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Finding opportunity in sustainability

From a cow-calf operation in Alberta to a feedlot in Ontario, these beef producers are finding benefits in becoming certified sustainable

The Van Osch family market most of their cattle to Cargill’s facility in Guelph, Ont.

It’s the “right thing to do” for the Van Osch family at their feedlot, and so they belong to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) program. 

The Blairs do it for the future of the Canadian beef industry. 

Both farms exemplify the kind of commitment seen all across Canada to raising beef sustainably. Becoming a certified partner in the CRSB gives credit for what’s already being done, and helps share the story of Canadian beef. 

Van Osch Farms is located near Mount Carmel, in the fertile ground of southwestern Ontario, so it’s not surprising the farm’s core principle states land is their most precious resource. The third-generation enterprise now involves five active family members who live the vision, as they produce finished cattle for the market. 

“It is the base of the farming structure,” says Fred Van Osch, one of two brothers now forming the senior generation on the farm. “Without the land base and keeping the soil rich, you can’t build a feedlot. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be here.” 

One of the largest beef operations in Ontario with a feeding capacity of 7,500 head, the operation will expand by another 4,000 when a newly constructed barn is fully operational. Van Osch Farms markets primarily to Cargill’s Guelph, Ont. facility, one of the newest CRSB certified processors. 

Manure management is a top priority, with enough capacity to store the feedlot manure all year long. Spreading can then be limited to the summer, and worked right into the wheat stubble, for maximum nutrient effectiveness. 

Animal care is another pillar of both the family’s approach and the CRSB Certification Standards. While their stock is kept in barns, the setup is unique because within each pen is the freedom to go inside or outside. 

“They have feed and water on both sides,” explains Brendon, Fred’s son. 

“It’s like Club Med — all you can eat and all you can drink!” says his cousin Kurtis, chuckling. 

The innovative design enables more square footage per animal, and makes it easier for pen cleaning. Grooved cement floors also mean less slippage for the animals. 

“We think we get the best gains and feed conversions out of the cattle because our goal is to keep them relaxed and calm, and give them the best care possible. When you’re happy, you eat and sleep more,” says Brendon. 

“Our design cost a bit more to build, but like the manure storage, we feel it’s the right and best thing to do,” he adds. 

With nearly ten thousand acres in crop production (mainly corn, but also winter wheat, soybeans, kidney and white beans), the family bales all their straw, plus purchases extra, to bed pens every ten days. 

“With the air and bedding quality, it goes back around to the circle of the quality animal. We feel it’s the best fit to get the pens cleaned out on a regular basis and have access to fresh straw.” 

Van Osch Farms (vanoschfarms.com) had gone through the certification process with VBP+. When the Ontario Corn Fed Beef Quality Assurance program became recognized by CRSB, they transferred there. Because of the records in place with their consulting firm, Feedlot Health Services, audits are a simple process, with paper- work and information they needed already at their fingertips. 

Sourcing most of their calves from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Van Osches tell their order buyers to look for certified calves. But they’re in short supply. 

“We’d prefer calves raised under the CRSB program so all can get the benefit. We need more cow-calf operators to sign on and to let people know they are certified,” says Brendon. “They need some kind of “WhatsApp” for beef farmers to communicate with one another!” 

Turning rugged, non-arable land into pounds of beef is what Alison and Aaron Blair are doing in central Alberta’s parkland. Surrounded by farmland, the hills their cows graze are where the glaciers stopped, leaving rocks behind. While crops can’t grow there, grass and trees thrive on the pastures southeast of Red Deer, although fencing can be a challenge. 

As Aaron began to take the reins from his father Merv Blair, he was working as a welder and ranching after hours, while he and Alison started their family. Now he’s at home full time, but with three young boys, and 200 head of cows, it’s a busy place. 

“We just worked so hard, because that’s what we wanted in the future, so we just kept moving forward,” says Aaron. “We probably didn’t stop and take enough time to think about what people want.” 

“Ultimately, we’re making food, but I think you get lost in your farm, and it’s very easy to not think about the end goal,” adds Alison. 

With her mom, Deb Wilson, being a council member for CRSB, Alison heard all about the program. Five years ago, Red Deer County hosted a VBP+ certification course. She and Aaron signed up to become VBP+ certified. Much to their relief, the audit process was not so daunting. 

“Once we looked at everything, we were doing a lot of the stuff already. It was just the paperwork that had to be done,” Aaron recalls. 

“Primarily it’s just good practice,” adds Alison. “It covers all bases. It goes over land management, chemical usage, herd management.” 

The Blairs say it wasn’t a hard decision for them to get certified. 

“I think you need to be forward-moving, and forward-thinking. At one of the conferences we were at, someone said ‘You can either get on the bus of change, or you can get hit by it.’ It really stuck with me,” says Alison. 

“People want a label. They want more information. Consumers want more of a story. The more transparency the better.” 

Managing grass is Aaron’s passion as he spends his time listening to podcasts, learning how to improve productivity with techniques such as rotational grazing, swath grazing, growing corn or using straw bunches. Their cattle breeding program is gradually moving towards a more efficient-sized cow. 

The Blairs credit the audit process with helping increase their management awareness. 

“Sustainability sums up a farmer’s whole mode of operation because if we are not sustainable, that’s the end of our farm,” says Alison. “It’s essentially the main goal of most farmers to create a legacy, especially if you have children who seem to want to farm. Also, there’s a love of the land and respect for the land like no other.” 

“I think farmers have been humble and private for so many years, it’s not in their nature to tell their story, so you don’t know how good a job you’re doing.” 

Both Van Osch Family Farm and the Blair Land and Cattle Company have ventured into marketing their beef locally. While it’s a learning curve dealing with consumers, the feedback has been encouraging. 

“Customers tell us, ‘Wow, haven’t had such good quality beef in a very long time,’” says Brendon Van Osch, who also is supplying a nearby high-end restaurant. 

“Blairzy Beef ” is developing a following through Facebook and Kijiji for the Blairs. 

“The gate-to-plate is a neat concept — it’s really cool to have your friends and family, and even people you don’t know, eating your beef and messaging you saying ‘This is the best steak I’ve ever had’,” says Alison. 

“Sustainability is not going away. We have to acknowledge it, and embrace it. It’s an opportunity for us to not become obsolete. If we don’t have a voice, some- one will put words in our mouth,” she says. 

“It’s the way we were raised, the way we believe is right for the land and the environment,” says Brendon. “It takes time, effort and money, but we like to see we’re doing the right thing.” 

To learn more about the certification process, visit the CRSB website or check out any of the approved certification bodies such as verifiedbeef.ca, ontariocornfedbeef.com or wfcfcanada.ca.

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