OGEMA, Minnesota — A bison rancher in northwest Minnesota has a unique way of serving customers — letting them butcher the animal themselves.
“We definitely cut out the middleman,” said Steve Roberts, who has been raising bison near Ogema, north of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, for 30-plus years.
Roberts is referring to not only letting customers butcher their own bison, but for the operation in general, which prides itself on making his pasture-raised bison affordable.
“At beef prices or a little below,” Roberts said.
But when COVID-19 temporarily shut down several slaughter facilities last year, meat lockers experienced a sudden boost in popularity, and it continues to be difficult for Roberts to get animals into a meat locker.
“We have had to mold our whole operation around the fact that … we can’t get into locker plants,” said Roberts, who currently has about 80 head of bison.
That includes letting customers process a bison themselves after he puts the animal down, bleeds it, and sells it at live weight.
Customers can then quarter the animal at his ranch and then haul it elsewhere to finish the job themselves or take it to a meat locker.
“I compare it to a deer … it’s just bigger," Roberts said.
And buffalo aren’t as big as many people imagine, Roberts said: “Some people think a buffalo is like a mammoth.”
But the average cow that gets slaughtered is 1,000 to 1,200 pounds.
There’s no need to rent a trailer, he said; the back of a pickup truck will do fine.
For customers doing their own butchering, he is on hand to offer help and advice.
He said he doesn’t know of any other bison producers letting customers process their own animal.
Roberts doesn’t bother with a website or much of a marketing budget, mostly relying on free online ads and word of mouth, but he manages to attract customers from as far away as the Twin Cities.
He said paying for custom printed labels would just drive up the price, something he is determined not to do.
Roberts and his wife, Patrice, only recently came up with a brand name, In the Woods Bison.
“I’m not planning on going national,” Roberts said. “I’d rather take money and keep costs down for my customers.”
He said the bison industry has struggled because of the premium price most customers must pay for the meat.
He also keeps his margin small. “We’re not making much, let’s put it that way,” he said.
But his methods have sustained the operation for more than 30 years, weathering boom and bust cycles that drove out some bison producers.
“I’ve kept my head above water when everyone else was falling apart,” Roberts said. “I’ve been thinking out of the box for 32 years.”
Staying small allows him to raise the bison the way he wants on carefully managed pastures, using cover crops for the herd to feed on during the winter months and avoiding hormones and vaccines.
He said he’s made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot over the decades and at age 66 is more interested in scaling down than up.
He does say that if he had to do it over again, he would have built a small slaughter facility at the ranch to provide an inspected product without relying on a meat locker.
For those that process their own bison, it’s a memorable experience.
“When they’re 80 years old, they’re going to forget a whole lot of things they did in their life, but they’re never going to forget that, and that’s the truth, Roberts said. “It’s just something that most people will never do.”