Without question, the most-cited reason for clients booking with The Bison Ranch is our focus on the meat. We understand that our clients are serious about where their meat comes from, how it is raised, how it is handled after the kill, and how it is butchered. And so are we.
Having been in the bison business for over 30 years, we have developed a process that ensures your meat will be healthy and delicious to the highest degree of quality within our control. Some of this comes from common sense, some of it comes from trial and error! From selecting the appropriate animal standing out on the range all the way through cleaning up the butcher shop at the end of a long day, every part of that process is designed to put the best possible product in your freezer.
There are four major factors which affect meat quality, with a number of inputs affecting those factors. Here, we will discuss those major components and how we strive to get the best from bison.
Habitat: You are what you eat.
Most of the bison meat you might find being served in a restaurant or available at your grocery store comes from grain-finished bison. This means is that the bison are fed grain either from birth or beginning a certain amount of days before slaughter. Usually, this means the bison you are eating was confined to a feedlot and taken to a slaughterhouse in its final days. Although grass-fed, range-to-table, direct-to-consumer, and humane harvest marketing such as ours is becoming more prevalent within the bison industry, the majority of bison meat in the marketplace is grain-finished.
The difference between grain-finished and grass-fed bison meat is notable on a couple different levels. First, and perhaps most obviously, grass-fed bison is simply going to be healthier for you as the consumer. Second, there is a distinct difference in flavor between grain fat and grass fat. Where grain fat is going to be similar to what you'd come to expect from a cut of beef, the natural fat resulting from a bison's grass diet has a much sweeter flavor which is very noticeably in the ground meat. A lot of our clients become repeat customers because they become addicted to it.
You might be asking yourself why bison would be grain fed at all. It's a great question, but there are a couple legitimate reasons for this. First, a bison might be grain-finished in order to add a certain amount of fat to the carcass before slaughter, which might not be achievable on a grass diet. This is usually required by the slaughterhouse in order for that bison to "make grade". But why does the slaughterhouse require added fat? Simply because their buyers probably want it that way. Bison are a very lean animal in comparison to beef raised under modern ranching practices. If you're experienced with wild game then you know lean meat can be easily over-cooked, dried out, and, frankly, ruined if it is not prepared correctly. So, if bison is being mass-delivered to a corporate buyer (grocers and restaurants), the industry wants to ensure that the end product is foolproof. It all makes sense when you put things in perspective.
The second reason bison might be grain-finished or put in a feedlot is a simple matter of space and feed supply limitations. Bison prefer wide-open spaces with lots of room to roam. In a perfect world, the mainstay of their diet consists of native grasses and forbs. Unfortunately, we've got a finite supply of wide-open spaces and prairie grass here in North America. Eastern and many Midwestern bison producers do not have the luxury of 1,000-acre prairie pastures. Even in our region of the world on the Northern Plains, native prairie is becoming a rare commodity. Some Southern and Western bison producers might not have the luxury of reliable rainfall needed for adequate grassland growth and hay production. The remedy for all these conditions is often purchasing feed.
We are fortunate to be situated in Central North Dakota, where rainfall is reliable, space is ample, and the prairie thrives (as long as it's not plowed under!). We can proudly say that our bison are 100% grass fed, all natural, and pasture raised. Our herd is found grazing in its natural habitat: the virgin North Dakota prairie, much like their ancestors did 200+ years ago. They are not given any antibiotics, supplements, preservatives, hormones, or injections of any sort. Ultimately, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more authentic habitat for raising bison.
Humane Harvest: Not just fuzzy feelings.
You may have heard the term "humane harvest" in recent years. To be clear, this isn't a marketing gimmick created for the sole purpose of giving people warm, fuzzy feelings about the treatment of animals they're eating. Rather, it is a critical component of obtaining excellent meat. The two main factors that go into humane harvest are the condition of the animal at the time of kill and shot placement.
The condition of any large animal during its final hours and moments of life has a dramatic effect on meat quality. Anyone who has ever eaten a whitetail deer or elk that was wounded and ran for several miles knows this first-hand. Although bison are bovine animals, having far more in common with beef than deer or elk, they're still very much wild animals in a sense that they become far more agitated and stressed than your typical livestock. A bison's fight or flight instinct has not been dulled through thousands of years of domestication. Where beef will typically walk calmly into a trailer, then onto the slaughterhouse floor, bison put up one hell of a fight - often to the point of a broken neck, stroke, or heart attack. Broken legs and goring each other with their horns are also common occurrences in bison herding and loading. During all of this excitement and stress, a bison's muscle tissue is not only being dehydrated, it's also being filled with adrenaline and testosterone. Naturally, this compromises meat quality by affecting juiciness, tenderness, and flavor. This is also another reason why slaughterhouses prefer to add fat, so as to tone down any "gamey" flavor which might result from the stress of the slaughter process.
