Bison has other red meat licked
Raising and cooking bison is a slow process.
For those who enjoy the unique form of red meat, it's worth the wait.
Greg Mool undertakes the long-term process of raising bison - more commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as buffalo - on his 4-acre farm in rural El Paso, Ill.
"I'd just as soon have a big ol' fatty piece of prime rib, but I know that's not as healthy," said Mool, 41, a civil engineer for the Woodford County Highway Department.
The Mool family - Greg, his wife, Jaime, 31, twin sons Paul and Josh, 12, and daughter Madison, 6 - owns bison, horses and chickens.
The 19-head herd of Plains bison makes the farm stand out.
According to its last fully compiled numbers, from the 2002 Census of Agriculture, the United States Department of Agriculture indicated there were only 4,132 bison farms in the United States, with a combined herd of 231,950. Bison are raised in all 50 states, with 42 farms in Illinois combining for 1,009 total bison, as of the 2002 census.
Bison is red meat with a less juicy, sweeter taste than beef.
"I would say a big part of why people buy it is health reasons," Mool said. "A lot of people do enjoy the taste, too. I've heard people talk about making a fantastic meat loaf. Roasts in the crock pot, people just jump up and down after cooking it all day. The bison gets tender and falls apart.
"Steaks, people pat them down with olive oil and cook them slow on the grill. The flavor is just fantastic. The olive oil kind of seals them and keeps in what moisture is there."
Last year, while selling meat at a farmers market, Mool found a memorable customer.
"I had one lady in Urbana who said that's all she feeds her cat," Mool said with a laugh.
Estimates run as high as 70 million bison roaming North America at their peak, but they neared extinction in the late 1800s.
Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, said the animals are seeing a resurgence as consumers seek foods offering variety, health and more natural farming methods.
"Bison are native to this part of the world, so they're made to eat the grasses here," Carter said. "The folks who are raising them love the animals and love to be around them. We're not using the growth hormones and the antibiotics. We're letting them grow the way nature intended."
According to the Colorado-based association, there were 49,672 bison processed under federal inspection last year - a 17 percent increase from 2006. The industry is on pace for another 17 percent increase in the harvesting of meat in 2008, Carter adds.
Grass-fed bison produce meat with 2.42 percent fat. That compares favorably with chicken, which has 7.41 percent fat, beef with 9.28 percent and pork at 9.66 percent, according to USDA comparisons of lean cooked meat.
Because of the low fat content, well-done bison usually becomes too dry to enjoy. "Low and slow" is the recommended method on the grill.
Despite the health benefits, raising bison isn't for every farmer.
In 14 years, Mool has grown his herd large enough to butcher six bison last year and two so far this year.
Grass-fed animals grow slowly. Mool said bison grow for at least three years before he takes them to a certified processing facility in Eureka, Ill., and it takes much longer for bison to reach their full size - 2,000 pounds or more for a bull. Mool's bulls usually go to slaughter once they're around a half-ton in weight.
That slow bulking-up process leads to prices most of Mool's farming neighbors can't afford, going as high as $30 per pound for a filet steak. Many customers are health-minded professionals who can afford a higher-priced cut of meat.
"They grow so slow, especially if you're not pouring the grain or the protein to them," Mool said.
Mool adds a deworming solution into their water twice a year and occasionally gives them a small snack of corn. Otherwise, the only maintenance is for him to bale grass and bring it into the bison's pen.
Bison require fences at least 6 feet high, and they can't be herded like cows.
One popular saying describes the bison's stubborn nature: "You can get a bison to go anywhere he wants to go."
They also aren't docile like many farm animals. Agitated bison can knock over or gore a farmer who underestimates their temperament.
Mool always has a grass bale or a vehicle to move behind in case a bison, which can run 30 mph, decides to charge.
Grateful that most bison don't seem to recognize their enormous size advantage, Mool is able to assert himself as king of the herd. Once challenged by a bison, which raised its tail and dropped its head in a sign of aggression, Mool confidently stepped forward to cause the bison to back off.
"If they lower their head and raise their tail, you're about to get killed," Mool said. "I walked right to him and he backed down.
"But if they knew their own strength, you'd never hold them."
Bison farming isn't all bad, though.
Mool enjoys selling a unique product, and often notices cars stopped in front of the farm to gawk. Plus, bison require little attention beyond providing grass and water.
"You'll spend more on fencing in the beginning and there's a little bit more of a learning curve," Carter said. "But in February and March and there's one of those blizzards where your neighbors in the cattle business are out there pulling calves in the middle of the night, you get to sit inside and have a cup of coffee. Bison calve later and they very rarely need any help calving. They know how to take care of themselves in adverse weather and they know how to take care of themselves against predators.
"The folks who raise them say these animals are as low-maintenance as you could ask for."
Ryan Ori can be reached at 686-3264 email@example.com.