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SOME ORGANIC BEEF ON THE SIDE

Roseburn Ranches was so named by Robin Morrison’s great-great-grandparents more than a century ago when they established the farmyard in a wild rose burn backed by the Alberta foothills between High River and Okotoks.

Today the Morrison family’s operation includes two commercial feedlots — Roseburn Ranches and Tongue Creek Feeders with a total one-time capacity of 30,000 head — an 800-head cow herd, grain farm, a manure composting operation and a micro-nutrient recycling business. The newest revenue stream is a custom organic feeding station operated by Robin, her brother, Jonathan, and their cousin Travis.

“This is another way to meet our customers’ wants and needs, just like we do with the commercial feedlot,” Robin says. Her interest in this venture stems from her late Uncle Brian’s involvement in custom feeding organic calves. She completed the business plan for their organic feeding station, located at the family’s former dairy just north of the main ranch, as an assignment while studying animal sciences and agribusiness at the University of Saskatchewan.

The first calves were custom fed for Diamond Willow Organic Beef four years ago. At the time, the pen and operation where the calves were housed were certified under the cattle owner’s name. Certification under their own name was achieved last year and the first calves arrived at the new facility last winter. The only renovation required to meet organic standards was opening the pens to small turnout areas.

Based on a review of field histories, the Morrisons were able to certify some of their land three years ago and now have 1,200 acres under organic production. Typically, the price paid for organic forage and grain is 20 to 30 per cent higher than commodity feed prices — so that was incentive enough to begin growing organic crops, Robin explains. Feeding it on the farm is another value-adding step.

The organic operation is certified to Alberta Organic Producers Association and the U.S. National Organic Program standards by the international certifying body, Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA). It will be certified to meet the Canada Organic Standard regulations, which came into effect under the Canada Agricultural Products Act on June 30, 2009. An equivalency agreement between Canada and the U.S. was signed the following day

Robin takes the additional paperwork, inspections and fees required to attain and maintain organic certification all in stride as part of doing business. Her research showed that there is lots of growth potential in the organic beef industry. Demand for organic food continues to grow, being driven by health conscious consumers, a buy-local mindset, and people who have sensitivities to ingredients used in mainstream food production.

Their goal for the custom feeding station is to carry 1,000 calves on a continuous basis year round. The milking barn on site has been left intact, which gives them the option of establishing an organic dairy business when the time is right.

The rations are formulated to meet customer specifications. The Diamond Willow calves came in at 500 pounds and were targeted to gain 2.3 to 2.8 pounds per day. The heifers finish out around 1,200 pounds and the steers at 1,300 pounds. Finished cattle are shipped as they reach the target weight. The owners of the cattle look after the processing and marketing.

The ration is alfalfa silage with 20 to 30 per cent oat or barley grain. Robin explains that alfalfa is the preferred forage for finishing organic beef because it is rich in calcium and protein. The straw for bedding must also be organic

FARM TO FORK: ORGANICS IN ALBERTA

The size and growth rate of the organic market in Canada haven’t been well tracked. The estimates are usually extrapolated from U.S. data or generated from assumptions.

The 2007 report, “Farm to Fork: Organics in Alberta,” details the findings of an Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) project that examined the nature of the organic sector in Alberta. The project was led by Rosalie Cunningham, a consumer and market analyst with ARD.

Surveys conducted for the project point to the same trend — organic food is moving from a niche market into the mainstream in Canada. The average Canadian organic consumer is secure and settled, in the prime of life and is likely to have children. Health concerns far outweighed environmental concerns as the key driver increasing demand for organic food.

As a starting point to be able to realistically quantify and track the organic market in Canada, the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Agriculture Departments in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario commissioned ACNielsen to audit grocery stores across the country.

The research showed that Alberta had the highest growth rate for organic food sold through grocery stores in 2006 compared with 2005 sales. It was 44 per cent and the national average was 28 per cent. The value of organic food sold through grocery stores in Canada in 2006 was about $412 million. Though this represents only one per cent of all grocery sales, the growth rate for organics far exceeds that of other grocery items, which is generally two to four per cent.

The OACC commissioned an additional study to get a better handle on the value of organic food sold through all domestic channels. The final estimate was about $1 billion.

McAllister Opinion Research conducted a unique survey of Canadian consumers for the project. It revealed that 47 per cent of organic food was purchased at grocery stores, 17 per cent at health food stores, and 30 per cent was purchased directly from farmers.

ARD conducted the survey of Alberta’s 240 certified organic producers and 41 processors. “Hay and feed” was grown by 59 per cent of all organic farms in the province. The other top commodities were oats, grown on 50 per cent of organic farms, wheat/durum on 35 per cent, beef cattle on 32 per cent and other grains on 30 per cent. Alberta is home to the largest organic beef herd in Canada, which numbered 10,288 head at the time.

