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Taking care of customers and their cattle

That’s the motto that underpins Kasko Cattle Co.’s expansion over the past decade and a half

That’s the motto that underpins Kasko Cattle Co.’s 
expansion over the past decade and a half

Kasko Cattle Co. is proud to be marking its 15-year milestone. It’s no small feat for this young company considering the string of setbacks that have hit the Canadian beef industry since the Kasko family entered the custom cattle-feeding business in 1997. Yet, for every knock, the company has bounced back with a step forward.

The family — Les, his sons Ryan and Greg, and son-in-law, Todd Lang — got its start with the purchase of the Hwy. 52 Beef Producers lot east of Raymond, just ahead of the U.S. anti-dumping charges brought against Canadian beef producers in 1998. On the heels of the drought years, Kasko Cattle purchased its home lot, which is the former Thiessen feedlot north of Coaldale, in 2001. Acquisition of the north lot a couple of miles away in 2005 was sandwiched between BSE border closures and the spike in feed grain prices. Their latest purchase of the Sandy Hill lot east of Taber in the spring of 2010 came in the aftermath of the U.S.’s mandatory country-of-origin regulations and just before the rain clouds let loose for two years.

Kasko Cattle’s standing capacity today totals 44,000 head, providing jobs for 40 people. It remains 100 per cent family owned and operated, says general manager Ryan Kasko. His wife, Shannon, takes care of the financial reporting, while his sister, Rhonda, looks after the feedlot’s human resources requirements on a part-time basis. Greg manages the home lot and Todd manages the Sandy Hill yard, while parents Les and Betty continue as advisers in their retirement years. The management team also includes Lyle Adams at the north lot and Dwight Morhart, Cory Powlesland, and Travis Lang at the Hwy. 52 lot.

Coming into cattle feeding from the business side with very little knowledge of primary agriculture may have been one of the company’s greatest strengths in the early years, Kasko says. Before buying their first feedlot, the boys had joined their dad in his order-buying business, which he operated from their acreage near Coaldale where there were always a few pens to hold cattle.

With minimal experience in the feedlot and farming industry, all they could do was look forward. “We saw great opportunities in agriculture here with good land in a fortunate part of the world where we could produce healthy, high-quality food,” he says. “We learned from our mistakes and lots of times it was the hard way, but we always strive to be progressive and improve all the time.”

The bar is set high in this area of southern Alberta where feed mills mark the location of countless feedlots sprinkled across the countryside and irrigation systems bordering the wide-open fields ensure silage yields.

The Kaskos have tapped into this wealth of experience so close at hand by working with and learning from professionals, such as Dr. Phil Klassen at the Coaldale Veterinary Clinic, nutritionist Dr. Darryl Gibb, and experienced feeders. Many of Kasko Cattle’s customers on the custom feeding side are professional cattle feeders themselves who look at it as a business investment and expect fair returns from their business investment, he explains. The whole team works hard to deliver on those expectations.

The company’s primary focus is on providing consistent cattle performance and accurate information. Though weather is always a factor, Kasko says having protocols in place to predict cattle performance results in fewer surprises on the closeouts.

Consistent performance hinges on the way the feed is delivered to the cattle as much as on balancing the rations to meet the animal’s target growth rates. “We know precisely what we want in the bunk and computerized systems in the feed trucks tell the operators exactly what went into the truck and how much was delivered to each bunk,” Kasko explains. “Our focus on measuring forces the people doing the feeding to do their very best and to be as precise as possible.”

This is a big step up from when they first began feeding cattle. Back then they had scales in the truck, but all of the details about what and how much was delivered to the bunks had to be recorded on paper. The same can be said for the computerized chute-side systems for recording treatments that are now used by many feedlots. In the early years, pen checkers wrote down what was given to each animal on recipe cards. Now it’s all recorded electronically. When an animal’s electronic identification tag is scanned, the computer brings up its health history for the entire time it has been in the lot.

“This enables us to make better decisions on how to treat animals and, from a food safety perspective, to ensure that proper withdrawal times have been met before shipping animals that have received treatments,” he explains.

Kasko Cattle participates in the Verified Beef Production On-Farm Food Safety Program delivered by Alberta Beef Quality Starts here. In fact, the Hwy. 52 Beef Producers lot was one of the first feedlots in the province to go on the program.

Doing the best possible job of taking care of the animals goes beyond meeting their nutritional requirements and health needs to making every effort to ensure animal comfort. Through the years, the company has made significant investments in upgrading the pens and handling facilities at each of its lots. Some of the recent improvements have been made in consultation with Dr. Temple Grandin, who took the time to go out to the feedlot with the local veterinarian during a visit to Alberta.

Going a step further by implementing a third-party audit of animal welfare standards at all their feedyards has helped maintain the focus of the company’s animal welfare initiatives. An audit pinpoints areas where improvements could be made in facility design and maintenance and animal handling to reduce stress and injuries for animals and employees. Kasko feels it has made a noticeable difference as far as improving efficiency and reducing problems with animal injuries. More importantly, from a safety standpoint, going through the audit process provides excellent training for their staff.

Two years of unprecedented precipitation in the Lethbridge area proved to be a pretty good audit on environmental efficiencies. It showed areas that need to be improved, that resulted in significant structural damage to the base of pens and fences. Years of work to improve drainage and install proper catch basins proved inadequate in many cases. Feedlots in the area hauled in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of dirt to repair the damage. Thanks to the long, open fall and mild winter, Ryan is hopeful that the groundwork done last fall will be able to stand up to whatever the weather has in store this year.

“It’s all part of our continual improvements with every part of our business,” he says. The company’s goals are rolled into a mission statement that will continue to serve the company well going forward: “We are a progressive, customer-centred feedlot and farming business focusing on consistency, food safety, environmental sustainability and economic sustainability.”

As for future plans, he says they have their hands full for now, but that doesn’t negate keeping their eyes open for new opportunities.

Ryan feels it is important for everyone to do what they can to contribute to the industry. He is looking forward to his two-year term on the board of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, just as he appreciated the opportunity to serve as a zone delegate to the Alberta Beef Producers for four years. That was during the BSE crisis and he found that being involved gave him a greater understanding of the issues and an avenue to have meaningful input.

“From that experience, everyone realized the value of having strong organizations to work with governments to find solutions to some of the challenges and to promote our industry in a positive way,” he says. “It will be even more important to have strong organizations to tell people the truth about their food.”

He is still surprised at how many people who have grown up in the Lethbridge area have never been to a feedlot, so he takes every opportunity to showcase the feeding industry to people who are interested in learning about where their food comes from. Being close to Lethbridge, the company has hosted numerous tour groups, from local school classes to international delegations.

“The reaction is very positive,” Kasko says. “People appreciate the details on food safety and all of the quality controls we have in place. They are also pleased to see all of this big, nice space and cattle that are relaxed, happy and content — often unlike the pictures they may have formed in their heads. I tell them that a feedlot is like a spa for cattle because they have all of the things they need to live comfortably. It’s really a good opportunity to send positive messages home with people that we produce beef in the best manner we can to provide beef that is healthy, safe and tasty.”

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