Where buffalo roam, skies are not cloudy these days

Demand for buffalo meat is up, retail prices are rising, and Reno's Flocchini family wishes that buffalo calves grew up faster so their ranching operations could catch more of the updraft.

But the Flocchinis, who played a key role in building that demand through three gen-erations of leadership of the National Bison Association, think the current market is different from the boom-and-bust cycle that has troubled buffalo producers in the past.

For one, demand is far more stable, says John Flocchini, who manages the family's buffalo ranching operation in northern Wyoming and will spend part of his time this year as president of the Colorado-based National Bison Association.

Through missionary work by the bison association, consumers increasingly recognize buffalo as nutritional as well as an environmentally attractive option.

The low-fat meat is produced from animals that are grass-fed on ranches that often pride themselves on their sustainability.

And that means that buffalo meat once sold mostly at health-food retailers such as Whole Foods Market or in occasional promotional events at other retailers has moved into the mainstream, John Flocchini says.

That's bringing higher prices for ranchers such as the Flocchinis, whose Reno-based Sierra Meat Co. is one of the largest independently owned meat and seafood companies in the West.

But it's also bringing higher prices for consumers who saw retail prices for buffalo rise by more than 25 percent during 2010.

That means that buffalo producers are likely to lose some consumers to alternate meats, says Rich Flocchini, chairman of the bison association's commercial marketing committee for a decade. On the other hand, he says that will help keep demand in check until supplies catch up.

And it takes longer for buffalo ranchers to gear up than it takes their neighbors who raise cattle for beef production. Bison cows usually have their first calves when they are three years old; for cattle, it's a year less.

But the Flocchini family takes a much longer view of the buffalo business.

After working in the meat business in northern California since 1948, Armando Flocchini the grandfather of John Flocchini, the father of Rich Flocchini went into partnership in 1966 on a 60,000-acre buffalo ranch in northeastern Wyoming.

Within a year, the partnership had floundered and the Flocchini family was sole owner of the ranch and about 600 head of buffalo. An outbreak of brucellosis in the herd reduced its numbers to 370.

The family was undaunted.

"Buffalo at the time was just beginning to become known," says Bud Flocchini, the son of Armando and, like his father, an inductee into the National Buffalo Hall of Fame.

They began working on both supply and demand of the meat.

On the supply side, they steadily built the herd at their Durham Ranch near Gillette, Wyo. The herd today includes 2,500 buffalo, including 1,200 mother cows that will produce as many as 20 calves each over their lifespan.

The family's buffalo operation also includes about 1,200 buffalo that are finished in feedlots in Idaho, South Dakota and Canada.

It's a capital-intensive business compared with traditional cattle ranching.

Buffalo ranchers quip that they can make a buffalo do anything it wants to do, and the power of a 2,000-pound bison bull demands extra-strength fencing, loading chutes and other livestock-handling systems.

But while the capital expense of the buffalo business is higher than a cattle ranch, Bud Flocchini notes that buffalo convert grass to muscle more efficiently than cattle.

The family's Durham Ranch includes 60 carefully monitored pastures, and ranch managers create detailed plans to move buffalo from one to another through the course of a year. Often, John Flocchini says, buffalo will spend no more than 10 days in a pasture before it's allowed to recover.

Meanwhile, Armando Flocchini was among the founders of the National Buffalo Association, one of the predecessors of the National Bison Association. Now three generations of the family have helped to spearhead the efforts to build demand. The association beats the health drum, commissions recipes and cooking tips, links up buyers of buffalo products with sellers and acts as a clearinghouse where producers can share information.

The marketing efforts got a boost when media magnate Ted Turner began raising about 50,000 buffalo on ranches in Montana. Now his Ted's Montana Grill chain of restaurants features buffalo on its menus.

For all the work of the Flocchini family, however, buffalo production in Nevada hasn't spread beyond a few small herds scattered around the state.

There's some question about whether buffalo roamed very far into Nevada before they were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century.

Some maps show that the range of buffalo extended into extreme northeast Nevada roughly the area north and east of Elko.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, and the Federal Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, have said there's scattered evidence that buffalo herds once may have grazed in the Humboldt River basin across much of northern Nevada.


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