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Branding their product based on environmental factors pays off

So just how much will consumers pay for food that is marketed based on sustainability? It is likely a question being asked by a growing number of producers thinking of marketing their product based on environmental image, animal health or food safety.

Count central Alberta rancher Irene Rutledge and her husband Pat among those producers who have long believed that a premium market exists for food produced under specific standards. Their operation, Rutledge Ranching (Monitor), a third-generation ranch east of Consort, Alberta, is part of the Prairie Heritage Beef Producers (PHBP) value chain. The PHBP is a group of cattle producers who market their product based on their adherence to specific environmental and food safety standards in the growing process.

As a PHBP producer, one of Rutledge’s responsibilities includes meeting with consumers at retail outlets that sell PHBP beef. In the process, consumers have told her that her practices have made a difference in their food-buying habits. One example is a woman in Victoria who, despite not having eaten meat in years, said she was starting again because PHBP beef was available.

For Rutledge, that kind of feedback is the result of years of keeping an open mind about ranching practices, embracing ongoing education, and learning new ways to connect with customers. “There are always new ways of doing things,” she says. “If they drive new practices that are more economical and help us grow better beef, it means dollars in our pockets.”

WHAT THEY’VE DONE

If one had just a few words to describe the business philosophy of Rutledge Ranching (Monitor), it may very well be “progress through ongoing education.” Training in holistic resource management and the “Ranching for Profit” course are among the many educational initiatives Pat and Irene have taken part in over the years.

As a result of their participation in PHBP, they have also completed their own Environmental Farm Plan and have become certified in the Verified Beef Production program, the Canadian beef industry’s on-farm food safety program. Further strengthening their marketing efforts is their certification in the Food Alliance program, a North American group marketing effort that requires specific standards of environmental stewardship, animal welfare, and several other sustainable agricultural and business practices.

Besides profitability, a driver behind these efforts has been a desire to use their land in a more environmentally sustainable way. “We want to leave our land in better shape, or at least in as good a shape as it was when we took it over, for future generations,” says Irene. Here are some of the things they’ve done.

Cut back on stocking rate. Balancing a pasture’s stocking rate with its ability to regenerate is key to maintaining plant vigour, preserving soil health, and managing weed growth. The Rutledges cut back on the stocking rate on their operation a few years ago. Because their operation is located in a dry area of the province where it can take a long time for pastures to regenerate, this also helps them get more value out of their grazing resources.

Pump water to pasture. The Rutledges pump water for their cattle to waterers located in the pasture. This practice helps protect water bodies and other sensitive areas from potential animal damage to stream banks and contamination from manure run-off.

No more pens. The Rutledges no longer use pens to manage their cattle in the wintertime, choosing instead to bed and feed their cattle on pasture. Not only does this practice extend their grazing season and, as a result, add more nutrients to the soil, but it is also a less labour-intensive process. Shelterbelts are used to both protect the animals from the elements and help control soil erosion by protecting it from wind and water.

Let nature do the work. Over the course of their ongoing education, the Rutledges have developed an appreciation for the role their land’s natural attributes play in their ranching practices and how to protect these attributes.

An example of these is the dung beetle. The primary benefit of dung beetles is their role in breaking down manure and recycling the nutrients in the soil. However, over time, exposure to commercial fertilizers and chemicals can reduce their population. The Rutledges had been using insecticides to fight warble fly but have switched to cydectin, a product they say is less harmful to dung beetles. “Ultimately, it’s better for the soil and better for the ecosystem overall,” says Irene.

No commercial fertilizers or herbicides. The Rutledges do not use any commercial fertilizers – their rotational grazing system provides all of the natural fertilization their pastures need. They also do not use any herbicides to manage weeds in their pastures. “We don’t have much water running at the best of times in this area, but we do our best not to put it at risk of contamination from the use of fertilizer or herbicides,” says Irene.

MORE INFORMATION ONENVIRONMENTAL FARM PLANS

Developing their own Environmental Farm Plan, a tool which helps producers identify environmental strengths and weaknesses on their operations, was a driver in the Rutledges’ success. Thousands of Alberta farmers and ranchers have already completed an Environmental Farm Plan since the program’s introduction in the province in 2002. Participation in the program comes with access to technical assistance that can help producers make decisions on how to make the changes identified in their plan.

More information on the Environmental Farm Plan program or workshops in Alberta is available by calling the Alberta Environmental Farm Plan Company toll-free line in Alberta at 1-866-844-2337. General information is also available at www.AlbertaEFP.com.

Article courtesy of Meristem Land & Science, Calgary, AB. Phone 403-543-7420 or visit their Web site atwww.meristem.com.

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