Jonathan Ahl/Harvest Public Media
Bison produce very lean meat, but they are wild animals that can be difficult to raise on a farm. Cattle are very docile, but their meat can be high in fat and not very healthy.
That’s why proponents of a crossbreed – 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 took out the badness but kept the leanness of the bison, so kept the good qualities of the bison,” Kelly Dietsch said.
She and her husband, Andrew Dietsch, run A&K Ranch in Raymondville, Missouri, where they have about 25 beefalo females that they attempt to calve each year.
Cattle are bred to include more cattle traits than bison. The American Beefalo Association states that the beefalo with 37.5% bison genes is considered a pureblood beefalo and the perfect mix for the breed. But cattle with as little as 18% bison genes are labeled purebred beefalo.
Although there have been unintentional crosses between cows and bison over the centuries, it was not until the 1970s that a reliable and fertile cross was produced. The intention was to get lean bison meat into an animal that could be reared as easily as a cow.
The Dietsches found that 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 making beefalo because they’re so much easier to work with,” Andrew Dietsch said.
But it’s the quality of the meat that will attract more breeders, according to American Beefalo Association board member John Fowler.
“If I can bring a person who has a crossbred herd and put a beefalo bull in his herd and have him eat some of the meat, he’s sold. He’ll 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 to cattle. The United States Department of Agriculture has certified beefalo to have higher levels of vitamins and more protein, while having nearly a third less cholesterol, 79% less fat, and 66% less calories than conventional beef.
But beefalo has its opponents.
“We just don’t think there should be beefalo,” said Martha McFarland, farmland sustainability coordinator for advocacy group Practical Farmers of Iowa. She also raises cattle and bison, but said she would never mix the two.
“Nature has done a great job of producing bison. It’s a great animal that’s also good to eat, and mixing it with cows is unnecessary and weakens the bison genetic line.”
Still, McFarland sympathizes with beefalo producers, who try to breed, promote and sell a niche meat, just as she does with bison.
“A lot of times it’s hard to find that middleman to get my meat to the grocery store. I’m not part of this huge mechanized system,” she said. “My challenge is that your average consumer just wants to go to the grocery store, buy some food, and be done with it.”
Kelly and Andrew Dietsch sell most of their beefalo at three farmers’ markets, where they have won loyal customers who have come to prefer lean meat. But beefalo isn’t in many grocery stores, and it also costs more than beef, largely because it comes from small producers.
Still, the Dietsches are optimistic about the future of specialty meat. Andrew Dietsch points to new leadership on the American Beefalo Board, as well as growing interest among Americans in where their food comes from.
“It’s competitive, but it’s a lot better than before,” he said. “They have new people [on the board] who have many good ideas. They really reach 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 Harvest public media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms across the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.