Meat and meat products were the organic commodities most likely to undergo a value-adding process, but the least likely to be sold through grocery stores. Alberta was right in line with the national trend showing that only one per cent of organic meat and meat products were sold through grocery stores, however, this represented a 189 per cent growth rate in Alberta and a 61 per cent growth rate nationwide in 2006 compared with 2005.

ARD organic specialist Keri Sharpe feels the province’s astronomical growth rate for organic food has levelled off somewhat due to the economic downturn, though there’s no way of really knowing what the growth rate is at this point in time because surveys aren’t conducted on a regular basis.

A competitive research study commissioned by the federal-provincial organic value chain round table to be released in October will help to update the outlook for the organic beef industry in Canada, she says. The newly legislated Canada Organic Standard should level the playing field for organics across the country and will definitely help in domestic and export markets.

For information about organic beef production in general, contact Sharpe at 780-968-6556, check out the “Farm to Fork” report and other information on ARD’s website, or visit the Going Organic Network of Alberta’s website at www.goingorganic.ca.Information about the new Canada Organic Standard can be found through the Organic Trade Association’s website at www.ota-canada.ca.

because they do nibble at it. Organiccertified salt and minerals are provided and they consult with a nutritionist to better the ration for the greatest daily gain. Organic standards require that the calves have feed in front of them 24-7. There are no special requirements for the water source and system.

Robin notes that they’ve had little to no health problems with the organic calves. A certified-organic product is administered on intake to boost their immune systems. If an animal should have to be treated with antibiotics, it would go into the commercial program. The cattle are processed according to organic standards and Diamond Willow’s protocol.

Organic standards do allow for the same field, feedlot and cattle-handling equipment to be used for the commercial and the organic operations as long as it is cleaned out as stipulated in the regulations before use in the organic operation.

The manure-composting operation supplies fertilizer for the organic fields and must also meet organic standards. The manure windrows are monitored to maintain a temperature of 55for 15 days, which is sufficient to kill the weed seeds and pathogens. A scarab is used to turn the windrows when needed.

At present, Robin and Jonathan handle all of the day-to-day operations, procurement and pricing for the organic operation. They can be reached at 403-652-7411 for more information.

DIAMOND WILLOW ORGANIC BEEF

Bev and Keith Everts are one in a group of seven ranching families who formed Producers of the Diamond Willow Range in 1997 to market their beef. The independently owned ranches run about 1,100 pairs on 56,000 acres spanning the Rocky Mountain foothills from Calgary down to Pincher Creek.

Since all of the families involved are committed to environmental stewardship and were already using a combination of traditional and new sustainable production practices, they agreed to go that one step further and become certified organic beef producers. Some of the group were reluctant at first because of all of the regulations and inspections. Looking back, it has proven to be a rewarding move in more ways than one.

Producers of the Diamond Willow Range found they had lots of expertise on the cattle side, but they needed to draw in people with expertise in the meat trade and marketing, Keith explains. In 2005, the group established Diamond Willow Organics Ltd. to manage the processing, sales and distribution end of the business. The general manager and marketing team work out of the head office in Calgary and the company still maintains a small office in Pincher Creek.

Diamond Willow Organics has worked hard to build value chains with retailers and restaurants. The company now wholesales fresh organic steaks, roasts and lean ground beef to Save-on-Foods and Community Natural Foods in Calgary, Choices and H.Y. Louis IGA in Vancouver, and a number of fine-dining restaurants in Alberta and B.C.

Keith is part of the team that organizes the production cycle so that the company has finished animals ready for delivery to their processor, Sunterra Meats in Trochu, each week, year round. Everything is planned out 18 months in advance.

Being part of a value chain offers a certain level of predictability, he explains. Diamond Willow ranchers know ahead of time when their product will be shipped, where it is going, and how much they will be paid. It has also opened their eyes to other sectors of the beef industry. They now understand how processing, packing, shipping and retailing influence the price the consumer pays and the amount they receive.

“Consumers are willing to pay a sustainable price to keep people in agriculture, but there is a price point of resistance,” he says.

Value chains are all about building relationships, sharing information through the whole value chain, and understanding that you’re only as successful as the people behind you. His tips for starting out in a value chain venture are to first make sure the market for your product is there, then create the relationships and know the amount of cattle you’ll need to meet your commitments.

Keith is a member of the federal-provincial organic value chain round table, which commissioned a study to investigate the competitiveness of the Canadian organic beef industry with that in the U.S. and other countries, and to identify loopholes that need to be addressed in order to increase markets for Canada’s organic producers. The company conducting the research will report the findings to the round table at a meeting in Calgary on October 19 and 20.

For more information about Diamond Willow Organic Beef, visit www.diamondwillow.caor call 403-627-1800.

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