MACON, Mo. -- The blue-ribbon bison hurtled into the auction ring, 460 pounds of pride and prance, and, after a few minutes of desultory bidding, sold for $450. That was less than the $500 at which the auctioneer opened the bidding.
From that inauspicious start, things only got worse at the Missouri Bison Association's auction last month at the Lolli Bros. Livestock Market in north-central Missouri.
Bison ranchers sat stone-faced in the market's bleachers as the auction progressed, prices extending their seemingly endless tumble, the once-hot industry continuing what its own trade association calls an "economic meltdown."
"I almost said 'no sale' on mine," said a frustrated Kelly Platz of Greentop, Mo., whose 385-pound calf fetched just $240.
Twice the cost of beef
A few years ago, bison was the mega-hyped beast of the future. Also known as the American buffalo, it was supposed to bring health-conscious Americans back to red meat. The meat is expensive -- about twice the cost of beef, on average -- but it is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef and chicken.
And it is tasty.
Diners could get bison steaks in white-tablecloth restaurants and buffalo burgers at many pubs. Sales were so good in the late 1990s at McGonigle's Food Store in Kansas City that owner Mike McGonigle considered carrying bison meat fresh as well as frozen.
But the boom is over.
Prices for heifer calves have plummeted 85 percent in three years, according to a report issued in November by the National Bison Association.
Worse, bison processors are holding an estimated $20 million in inventory to prevent a total price collapse, the report said.
"Everybody knew prices would taper off," said Dave Carter, the bison association's executive director. "The big run-up in prices was not sustainable."
The current situation is way beyond a mere tapering off.
"I can buy the meat cheaper than I can raise it," said Alex McCaul, chief financial officer of Sayersbrook Bison Ranch in Potosi, Mo.
At the Missouri auction, Peter Kohl, president of the Missouri Bison Association, tried to rouse his fellow ranchers. "The future I know is bright," Kohl said. "It can do nothing but go up."
Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, tried to help. He proposed that $10 million in President Bush's economic stimulus package be used for purchasing bison meat for the federal food programs, including school lunches.
That proposal died. Nevertheless, the bison industry's many problems likely would not have been solved by a one-time federal bailout.
Too many bison
Most significantly, there is the iron-clad economic law of supply and demand. There are just too many bison coming onto the market.
There are at least 200,000 bison in commercial herds in the United States. That pales in comparison with America's commercial cattle herd of about 25 million. But the demand is much greater for beef than for bison.
The bison industry's biggest obstacle, according to the report: "The overwhelming majority of the American public is unfamiliar with the product."
Once Americans know about bison and its benefits, they will be more willing to buy, Carter said. But he conceded that a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign will not be easy for the still-nascent and now-struggling industry.