A recent NPR article touts beefalo as “the healthy meat of the future.” Beefalo is a buffalo-cow hybrid that represents the latest in the heartbreaking history of the American bison. For years, speculators have been crossbreeding buffalo with cows and selling the resulting beefalo as a marketing gimmick. Beefalo producers pay no regard to the harm they do to the genetic diversity of wild buffalo or to the blatant disregard beefalo have for the culture of Native Americans.
Buffalo once numbered up to 60 million before settlers pushed this iconic keystone species to the brink of extinction. Buffalo provided Native Americans with the gift of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. As the United States needed more land in the mid 1800’s, men were hired to slaughter the buffalo, often taking the hides and the best meat, leaving the rest of the buffalo to rot. This extermination of the buffalo weakened the great Native Nations and allowed the U.S. government to force Native Americans to live on reservations, a reduced area of their homelands. In the early 1900’s, with the population as low as 200 animals, a group of conservation-minded people decided that wild buffalo must be saved. A small herd was found hiding in the Yellowstone Valley of Montana, and a few head were located in South Dakota and Texas. These groups were protected, and conservationists rallied to ensure the survival of buffalo as a species. Today, there are approximately 500,000 buffalo living in the United States and Canada, representing about 1% of pre-extermination levels.
Tragically, today more than 90% of all buffalo are shipped to industrial feedlots, where they are held in confinement, fed grain, and slaughtered at about 18 months of age. Nature has designed buffalo to graze over large landscapes and regenerate prairie grasslands. Forcing buffalo into the cattle feedlot model is unnatural, cruel, and nearly as bad as the extermination of the 1800s.
Native buffalo are threatened in another way—over the decades, many were bred with domestic cattle to produce a buffalo species with more meat and a docile behavior. A 2007 study using DNA markers found low amounts of cattle ancestry in conservation herds that were managed as pure buffalo herds. Conservationists argue that beefalo, which are recognized by the USDA and registered as 3/8 buffalo genetics and 5/8 cattle genetics, are ultimately detrimental to the wild buffalo species and the Great Plains' ecosystems.
Native Americans are uniting around buffalo as a way to elevate their cultural heritage and provide economic opportunities. Preserving and protecting the genetic diversity of buffalo is essential to the regeneration of Native American culture.
According to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, 100 grams of buffalo meat contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams of fat. The same amount of beef contains 291 calories and 24 grams fat. When buffalo spend their entire lives grazing on a diversity of native grasses, the health of the buffalo and the quality of their meat for human consumption is greatly improved. Among many others, benefits include polyphonic compounds, tocopherols, carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids. In contrast, less desirable compounds, such as triglycerides, are higher in pen-fed buffalo. Buffalo finished on rangelands also have much improved markers of metabolic health likely due to the phytochemical richness of their diets and their higher levels of physical activity. To use a human analogy, muscle tissue from range-fed buffalo is like that of an athlete, while muscle tissue from pen-fed buffalo is more like that of a human with reduced metabolic health, characterized by enhanced mitochondrial, glucose, and fatty acid metabolism. In summary, grass-fed buffalo have far-reaching health benefits compared to feedlot beef and beefalo.
For 25 years, Wild Idea Buffalo Co. has regenerated the prairie grasslands, while improving our environment and our food supply by bringing back the buffalo. By raising and harvesting wild buffalo that spend their entire lives grazing on large landscapes, we have fostered rich biodiversity, stored tons of carbon safely underground, and created myriad economic opportunities for Native Americans.
It is our ardent hope that beefalo quickly fades into obscurity and that the resilient and wild buffalo returns to its former glory—just as nature intended.
Staff writer: Phil Graves
Top Photo Credit: Kyle Young / Other photos: Jill O'Brien