Set back from the road and hidden from view is one of Winchester Ontario’s newest, most modern beef facilities. Dan O’Brien, who grew up on a mixed farm, is an entrepreneur who owns and operates the facility that is designed to hold up to 265 stockers and 30 cows and calves.
“When we bought the place two years ago, it had been neglected for some time,” says O’Brien. “That allowed us to start fresh because the buildings were in such disrepair that we had to demolish them.”
The facility, which O’Brien designed to maximize the comfort and care of his cattle, consists of 40′ x 40′ Coverall buildings — all with the south end exposed to allow animals both inside and outside access. The animals have three times the area that building guidelines call for — and with eight pens, O’Brien can run groups of cattle from 500 lbs. right up to 1,300 lbs. in their own separate areas. This also allows him to keep the animals he has bought in their contemporary groups to minimize stress and disease challenges.
Having a good health status is important to O’Brien, who uses it as part of his marketing scheme for selling fresh beef in Ottawa and the surrounding area. A member of Savour Ottawa, O’Brien is also on the steering committee for this program. The idea behind the program was to bring together local food service people and local farmers to develop a unique culinary experience for tourism. To use the Savour Ottawa brand, O’Brien had to undergo a certification process verifying that he was in fact the producer and was growing what is being sold.
“The main thing that makes us unique,” said O’Brien, “is that we are actually wholesaling and retailing beef locally. There are no other producers in the Ottawa area — that I know of — selling fresh meat every week and delivering to commercial establishments.”
“Secondly,” he adds, “because we have a brand new facility that’s animal and health friendly, we can get away without using antibiotics and we don’t use any artificial hormones. In the last two years, we’ve only had three animals that we’ve had to treat with penicillin and I’m sure a little bit of that is good luck. The calves that we buy are all weaned, pre-conditioned and have met a full vaccination protocol — this has also had a huge impact on our good luck with animal health.”
O’Brien Farms has been certified under the Ontario Cattlemen’s “Quality Starts Here” program and operates within the Ministry of Environment guidelines. While he doesn’t promote his beef as “corn fed,” O’Brien has taken the Ontario Corn-Fed Beef program and feeds according to its protocols. The animals are fed with a TMR mixer and everything is recorded.
His use of a triple tag tracking system allows O’Brien to identify carcass traits in his finished cattle. He buys his animals from a select group of farmers. When the animals arrive on his farm, they are usually equipped with the herd tag and an RFID tag; O’Brien then tags the cattle with his own dangle tag.
While on farm, they are weighed as often as possible. Prior to shipping, a final weight is taken and each animal is identified; then at the packing plant the animals are graded before being dry aged and custom cut for sale.
“We know how many days the animals were on farm, how much it gained from Day 1 to departure date, what the grade was on the carcass, what the actual carcass weight was percentage-wise, and what the lean meat yield was,” says O’Brien.
The grading information is then matched back to the individual animal and O’Brien provides this information to the farm of origin. The farmers that he buys his calves from have to be committed to trying for genetic
improvement, and he says the people that he deals with are generally quite interested in how their calves have done.
“The owner has to be using a purebred bull and know approximately when the calves were born,” said O’Brien. “They have to know what vaccinations were given and what drugs have or haven’t been used. We use antibiotics when an animal is sick and requires them, but then we circle those animals on our inventory sheet and they go out to be sold at an auction market after the appropriate withdrawal times.”
O’Brien goes on to say that he uses continental breeds of cattle, mainly Simmental — a breed that he works with as a purebred breeder — though there are also some Charolais and Blonde d’Aquitaine. He prefers these breeds because he claims the lean meat yield is generally high without getting huge amounts of fat. In fact, his lean meat yield on the majority of the cattle is between 61-64 per cent.
O’Brien says the abattoir where he ships his cattle is a “triple A establishment.” He laughingly goes on to say that the owner is willing to do anything he asks, and charge him for it. O’Brien takes orders by phone and e-mail every Monday, and delivers his product by refrigerated truck every Tuesday and Friday. His customer base is mainly restaurant owners, individual consumers and he also serves a local butcher and grocer. O’Brien can be found at the Ottawa Farmer’s Market on Thursdays and Sundays, where he promotes the local grocer and butcher who can be found in the vicinity of the market.
Restaurant customers have the option of displaying a plaque or identifying O’Brien’s farm on their menu. Building his clientele is a slow, steady process. Marketing his product involves knocking on a lot of doors and offering samples that range from $30 to $100 in value. Though he does make a premium, O’Brien is still trying to determine if the price he is charging is sufficient to cover all the overhead costs.
“I have one staff person whose role is mainly to manage the cattle side of the operation,” says O’Brien. “We use custom operators for everything. I was lucky enough to find the refrigerated truck used and it was in the $80,000 category. Then you consider that I don’t use implants so the cattle are on feed longer, and because we dry age the beef there is a greater shrink. So yes, we get a premium, but is it enough of a premium?”
O’Brien recognizes the interests and concerns of his consumers and has used this to optimize his business. The segment of the market that he is selling to is not the segment that is looking for the cheapest price. They are the consumers that are interested in buying local and like the idea that the cattle are well taken care of. And, of course, it still has to be a quality product.
“We are so much outside of the box that there aren’t many people that really understand what we are doing,” says O’Brien. “Buy local is huge! And rightly or wrongly, our customers have made the decision that they don’t want animals that have been implanted by artificial hormones or that have been dosed with antibiotics. Many times I’ve tried to explain that scientifically there is no difference in the meat, but they don’t want to hear that. They believe local meat that is free of hormones and antibiotics is better. Perception is reality.”