Q: Your recent article on grass-fed vs. corn-fed beef brought to mind a third option, one I’ve been told is better than beef: bison. Is bison really healthier than beef? I’ve also heard that since bison are native to the U.S. and can be raised on natural vegetation found across the country, they are also a more environmentally friendly choice. Is this true?
J.F., of Highland
A: Healthier? No doubt. Environmentally more friendly? Well, pardon the pun, but when you look at the numbers and other factors, that so-called advantage might contain at least a little bull. Allow me to explain:
You seem to be harkening back to a time in the 1800s when men sang “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam ...” and truly meant it. With the Western prairies just starting to be settled, herds of buffalo swarmed as thick as flies, numbering in the tens of millions. Some estimate that humans soon slaughtered as many as 50 million, not necessarily for food or hides but simply for sport and a way to drive off Indians. Numbers at one point fell to about a thousand, and it is estimated that only about 500,000 survive today.
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But only a small percentage of those wind up on someone’s plate during any given year. A recent report by the Penn State Extension Service found that 7.5 million pounds of meat from approximately 15,000 bison are sold annually in the United States. With those kinds of numbers it’s easy to see why few herds even approach a thousand animals. In Pennsylvania, for example, 60 percent of herds number two dozen or less. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are only 100 bison-processing facilities nationwide.
Now compare that to America’s appetite for beef. In 2016, more than 750,000 beef farms and ranches produced 30.5 million head of cattle for slaughter, resulting in nearly 26 BILLION pounds of beef sold. So while the average American snarfed down 56 pounds of beef, he or she consumed a half-ounce of bison.
So, as it stands now, yes, a random sampling of bison meat is “probably” more sustainable than a random sampling of beef, according to a recent article in Modern Farming. It’s believed that bison cause less trampling and erosion damage to the plains than cattle, that their diet is higher in grasses and thus less damaging to the plains environment and that their waste contributes a natural fertilizer. Why? As you point out, some think because bison are native, they may be more protective of their home turf than cattle, whose ancestors come from the Old World.
“Because bison are a natural part of the North American ecosystem, bison ranching can be beneficial to the natural environment,” the National Bison Association proudly states on its website.
Bison have other advantages. Hardier in nature, they can better survive harsher conditions, reducing the amount of fuel and gathered food needed to sustain them in winter. Even when females calve, they need less medical attention, which means less need for a vet and antibiotics that can wind up producing nasty strains of bacteria.
But whether bison truly are more environmentally friendly may need more scrutiny, Modern Farming suggests. When allowed to graze, bison prefer grasses while cattle tend to favor “forbs,” such as clover, milkweed and sunflowers, which, in turn, are slower to grow and support butterflies and bees.
At first glance, this again would seem to favor bison, but at least one study found that the dietary differences may be caused by the way the animals are ranched. As I’ve pointed out, bison herds tend to be small and allowed to roam while cattle herds tend to be much larger and crowded into much smaller areas, relatively speaking. The $64,000 question is whether bison could retain their environmental advantage if ranchers had to raise 30 million of them rather than a few thousand.
Although that question remains to be answered, there seems to be no question that bison meat as currently produced is healthier than beef. According to the USDA, a 3.5-ounce piece of grass-fed bison meat has 146 calories, 7.2 grams of total fat and 55 mg of cholesterol. By comparison, 90-percent lean beef has 20 percent more calories (176), 39 percent more total fat (10 grams) and about 20 percent more cholesterol (65 grams). While containing the same number of calories, bison also has less fat and cholesterol than turkey and chicken and has far fewer calories and less fat than 84-percent lean pork. At the same time, it is a good source of zinc, niacin, iron, vitamin B6 and selenium while offering what many describe as a tastier, richer flavor because of the animal’s lifestyle.
For more information, go to bisoncentral.com.
According to the National Park Service, what is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In 1944, Pensive was hoping to become just the seventh horse in 70 years to win the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing in the United States. He started off in fine fashion by winning the Kentucky Derby in 2:04.2. Two weeks later, he swept the Preakness with a 1:59.2. But on the verge of racing immortality, Pensive, going off at 1-to-2 odds, finished second by half a length in the Belmont Stakes to aptly named Bounding Home, a 16-to-1 long shot. Now, Pensive will be forever remembered as the first horse in history to win the first two legs but actively lose the third. (Burgoo King won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1932 and so did Bold Venture in 1936, but neither ran at Belmont.)