Alberta’s sustainable ranchers compete with “Walmart” model

April 27, 2010

Troy Media Special Report: The food we eat- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

By Doug Firby
Managing Editor
Troy Media

CALGARY, AB, Apr. 26, 2010/ – Alberta is far and away the beef producing capital of Canada. Combined with its eastern neighbour, Saskatchewan, more than 70 per cent of the 15 million head of cattle in the country are raised here.

John Cross is part of Alberta’s beef-producing industry. On his 13,000 acre ranch, he raises 1,800 head. That’s a lot of land for relatively few cattle.

“If you’re going to try to get the most of their growth from grass, then you to have to have that much land,” says Cross.

With land like that, the cattle can graze on the native fescue grasses all year long – even in the dead of winter, when temperatures reach 40 below, even colder. Cross simply scrapes off some of the snow cover so his animals get their all-natural diet.

Stress-free animals yield tender beef

For these animals, the biggest worry is the occasional predator – cougars and wolves. If they avoid that fate, death is a relatively gentle experience. Animals are transported in low volumes to a local slaughterhouse, and kept in low-stress conditions. In addition to being treated more humanely, animals that die without stress are believed to yield more tender flesh.

Cross’s family pedigree is Triple-A. His grandfather, A.E. Cross, was one of the founding fathers of what is now a $26-billion industry. He also helped establish the world-famous Calgary Stampede – the world’s biggest annual celebration of ranching traditions.

But, unlike the overwhelming majority of his peers, Cross resisted the pressure to become a mass producer of beef based on what one rancher calls “the Wal-Mart model” –  the cheaper, no matter what the toll in human health and animal cruelty. As such, Cross is by some accounts on the leading edge of sustainable ranching; to others, on the competitive fringe. Organic beef produced by Cross and similar ranchers can cost up to double what mass-produced feedlot beef sells for, which means it’s there for what another rancher calls the WTPs – the wealthy “willing-to-pays”.

Although these ranchers are efficient, they find it hard to compete against mass-producers. On the world stage, Canada’s herd of 14.7 million head is dwarfed by US cattle production, which sits around 97 million. But even the US is well behind Brazil – which has a herd of an astonishing 165 million head. Only India, where cows are sacred, has more of these animals, with 281 million.

Canada‘s controversial “feedlot alley”

Such world competition has forced Canada to adapt controversial practices. One stretch of highway in the southern part of the province, for example, is known as “feedlot alley”, where as many as 15,000 animals per operation are crammed into tiny pens, force-fed food and antibiotics, before being shipped hundreds of miles to die in a factory-style slaughterhouse.

Federal and provincial governments have responded aggressively to this trend, each with animal health acts that attempt to curb the distress caused by transportation to slaughterhouses. Even so, of the 400 animals shipped to market every day in Alberta, some travel as many as 2,000 kilometres to slaughterhouses in Washington State and Idaho.

The middle-ground “hybrid” model

Even within Alberta’s beef industry, all-natural ranchers like Cross are viewed with scepticism. Other ranchers have adopted a hybrid model, embracing the best of the organic movement while still trying to maintain economies of scale. One example is the Kotelko family, third-generation ranchers in central Alberta who run a conventional large scale feedlot, while at the same time developing a parallel business in which animals are raised in humane conditions, not given growth hormones or antibiotics, and are just short of organic.

To have all feed certified as pesticide free, “You’d have to say you grew your feed in a biodome,” quips Kirstin Kotelko, who markets the Spring Creek brand of antibiotic-free meat in co-operation with her father, Bern Kotelko.

Unlike Cross’s 1,800 cattle on 13,000 acres, the Kotelkos have 30,000 cattle on about 6,000 acres – a vastly more efficient use of space. Still, they make the most of the space, ensuring the cattle spend the critical first two-thirds of their lives on open pasture, and even ensuring there are no more than 200 cattle within a typical 100 X 100-metre pen – much more spacious than the industry standard.

Low-stress animals get sick less often  

They believe – and their experience supports the notion – that animals in low stress situations get sick a lot less often. Most will never need antibiotics, and if they do they are moved into the conventional herd.

“They’re happy cattle,” says father, Bern. “They respond to ideal growing conditions. We give them lots of room to move around.”

Big markets tend not to care about happy cattle, and Bern says the pressure to keep cutting costs is relentless. Even so, says Kirstin, “We know we can’t be the low-cost producer.”

Instead, the family has responded by finding other ways to generate revenues. They’ve created their own bio-refinery, which turns manure into a fossil fuel. They already generate enough electricity to meet their own needs, and sell excess back into the provincial grid. Eventually, they expected to produce five megawatts of power – enough to power the 6,000 residents in the nearby town of Vegreville.

“We like to think of ourselves as a smart, clean agri-business,” says Bern. “What makes good sense to the modern farmer also makes sense to environmental sustainability.”

While the business models are at odds, these Alberta ranchers have shown there is an alternative to brutal factory-farm practices.

Troy Media Special Report: The food we eat- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Channels: The Calgary Beacon, April 28, 2010

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