Turning food waste into livestock feed

Jill Burkhardt shares her experience with a program that allows farmers to recycle grocery store shrink

Doughnuts, broccoli, pineapples, bread, cakes and cookies — sounds like some things you’d eat during the week? Well, it’s what our feeder cattle eat. Yes, you read that right, our feeders eat doughnuts, fruits, vegetables and cakes. How? It’s all thanks to a program called Loop and a local grocery store chain, Save-On-Foods.

Loop started in 2017 in Dawson Creek, B.C., as a concept of feeding grocery store leftovers to farm animals. Working with the local Co-op grocery store, Jaime White, founder of Loop, was looking for a way for his farm to reduce its feed costs. He was tired of working away from home and wanted to find a way to stay home with his family, all while building up their farm.

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He said, “Let’s build our life in a way we can be present.”

White was the one who navigated the legal hoop-jumping, paperwork and lawyers, creating the symbiotic relationship. “We call this ‘Loop’ because it had to have a name, but also because we need to close the loop between waste and food.”

Loop stretches from British Columbia to the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border and as far north as Ft. St. John, B.C. Over 790 (and growing) Loop farms visit grocery store chains such as Co-op, Real Canadian Superstore and Save-On-Foods daily.

As a Loop member, we partner with a local grocery store and are assigned a pickup day. On the designated day, we give the store a “head’s up” call so they can gather all their shrink, or goods that would otherwise be discarded in the dumpster that day. When we arrive at the store we take everything that the store discards. Whether it’s one box, 60 boxes or more, we take it all from three main departments — produce, meat and kitchen/deli, which are always included in pickups. Other departments, such as bakery, dairy, dry goods or grocery, frozen foods and floral, may or may not be in a pickup. The departments come pre-sorted by department but when we get home, we further sort the load into what is useable by what animals and what is able to be donated to a food bank.

Picking up from Save-On-Foods allows us to donate “still good” items to a food bank or registered charity. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we donated an average of five or six banana-sized boxes of various goods a week through the Wetaskiwin Mission Church and helped out those in need on the Pigeon Lake Indian Reserve. Since the pandemic restrictions, we haven’t made donations to the food bank, mainly because there haven’t been many “still good” items to donate.

We started out feeding most of the Loop produce to our small flock of laying hens. As time went on it became too much for the hens to eat, so we thought, “What else can we do?” I did some research and found many dairies and feedlots in the U.S. feed grocery waste to their animals. We began feeding greens (lettuce and spinach), mushrooms and cakes to the cows. When we started feeding the Loop food to the cows, we simply top-dressed the hay with the Loop food after it had gone through the bale shredder. It was mostly by trial-and-error and observation that we found out that the cows preferred the hay and the young, unweaned calves preferred the Loop food.

The Burkhardts first tried feeding greens, mushrooms and cake to the cows, top-dressing the hay after it had been processed by the bale shredder. They’ve since switched to a TMR, allowing them to feed more shrink to the cattle.
photo: Supplied by Jill Burkhardt

That first year, we continued to feed the weaned calves Loop. We would fill their bunks with shredded hay and then top-dress the feed by hand with bakery items. The young steers and heifers really liked eating the bakery items, though our feeding process was a bit inefficient. While we didn’t notice significant gains in most of our yearlings that first year, there was a noticeable difference in appearance in the animals that preferred Loop items to the animals that showed no interest.

This led us to do some thinking and research into being more efficient with how we fed our yearlings. We purchased a TMR mixer in late 2019. We have been able to improve our efficiency feeding Loop to the cattle, but we have also been able to feed more of the Loop load to the weaned calves and even cows now.

Prior to purchasing the TMR we only fed the bakery items to the weaned calves. Most of the other produce went to the chickens and we shared a fair amount with neighbours for their animals because there were things our animals would not eat. Now with the TMR, we can use more of the Loop load. We now feed all the produce, bakery, most of the dairy (milk and yogurt) and grocery, and some select frozen food items such as frozen french fries. We have gone from feeding 15-20 pounds of bakery items early on, to upwards of 500-600 pounds of grocery waste now, making up three per cent of the total ration for the cattle. Since we only pick up one day a week, the three per cent is only one to two days per week, depending on the size of the Loop load received.

When the pandemic initially began, our loads were considerably smaller. But as time went on, our loads became very erratic; some were exceptionally large while others were only a few boxes. When the loads were smaller, the cattle didn’t receive much and on the larger load days, we tried to keep the ration the same percentage. But instead of them receiving the Loop food in one or two days, they may have received it all week, for example.

Currently, our only challenge feeding the cattle Loop is when they are out on pasture. We have tried taking them “Loop treats” but they prefer green grass over bakery items. We have remedied this by partnering with a neighbour who has pigs for the summer. They are able to use in the summer what we would use for cattle feed in the winter.

When deciding what to feed the cattle, we are very careful to read labels on items we are unsure of. If there is ever a question of whether or not we should feed it due to potential contamination from meat or animal products, for example, we always err on the side of caution and avoid feeding it.

The average farm using Loop has three to 15 pigs, 20 to 150 chickens, three dogs and other miscellaneous farm animals. Our farm has greatly benefited from Loop. With this being our first winter of feeding Loop with the TMR, we noticed the yearling cattle had better weight gains this year and carcass fat than if they’d been on a grass-only diet.

Our biggest benefit from Loop is the money savings from purchasing feed for various animals around the farm. We’ve eliminated our barn cat food bill which was running us about $35 a month. Since the chickens receive various dairy products in their diet now, we no longer need to buy a layer protein supplement, which ran about $60 a month. The chickens still receive free-choice farm-raised grain but their intake is reduced — they used to eat four five-gallon pails of grain a week. Now 40 layers consume a pail or two a week.

In addition to the savings in feed, our farm is also helping to keep literally tons of waste out of the landfill. Along with the beverage containers, all the plastic packages, containers and clam-shell packages are taken to recycling locally.

The Loop is a fairly new concept in Alberta, starting in June 2018. There is talk of other grocers partnering with the concept and expansion into other provinces and territories. I enjoy participating in Loop and I’m excited to see a program that helps farms save money, prosper, grow and thrive.

Jill Burkhardt, her husband Kelly, and their three children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a range management degree from Montana State University. Burkhardt’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.

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