What do you get when you cross a cow and a buffalo? Yes, the result is a hybrid animal known as a “beefalo,” sometimes called a “cattalo.” Beefalo is mostly prized for its lean meat, which has higher vitamin levels and more protein than conventional beef, while having nearly one-third less cholesterol and -79% less fat. Fans of the buffalo-cattle hybrid think it could be the future of “healthy” meat production.
Beefalo are primarily cattle in genetics and appearance. The American Beefalo Association says beefalo with 37.5% bison genes are considered full-blood beefalo and the perfect mix for the breed. However, bovines with as low as 18% bison genes are labeled purebred beefalo. Animals with higher percentages of bison genetics are called “bison hybrids.”
Accidental buffalo-cattle crosses have been documented since cattle were first introduced to North America. Ranchers in the late-1880s made some of the earliest deliberate attempts to cross-breed the animals. The motivation was to maintain the milk production and docile nature of cattle and the hardiness of the buffalo.
One early attempt was made by Charles “Buffalo” Jones, a co-founder of Garden City, Kansas, began following a massive blizzard in 1886 that killed thousands of cattle. Jones figured by breeding cattle with the hardy buffalo he could produce a stock able to survive the high plains, yet gentle enough to herd and brand. This early experiment with “cattalo,” the name Jones used to advertise the new animal, failed because the species could not reproduce.
After Jones’ failed attempt, it was largely assumed that it was impossible to create a fertile buffalo. However, in 1965, Jim Burnett produced a hybrid bull that was fertile. Soon after, the World Beefalo Association – now part of the American Beefalo Association (ABA) – was formed and began marketing the hybrids as a new breed. The USDA has approved labeling of official beefalo meat since 1985.
The American Beefalo Association calls the animal the “best-kept” secret in the agricultural and health food world thanks to its nutrient dense, lean meat that packs “exceptional flavor and texture.” According to Texas A&M University research, beefalo perform as well on a high roughage ration as other beef breeds performs on a more concentrated ration.
The number of beefalo are microscopic compared to the conventional cattle population in the US. That’s partially because there is not a big market for it, though beefalo proponents obviously hope to change that. It also tends to cost more than beef, mainly because it comes from small producers as there is not a big market for beefalo meat.
John Fowler, an American Beefalo Association board member, believes the quality of the meat will bring more ranchers on board. “If I can get a person who has a crossbred herd and put a beefalo bull in his herd and have him eat some of the meat, he’s sold. He’ll want to produce the beefalo,” he told NPR. Fowler also raises beefalo in northern Missouri.
Fowler and other producers remain optimistic about beefalo meat’s future prospects, thanks in part to Americans’ continued interest in healthier food options, as well as growing interest in where their food comes from. Proponents of beefalo also tout its sustainability and production efficiency. According to ABA, input cost for beefalo are as much as -40% less than conventional beef. ABA also claims the hybrid breed and it’s ability to adapt, and thrive, to living conditions here in the US can not be matched by the European bloodlines of traditional beef breeds. Learn more at the ABA HERE. (Sources: Food Institute, NPR, American Beefalo Association, American Beefalo World)