Beef producers share insights into certification programs

Two beef producers talk about why they decided to certify their operations and the differences between the VBP+ and EU certification programs

Canadian beef producers are rightfully proud of the cattle they raise. Due to the care they provide their animals and their environmental stewardship, this country’s farmers and ranchers produce arguably the best beef in the world.

Increasingly, producers are turning to certification programs like Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) and various European Union (EU) certifications to prove their production practices to consumers domestically and abroad. In addition to supporting public confidence, the programs offer another benefit, too: they provide some of the few opportunities in cattle production today for farmers and ranchers to capture a market premium.

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“I like the idea of why VBP+ came about,” says Ike Wipf, cattle manager for the Rosetown Hutterite Colony in Rosetown, Sask., which calves out 300 head each year. “The VBP+ program lets me get the message out there that we are raising our animals well and raising a quality product. We don’t just raise beef cows to make money; what I care about is raising quality food.”

And, adds Endiang, Alta. cow-calf producer Stuart Somerville, the premiums available from certification are the key to success for some producers.

“Everyone’s in the same boat. We’re all looking for a leg up. The only competitive advantage that a small outfit like us has is we can go chasing premiums.”

VBP+ basics

The Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) certification program allows Canadian producers to showcase that their operation abides by the highest on-farm food safety, animal care, biosecurity and environmental stewardship standards. The voluntary program, developed by beef producers, requires a producer to maintain strict records of their production practices, complete a VBP+ course and open their operation to a third-party, on-farm audit.

For farms that already keep good records, the VBP+ program is not particularly time consuming or difficult.

“A lot of producers are closer than they think they would be towards meeting VBP+’s requirements. It doesn’t need to be an intimidating process. We’re trying to help producers be recognized for the good things they’re already doing,” says Melissa Downing, VBP+’s Alberta co-ordinator and a VBP+ certified cow-calf producer herself.

“It’s a course and an audit. There was nothing difficult about it,” says Wipf. “It’s not hard. It’s not complicated. It’s next to nothing for work.

“We already kept a record of every animal we raise. Every animal that goes through our system gets read by our RFID tag reader and when it’s vaccinated, that information goes right into our computer system. There wasn’t a thing other than our handling system that we had to change, and we got funding through the VBP+ program to do that,” he says.

Currently, Cargill in High River, Alta.; JBS Canada in Brooks; Atlantic Beef Products in P.E.I. and, just recently, Cargill in Guelph, Ont., have been audited by a third party to ensure they meet the requirements of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) and are certified to the Canadian Beef Sustainability Framework. As such, they are eligible to supply product sourced from certified sustainable beef operations.

A beef operation that has been audited and certified by VBP+ is also certified sustainable under the framework. Cargill’s certified sustainable beef sourcing program provides credits averaging $18 per head per certified operation (based on payouts from 2019 – Q2, 2020). For example, if an animal moves from cow-calf producer to backgrounder to feedlot, each of those three producers will receive a credit upon the animal’s processing. These payments are calculated and distributed quarterly after animals have been harvested.

“This incentive is an example of how Cargill, as a processer, is rewarding producers who are participating in sustainability certification. It also exemplifies their commitment to their retailers who are seeking to supply certified sustainable beef to their customers,” says Shannon Argent, the VBP+ program’s business manager.

To qualify for Cargill’s program, the animal has to spend its entire life on certified operations. Producers also need to opt in to the program through BIXS, which tracks whether an animal comes from a certified operation and allows producers to share that information with buyers.

Premium domestic markets for EU certifications

There are several different EU certifications currently available. The most common stand-alone (and the base requirement of all EU certifications) certifies beef as free from growth-promoting enhancements; others include certification that the cattle were managed in specific ways, such as being fed specific rations.

Somerville completed his farm’s basic EU certification three years ago. He says the process, though somewhat administration-heavy, is not difficult.

“Your vet walks through the whole thing with you. He or she will become your best friend while you’re going through the process,” says Somerville. “But, the actual certification isn’t that much work. If you’re keeping basic records, you’ll be able to transfer them over without too much trouble. If you’re using RFID tags like we’re all supposed to be anyway, your life becomes a lot easier. It’s filling in a lot of blanks but very doable.”

Somerville has been finishing his own calf crop — typically about 200 head per year — for the past six or seven years. He says the market premium is key to his business model.

“We’re a smaller operation. We don’t have the same economies of scale that a bigger feedlot would have. So, we started looking around for areas that would have a premium. If you can find a market, there are premiums to EU certification of anywhere from $0.15-$0.25 per pound. We need that leg up.”

The premium is worth the effort, he adds.

“It’s certainly not more work than it is worth. The actual certification and cost to get professionals to look at (your program) — you pay that off very quickly. You lose some efficiency on your feed (from not using growth-promoting enhancements), but in our experience you still definitely come out ahead.”

Increasingly, the Rosetown Colony is feeding out its own calves. Last year, they fed 50 per cent of their cattle crop. This year, they managed 75 per cent. Next year, they’re aiming for 90 per cent. They buy all their bulls from Benchmark Angus; now that they’re EU-certified, all the animals they feed will be destined for Benchmark Angus’s processing arm, Ben’s Quality Meats in Picture Butte.

“What Ben’s Quality Meats does is process the very best quality for specialty buyers. There’s a chain of high-quality hotels; that’s where a lot of our beef goes,” says Wipf.

Interestingly, little to none of the EU-certified beef raised by either Somerville or the Rosetown Colony has actually sold into the EU. Instead, it’s selling to domestic customers who value the attributes the EU program ensures.

“As of now they don’t need to because they can sell all of it domestically,” says Wipf. “At the same time, a year from today, two years from today, they might want to ship to the EU. If they want to, they’d be ready to.”

While the premium is a big incentive, capturing an EU-certified premium market requires more than just cattle production skill, cautions Somerville.

“It takes some hunting to learn who’s who. You gotta start calling cattle buyers and finding out what they’re interested in, who they know, what they want. At the beginning, you’ll be on the horn a whole lot.”

Wipf agrees. In fact, he says there’s little reason to pursue EU certification without a buyer in place.

“I’d definitely recommend the VBP+ program. It’s good for the individual and good for the whole industry. EU certification? I guess if a person wants to, fine, but I don’t know if I’d go as far as recommending it. Unless you have a market, there’s no point.”

Wipf isn’t alone in seeing value in the VBP+ program. Downing reports that, in Alberta, there’s been a 30 per cent year-over-year increase in each of the last two years for the total number of producers being audited for the VBP+ program. To date, over half of the feedlot capacity is audited, as well as between 12 and 15 per cent of calves produced.

“The beef value chain is really incentivizing the VBP+ program, which is driving a lot of uptake in the program,” says Downing. “Some feedlots are very proactive in seeking out VBP+ calves.”

That’s a good thing for the whole industry, Wipf thinks.

“I do think (our industry) has to go in this direction. With all the veggie burgers out there and consumers not understanding anymore, we need to tell our story — that we care about the animals, we care about the environment, we’re raising a quality product — so the consumer can have confidence.”

Madeleine Baerg lives, loves and writes agriculture from her farm in B.C.’s Okanagan.

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