North Dakota bison processing plant expands as more people seek healthier protein

A recently completed $550,000 expansion of the North American Bison Plant in New Rockford, N.D., will increase processing capacity from 11,000 per year to more than 17,000 per year.

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The North American Bison processing plant in New Rockford, N.D., recently completed a $550,000 expansion and upgrade that will boost capacity from 11,000 to more than 17,000 animals per year.
Contributed / U.S. government photo

NEW ROCKFORD, N.D. — North American Bison finds itself riding a rise in demand driven by a growing consumer appetite for healthy protein choices that were given a nudge by the pandemic.

The plant, established here in 1993, has recently undergone an expansion project enabling it to increase capacity from processing 11,000 bison per year to more than 17,000 — an increase of 54%, the biggest in the company’s history.

“This is a big deal,” said Jim Wells, North American Bison’s president and CEO. “We’re trying to keep ahead of the growth curve. We want to stay ahead of consumers.”

The $550,000 expansion project got a boost when the North Dakota Agricultural Products Commission approved a $250,000 grant on Feb. 16. The plant has been upgraded with advanced technology to elevate quality and safety, Wells said.

“It covers a portion of the advances in technology,” he said, referring to the state grant.


The plant, originally designed to process 5,000 animals per year, employs about 65 people. The expansion project also enabled North American Bison to centralize its operations, bringing its marketing and distribution center in Fargo to New Rockford, Wells said.

North American Bison, which sells its products both to grocery stores and restaurants, was established in the 1990s when demand for bison was soaring.

Then, the market crashed as prices plunged, causing a shakeout in the industry that North American Bison survived. Established as a cooperative owned by ranchers, it reorganized as a limited liability company whose ownership remains dominated by ranchers, including the core that began as a cooperative.

“It sort of is a partnership,” with about 65 ranchers as partners, Wells said. “We’ve been working really hard to make it work for our ranchers.”

The ranchers are concentrated in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota but also include ranchers in Canada, Wells said.

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A bison bull known as Big Papa from the Heartland Bison Ranch near Rugby, N.D. The ranch is one of about 65 in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Canada that sends its bison to the North American Bison plant in New Rockford, N.D.

Recently, demand for bison has again increased as American consumers become more health conscious and are searching for healthy sources of protein, Wells said.

The move by consumers toward healthier protein was accentuated during the pandemic, he said. “They tried it and found out they liked it,” he said, helping to maintain stronger demand.

Still, compared to beef, bison will always remain a choice for a small segment of the market, Wells said. “It’s a very small niche protein market,” he said. “But it’s facilitated by about five decent-sized processors,” including North American Bison.


North American Bison markets its products as TenderBison , which include ground bison, steaks, strip loins and tenderloins.

“Our goal is to be the best quality processor and packager,” Wells said. “We’re really excited about the future. We’re thrilled that we can bring this to North Dakota.”

Kevin Leier’s family owns and operates the Heartland Bison Ranch near Rugby, about 60 miles northwest of New Rockford.

“Our family has been involved since 1996 with North American Bison,” and is involved in the group of ranchers that formed the original cooperative, he said.

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A bison herd grazing at the Heartland Bison Ranch near Rugby, N.D.

“It’s a perfect example of what can happen in North Dakota when you talk about value-added agriculture,” allowing farmers and ranchers to capture more of the value of what they raise through processing.

“In the end, it all happens here in North Dakota,” Leier said. “It’s a great case study in what can happen. Our ranch is incredibly proud of our partnership with North American Bison.”

Leier, who is executive director of the North Dakota Buffalo Association, estimates there are about 80 buffalo ranches in the state — far fewer than the more than 250 who jumped into the hot market of the 1990s.

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The North American Bison processing plant in New Rockford, North Dakota, as seen in August 2022, recently underwent a $550,000 expansion project, boosting capacity from 11,000 to more than 17,000 animals per year.
Google Maps photo

After the collapse and years of sluggish demand, “The market has come back real strong now,” although inflation is “putting a lot of pressure” on ranchers, Leier said.


In 2020, the most recent figures available, 63,056 bison were harvested, according to the National Bison Association. In the United States, 1,775 ranches and farms raise bison. By contrast, according to IBISWorld, there are about 800,000 beef cattle producers.

“It’s still a small industry,” Leier said. “Really small. We’re kind of a niche.”

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address:
Phone: 701-367-5294
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