna take what profit I got out of this, I’m gonna turn around and buy more buffalo," she said.
There’s an easy explanation for why prices are so high: supply and demand.
“You know, we have a whole generation of young people growing up and they’re a little more conscious of what they put into their body," she said.
Bison meat is leaner than beef, and federal regulations require it to be growth-hormone and antibiotic free. Demand is booming — ground bison meat is about twice as expensive as it was six years ago — and supply hasn’t keep up, because there just aren’t enough bison ranchers.
“It takes somebody special to run these buffalo and be able to handle 'em," said Ryken, the auctioneer. When asked why more cattle ranchers don’t switch to bison, especially given that cattle prices are down, there's one word, he said: fences. “Fences around here are six and seven feet high, all pipe, instead of all the barbed wire we use for the cattle. So they have some additional expense and costs of keeping these buffalo in and keeping them safe.”
The importance of good fences became very clear as bison were located onto trucks. Men had set up a long chute leading from a corral, up a ramp onto an idling semi truck. There was one gate along the chute that was chained shut, and somehow one of the bison managed to bust it open.
The bison took off. For a minute it looked like it would just keep going, running free across the prairie like its ancestors. But then someone jumped on an ATV and chased it back into the corral, where it became livestock again.