One of the advantages of direct marketing is receiving feedback through direct contact with the people who will be eating your product. Colleen and Dylan Biggs have been marketing ranch-finished beef and other meat products from their east-central Alberta ranch since 1995, and listening to their customers.
About five years ago, they recognized there was a growing interest from consumers in buying meat products produced under proper animal welfare practices.
Feedlots, hot iron branding and subtherapeutic use of antibiotics were some of their customers’ concerns, says Colleen, who along with her husband and family operate the three-generation TK Ranch near Hanna. What consumers would really like to see, they were telling her, would be a third-party audit that verified proper production practices were being followed.
While the Biggs have been pioneers in the area of proper animal welfare and handling practices for years, about four years ago, they decided it was important to have their farming operation certified for their livestock production practices. They looked at several certifiers but chose to go with U.S.-based Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) organization because it best fit their needs and the needs of their customers.
“It’s all about building your own little value chain,” says Biggs. “I’m listening to my customers and giving them what they’re asking for. ”
At the same time the Biggs are reinforcing their own values about proper livestock production practices. The 10,000 acre TK Ranch was the first farm business to achieve the Animal Welfare Approved Grassfed certification for their beef and lamb.
Necessity led to direct marketing
TK Ranch was established more than 50 years ago by Dylan’s father Thomas Biggs. Buying land in the sometimes harsh, shortgrass prairie country of Alberta’s special areas, he developed over the years a strong interest in following sound conservation farming and livestock production practices.
As his son, Dylan became interested in carrying on the ranching business, he further developed his business and conservation farming management skills by learning about and then practicing the principles of holistic management. It was a good match when Dlyan and Colleen later met and married, as she had a keen interest in proper care and management of the environment as well.
“For a long time we had been aware of the problems created with the industrialization of agriculture and its effects on animal welfare, wildlife, water and health,” says Colleen on the ranch website. “But in the early 1990s the realities of a globally focused food system forced us to make some hard decisions. We had done everything we could to decrease our costs of production but we were still losing money.”
With three small children and Dylan working 14 hours a day to manage the ranch, they considered options to make extra income. An off-farm job was one possibility, but they also began to consider value-added opportunities.
The most promising “option was to add value to what we were already doing and take control of our own marketing,” says Biggs. “Instead of being defeated by the conventional commodity-based system, we decided to create an alternative to the mainstream. It didn’t take us long to fully understand that the only way to make change in agriculture was to become the change itself.”
They were one of the first ranching operations to develop a direct-marketing system for ranch-raised beef. Over the years they have diversified into other classes of livestock including hogs, sheep and poultry — all for direct marketing.
As part of their program they follow proper livestock practices, which has now led to the Animal Welfare Approved certification. It all fits with their farming philosophy and natural-product direct marketing program.
Farms and ranches that are audited and approved by the organization can use the Animal Welfare Approved food label for meat and dairy products. It tells consumers certain standards have been met in the production of the product. There is no cost for the voluntary certification process.
Farms are audited at least once a year to make sure they are adhering to the AWA standards pertaining to feed, shelter, vet care and other criteria. For example, in the standards for cattle, animals must first be chosen with consideration of their ability to thrive in the climatic conditions of the farm, such as a pasture-based, free-range outdoor systems.
Artificial insemination is permitted, but embryo transfer is not. Vaccines are encouraged to prevent illness and the transfer of illness but the subtherapeutic and/or non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, or any other medicines, to control or prevent disease or to promote growth is prohibited, as are growth hormones. Probiotics are permitted.
Herbicides and pesticides may only be used when weeds or pests cannot be practically controlled by other means. Animals must not be grazed or kept on land within 21 days of direct application of herbicides or pesticides.
The program requires fairly extensive record-keeping. These include records of an animal health plan, an emergency plan, sales records, feed and nutrition plans, records of ingredients of feed for each class of stock, a pasture-management plan, records of any confinements and many more.
The annual inspection is quite rigorous, says Biggs. She describes how one inspector used a tape measure and painstakingly measured each hog enclosure to make sure it was large enough to comply with AWA standards.
TK Ranch program
The Biggs raise cattle, sheep and pigs according to AWA standards. They’ll be farrowing about 40 Duroc/Berkshire-cross sows this summer. They have 140 Rambouillet/Columbia cross ewes. They also raise chickens and turkeys but because of Alberta’s cold winters they are not raised outdoors so are not AWA certified.
Cattle numbers run up to 1,000 head and include calves up to 30 months of age. Strictly grass-fed cattle must go through two winters and be 24-30 months at time of slaughter. “They really need that extra winter to develop interstitial fat,” says Biggs.
The cows calve on pasture in May and June. Calves remain with their mothers until eight months of age when they are “soft weaned.” The cows are separated from the calves, moved next door so to speak, where they can still be seen and heard and even have nose-to-nose contact but are unable to nurse.
Dehorning is not permitted. Bull calves are castrated with bands applied within the first week. Biggs says castrating within minutes of birth seems to be the least stressful for the calves. “If you wait two weeks, calves kick at their bellies,” she says. They’re noticing discomfort.”
Customers place and pay for their meat orders at the TK Ranch online store. After the animals are slaughtered and custom processed they are brought back to freezers on the ranch. Colleen and her daughter truck the meat to specified locations for pickup in Calgary three times a month and Edmonton once a month. They also sell their product at nine retail outlets in Alberta.
In co-operation with a U.S. company, the Biggs are developing a non-chemical insecticide. It’s a product that can be mixed with mineral or canola oil and it works quite well, says Biggs.
“Everything we do is in response to what our customers are telling us,” she says. “And they’re telling us they don’t want these products (commercial pesticides) in their meat.”