As mentioned, bison are an easily agitated and stressed animal. They're also incredibly durable. Bison can withstand multiple shots to the chest from huge-caliber rifles and will continue to get up and run. We've seen a bison get up on his feet after taking FIVE chest shots from a .45-70. The bullets rolled out from underneath the hide while we were skinning it. You'd swear he was wearing a kevlar vest. We once witnessed a bison missing the top of his skull(literally!), stand up, work back into the herd, and start grazing after about an hour. We once saw a young bull take a .30-06 round between the eyes and it didn't even stagger, much less fall over. The skull plate simply deflected the shot. We could write an entire article on this topic along with all the crazy stories that come with it. But please believe us when we say that the never-give-up, always go down swinging hardiness of these beasts never cease to amaze. Making matters worse, other bison in the herd will actually attack a wounded animal if they smell blood. These precious few moments after the shot might introduce a rush of adrenaline and testosterone to the meat, thereby affecting quality, as discussed earlier.
For this reason, shot placement is absolutely the most important part of the humane harvest process. The head/neck shot is absolutely, without question, the most effective and humane way to take a bison. Using your x-ray vision, you want to shoot the brain stem or first vertebrae of the bison; targeting about a 3-4" area slightly below and behind the ear. Alternatively, if we aren't planning on utilizing the skull, we can aim right directly in the ear-hole. Accordingly, accuracy is exceedingly more important than the kick of your rifle. Most first-timers want to bring their cannons, but we urge you to leave them at home. We prefer seeing 120-180 grain rounds from common deer or elk rifles such as the .270, 7 mm, .300 WIN, .30-06, etc. Ironically, the Government .45-70, also known as the "buffalo gun", has probably fouled up more of our hunts than any other rifle, but that's another topic.
If your aim is true and the spinal column is hit, a bison will fall immediately. They will be brain-dead before they even hit the ground, thereby completing the goal of humane harvest. There's simply no good reason to pound them up in the chest and run the risk of destroying valuable meat.
As an aside, we've had clients share stories of other outfitters recommending shooting bison through the shoulder with the biggest rifle you can stand to pull the trigger on. We wont mince words: This is terrible advice. Anyone who recommends this or something similar is: A) not confident in your shooting abilities; B) not bothered by chasing wounded bison, sometimes for hours; C) not worried about wasting meat as the result of a shoulder shot or, much worse, a gut shot; D) not butchering the animal themselves; and E) not concerned about the juiciness, tenderness, or flavor of your meat. Ultimately, if you want to run around playing cowboy, there's likely a place that'll welcome you with open arms. But if you want to do it the right way and you want damn good meat, then come see us.
Dressing & Butchering: It's the little things that count.
Once we've successfully achieved "one-shot, one-kill", the real work begins. How a carcass is handled after the kill has a significant impact on meat quality. A bison cannot be treated like other large game for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: their large size which can be difficult to handle; their long hair which, if skinned or dressed improperly, might end up all over your meat; their thick hide which holds in their very warm body temperature; and their large stomachs which, if accidentally nicked, can cause a whole host of problems.
But before we get to all of that, another major benefit of humane harvest is that an accurate shot on the spinal column allows for the heart to keep pumping. In many instances, the heart will continue pumping blood for up to 5 minutes! We want to take advantage of this by cutting the jugular veins as soon as the site is safe. (There are a lot of muscle reflexes that can deliver kicks with bone-breaking force!) By allowing the heart to continue beating as long as possible, we can effectively remove a very significant amount of blood from the carcass, therefore from your meat. Ideally, we want to see zero blood on our butchering tables at the end of the day.
As soon as the bison is finished bleeding (and photographs are taken), we will lift it up with a loader tractor and begin skinning right out in the field. You might be thinking that this is backwards; that an animal should be field dressed before it is skinned. But particularly with these big woolly creatures, removing the hide and hair before opening the body cavity is a great way to save yourself a lot of work later on. That is, this approach minimizes the amount of hair that needs to be cleaned off the carcass.
