There are many ways to market your cattle today but for a growing number of producers dealing directly with the consumer makes a lot of sense.
Trails End Beef
“We are in southern Alberta, about an hour south of Calgary. This is great for us, because we have a huge market nearby for our beef — a city of over a million people,” Rachel says.
“My husband and I direct-market grass-fed beef. We started ranching in 2003 with my mom (Linda Loree) when she inherited her piece of the family ranch, about the same time Tyler and I got married. Then we acquired some land of our own.” Rachel and Tyler purchased their Parkland property (native grass prairie) in 2007 and rebuilt the infrastructure on that ranch for handling cattle during winter and for calving in the spring.
“My mom shipped calves conventionally the first year we were all ranching, and felt it didn’t work very well,” says Rachel. The calves had gone through stressful weaning and were then shipped off to market. Tyler, with his practical cowboy experience, thought the ethical solution might be raising grass-fed beef and keeping the cattle on the ranch until they were finished and slaughtered.
“So we started our grass-fed beef program. Since 2003 we’ve kept every animal to direct market ourselves. Our program has evolved and continued from that beginning, and now we process and direct market about 100 head each year,” she says.
Some of these are their own animals, and some are from the a7 Ranche. “We work in a partnership with John Cross on those animals. He was processing a handful of direct-market beef every year but that’s not his focus. He’s very busy with a large herd, and working with us worked out nicely for him as a way to market those grass-fed animals,” says Rachel.
“This allowed us to grow our customer base as we developed our own cow herd, since it takes a long time to get an animal finished on grass. Our partnership works out really well for both of us. John can continue to develop his grass-fed herd as well as his other cattle, and we take care of the marketing end of it,” she explains.
“Our herd base is Red and Black Angus with a little Hereford influence, and we use Black and Red Angus bulls. We cull selectively, to keep the genetics most efficient for grass-fed and quiet temperament. We ranch on a small scale and are handling these animals all the time. We move them frequently, with portable electric tape fencing, and we want them user-friendly. That quietness also makes for better beef,” she says.
“Working with the animals and the land is complementary. When we look after the animal welfare and look after the land, we get very high-quality beef from grass. Our cattle are quiet and easy to handle, and this works very well because we are also the ones who take them to the butcher.
“The night before they go to the butcher we gather them into a small holding field in our front yard. They walk right on the trailer because they think they are going to a new field of green grass; they are accustomed to trailer rides, and to us handling them.” There is nothing strange or different, and they are with their peer group — cattle they are familiar with and comfortable with — and away they go.
“We take a small sample cut of beef off every animal that’s butchered. Tyler and I are steak-tasting all through the year. These sample steaks are all labelled as to which animal they are from. We usually cook up about three at a time. We have a system for cooking them and do them exactly the same way every time, so we can compare them. We discuss the flavour, tenderness and the marbling — and everything about that steak. We take notes so we have a good idea about what we are producing, and which animals produced the best meat,” she says.
Customers learn about the Trails End meat program mainly by word of mouth, a website and social media presence. “I am not a computer expert but I managed to figure out how to build our website with a little bit of technical help,” Rachel says. The website is trailsendbeef.com and the ranch has an active Facebook page, as well.
Most of their beef is sold by the quarter, half or a whole carcass. “That’s how we shaped our marketing from the start and haven’t varied much. We don’t do farmers’ markets but we do an occasional special event, trade show or Christmas marketing. We just want to be able to move our product as the meat is processed. We only butcher seasonally when the animals are finished on grass — between July and October. During the winter the cattle are free-ranging out on pasture but we supplement them with really good-quality hay. Then they grow nicely again on spring grass. We butcher them between 26 and 29 months of age, so they are a year older than conventionally finished beef. They are done growing their frame by that time and are just putting on the pounds,” Rachel says.
She says the nice thing about having animals a little older at harvest is that they have more flavour than the young ones that are feedlot-finished more quickly.
“We met a high-profile chef at an event in Calgary and he wants to come out here with his own butcher. We do all our meat through the certified processing plant, but this chef wants to break the meat down with his own butcher. He wants to experiment with an even older animal — like four years of age. It will cost more (to keep the animal that long) but it’s great to see that chefs are recognizing the eating value of the older animal. They are willing to take some adventures with their food,” she says.
