CANTON — Maxwell Wildlife Refuge hosted its 34th annual buffalo auction amid a growing industry Wednesday.
The sunny fall afternoon boasted excellent conditions for buyers and observers in attendance. A typical year will bring five to 10 buyers and up to 400 spectators. Forty-one registered to buy and 18 made transactions by the end of the day.
Buyers had more to choose from than in the past, as a herd from western Kansas found its new home at Maxwell in the last year. About 60 head are sold annually at the auction. Almost 100 were for sale this year, and 74 were purchased.
“The demand for buffalo is great,” Owen Meier, Maxwell tour manager, said.
The increased demand for buffalo meat is largely due to a push from consumers looking for leaner meats as they become more educated. One hundred grams of cooked lean buffalo meat contains less grams of fat, calories and milligrams of cholesterol than beef, pork or skinless chicken, according to the National Bison Association.
Consumer demand for bison meat has been rising and continues to outpace supply. The 2012 buffalo industry has been in its strongest economic position in its history, according to the National Bison Association.
In 2011 the average price for a young bull carcass was nearly $4 per pound, or 65 percent higher than the price paid three years ago, according to the Associated Press.
Store bought buffalo costs about $8 a pound at the lowest, and prices have remained high for the last three to four years, Meier said.
“It's on the upward trend. I kind of look for this to stay and keep going up for a while,” he said.
The highest bid for a buffalo Wednesday was $2,000 for a two-year-old bull. The lowest was $275 for a heifer. Total sales averaged $1,081, up from 2011's $834.
Cliff Peterson, refuge manager, said sales went up, but would have gone up more if it wasn't for the expansive drought in the U.S., especially in the western half of the country, where most of the animals are raised.
“In some areas, they want to expand their herd but they don't have the grass to expand,” he said. “It makes quite an impact.”
John Moore of Buhler owns six head of buffalo but came to the sale to watch. He said the industry has been treating him well, but rising feed and grain costs — he said they have more than doubled in the last couple of years — have kept him leery.
Vernon Base of Goessel faces a similar situation.
Base said the increasingly successful industry had caused him to want to increase his herd and develop a better feeding program. Higher input costs, however, pose a challenge.
“Feed is outrageous,” he said. “You just got to learn how to cut corners and increase your profit margin with the rising costs.”
Page 2 of 2 - He attended the sale looking to buy two head to add to his 20 back home. He has been raising the animals for 20 years, and uses his herd for breeding and processing for sale to the public and restaurants.
“Right now buffalo sales are good,” he said. “Those in it 100 percent are doing pretty good.”
Profits gained from the sale go toward reinvestment in the refuge and maintaining the buffalo habitat.