It is important to get the robe off a bison in short order for a couple of reasons. First, bison have an internal body temperature of about 105 degrees. Imagine having a fever and then putting on a 75 lb. fur coat. You'd feel like you're in an oven. Naturally, we want to avoid having your meat go in an oven before we're ready for it to be fully cooked! So we want to get that body temperature dropping in short order. Second, because we skin the bison before we field dress it, we want to work quickly so that the stomach and all that fun stuff that comes with it doesn't start to bloat up. This is less of a concern when we're working in cold temperatures, but a concern nonetheless.
Once we've skinned and dressed the carcass, we transport it to the butcher shop, split it in half, vertically, and hose it down, paying close attention to any hair which might've gotten on the carcass during our skinning, as well as any dried blood which might be found (hopefully very little). Then we hang the halves in our walk-in cooler until we achieve an internal meat temperature under 40 degrees, which is usually attained by the following morning.
After the carcass has been given adequate time to cool, we can green-light the butchering process. In terms of meat quality, our focus here is cleanliness as well as thoroughly and accurately breaking down our various cuts of meat and trim. The various cuts we take, how we package them, as well as cutting within our customers' preferences is an entirely different topic which we will address at some point in this series of articles.
A common question we receive is this: Why don't you age the carcass before butchering? The answer is two-fold. First, our clients usually aren't willing to stick around for several extra days to make that happen. Alternatively, they don't want to drive thousands of miles to come back and pick up their meat and shipping it is cost-prohibitive. It's a matter of convenience. The second reason why we do not age the meat is that, frankly, it's not going to make a tremendous difference. Aging is the process of breaking down connective tissue. With bison, you'll notice that there really isn't a lot of intramuscular connective tissue to break down, as compared to a beef. While letting a carcass hang for 3-5 days might help it cut up a little nicer, it's not going to substantially affect the tenderness or flavor. To be clear: we're not saying that aging isn't helpful at all. Rather, the added benefit might not be worth waiting around a few days for the vast majority of our clients.
Becoming a Master Bison Chef: Remember the simple rules.
Once your bison meat is packaged and frozen, we load it into your coolers and, from there, the ultimate result is in your hands. As with all great cuts of meat, poor preparation and technique can ruin a marvelous product. A hundred-dollar steak at a 5-star restaurant is going to taste like something prepared at a fast food chain if you order it well done and cover it in ketchup. But if you're still reading this article, you're almost certainly not that person.
Being a bison chef is, yet again, another topic of conversation altogether. But equipped with some basic rules, a stovetop, a pellet grill, and some patience, anyone can learn to master the art. Because bison is a lean meat, it is very important to remember these basic rules:
1. Low and slow. Especially with your ground meat and roasts, always cook your bison at a low to medium heat. When browning burger on the stovetop, we set our burner at 4 out of 10. For roasts, we recommend dry-rubbing, wrapping tightly in heavy-duty tin foil, and placing in an oven or electric roaster at 150-250 degrees for several hours until the roast has reached an internal temperature of 140 degrees. Then remove from the heat and let it rest 5 to 10 minutes.
The exception to the low and slow rule is preparing steaks on your grill. Here, you want to get your grill as hot as possible and flash sear each side for just a couple minutes, then remove from the flames and let it rest. We've also flash-seared tenderloins, tri-tips, and various roasts in order to lock-in the moisture, then slow cooked those cuts to 140 degrees with great success. (This might be the author's favorite cooking method on a pellet grill).
2. No more than medium. Never cook bison past medium if you can help it. In a perfect world, everyone would cook their bison medium rare (pink in the middle). We target 140 to 150 degrees for our internal temperature, then let it rest a few minutes before slicing anything open.
3. No salt until it's cooked. Salt draws moisture out of meat. We want to retain as much moisture as possible. There are a lot of great salt-free seasonings available in your grocery store which can be experimented with for the purpose of marinating and dry rubbing.
4. Get creative! Every year, we discover great new ways to utilize the various cuts from our bison. For example, we wont hide the fact that bison round steak may not be best for grilling in a traditional sense. It should certainly be flavorful and juicy, but you might have to chew on it. Instead of settling for less or throwing it in the grinder, try cutting it into strips and making a stir fry, some kebobs, fajitas, or a cheese steak sandwich (keeping the aforementioned rules in mind, of course!) You might be pleasantly surprised to find a much more tender and enjoyable result for this sub-primal. This mentality can be applied to the entire animal and soon you will start to look at those packages in your freezer in an entirely different light.
So there you have it, the four major components affecting bison meat quality. Whether you're booking with us, a competitor, or buying bison meat from the store, we hope that you've learned something useful. Naturally, a lot more can be said about all this, so stay tuned for more Know Your Meat with The Bison Ranch.