“Everything we raise here is pre-sold before it goes to the butcher and we’ve sold out every year. Our customers are mainly just families filling their freezers, but we also work with several chefs. Calgary has a strong food scene, with some progressive chefs who use our products to feature from time to time, or for a certain event. We don’t supply any restaurants on a daily basis, just on occasion when chefs want some top-end grass-fed beef to work with. This helps acquaint more people with our beef, and gives more credibility for the ranch,” she says.
“There was a really neat project in Alberta a couple years ago, called Cook It Raw. They had international chefs and Alberta chefs paired up, and took them all over Alberta, to have a back-to-the-land experience to create what they could wild source, forage or fish. The chefs used various Alberta products. Beef was one of them, and Saskatoon berries was another, and honey, etc. A couple chefs came out to our ranch for the beef segment to discuss where beef comes from and ask questions. They cooked some beef, as well. This segment is a video online,” Rachel says.
Big Bear Ranch
Rainer Krumsiek at Big Bear Ranch near Horsefly in central British Columbia started using Galloway bulls on Hereford-Angus cows about 15 years ago to produce grass-fed beef.
“Today we are able to finish cattle on grass in 24 to 30 months, partly due to the high plane of nutrition in our naturally grown forages, but also their genetics — as efficient cows,” he says.
The ranch has a growing base of customers for the beef, with more than 600 people on their email list. “In 2004 we started delivering house-to-house, and some of those customers are still with us. For the past 10 years, however, we’ve used designated meeting points where they pick up their order.”
“In the beginning we had a flat-deck trailer loaded with seven freezers, and it was a big mess if it was raining when we arrived in Vancouver to deliver the meat. We also needed 12 big freezers here at home because we only went three or four times a year,” he says. Now he is delivering meat every four weeks and has expanded his marketing territory into the Okanagan. Each trip takes about nine hours, but he has enough customers there to make it worth going the extra distance. Meat from the ranch is delivered on a route that covers Williams Lake, Cache Creek, Kamloops, Vernon, Winfield, Kelowna, Merritt, Hope, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Surrey, Burnaby, North Vancouver, Vancouver, Steveston and many other towns.
He also sells lamb and pork. The ranch raises heritage pigs (Tamworth and Large English Black crosses) that stay on pastures year-round except when farrowing. The sows stay in the barn in winter the first three to four weeks after farrowing.
“I have a Tamworth boar and a Large English Black boar and two sows from each breed. I cross them so all the pigs I sell are this F1 cross, which is supposed to grow better and faster,” he says. They live their entire lives free-ranging at pasture and are fed certified organic hog grower in addition to eating natural things they find while rooting. The lambs that are raised and sold as meat are a hair sheep cross and are also pasture-raised.
Selling lamb is easy. People who buy one generally want two or three the next year.
“The lambs for market are not very big because they are born in May and butchered in October or November. The hanging weight is only 30 to 50 pounds, so a lot of people want to buy more than one. All our customers who buy this meat tell us it’s the best lamb they ever had,” says Krumsiek. Word of mouth is generally the best advertisement.
“Most of our meat customers hear of us through recommendations and our webpage, and the main reason they want to buy from us is because of how we treat the animals. The Animal Welfare Approval (AWA) certification is more important to me than being certified organic because the AWA looks closely at what you are doing with your pastures and pasture management and also inspects the butcher facilities,” he says.
The AWA label is only given for meat and dairy products that come from farm animals raised with the highest animal welfare and environmental standards. This program was founded in 2006 as a market-based solution to the growing consumer demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals treated humanely with high standards, and managed with the environment in mind.
“With certified organic, you don’t do certain things, like pesticides. It’s more of what you don’t do than what you actually do. I think it should be more comprehensive — doing it better. You should be adding fertility to your soil and increasing the soil life so it is healthy. But the organic label doesn’t care about that, and doesn’t care about how you butcher your animals. They mainly tell you things like how many square feet you need per sow to be certified organic.” The Animal Welfare Approved label covers so much more, and many customers are more interested in this certification.
Several of his customers are nutritionists. “We sell a lot of meat to people who are knowledgeable about nutrition and eating what is best for them,” he says. Many of his customers are young families, who see the importance and the benefits of meat raised in this natural manner. Young families having kids care about what they eat, and are trying to learn about food. More and more people want to know what’s in their food, and want the health benefits of grass-fed beef — and prefer to buy it direct from the people who produce it.