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Ontario’s outstanding young farmers

Cory and Heidi Van Groningen have built their well-established southwest Ontario beef operation around the long-standing agricultural axiom “produce what the customer wants.”

The Van Groningens not only raise good quality cattle on their 400 head cross-bred cow-calf operation, but along with family members they see those animals through to processing, retail and consumer levels as well.

In a world of major food retailers, “I guess we are just trying to do something a little different,” says Cory who along with wife Heidi operate Hillview Farms at Cayuga about an hour south of Hamilton, and about two hours east of London, Ontario.

Their commitment to running a well-managed operation earned them the honor of being named Ontario Outstanding Young Farmers regional winners for 2012.

The Van Groningens focus on producing beef for their own family retail market. It was Cory’s grandfather, Case, and later his father, Wayne, who built and operated the first abattoir and custom slaughter business in the early 1970s.

Today, Cory and his three brothers continue the vertically integrated pasture-to-plate operation. Over the past 10 years Cory and Heidi have focused on the beef production side of the business; brother Kyle is in charge of the retail and cutting; Kevin handles food safety, quality assurance and product development; and Chad focuses on sales and market development.

Along with the abattoir the family has also developed a thriving retail business. They have two retail outlets known as VG Meats (which stands for Very Good Meats). One store is located at the abattoir at Simcoe and they opened a new retail location last year at Stoney Creek, a community on the southeast side of Hamilton. Along with regular retail business, they also supply meats to restaurants, other meat shops and are developing a market for meat in public-sector facilities such as hospitals and institutions.

All market cattle produced at Hillview Farms are sold through their own retail/wholesale system. “We produce about 50 per cent of the meat we market and the rest we source from other local producers,” says Cory. “We like to buy local and from other producers who have the same approach to production as we do.” Along with beef they also source and sell pork, poultry, lamb and veal as well as processed products such as ham, bacon, and beef jerky, and a number of meal-ready dishes.

The Van Groningens haven’t gone for full organic certification, but they do produce cattle — finished in an on-farm feedlot, as naturally as possible, without the use of growth-promoting hormones..

“Our goal is to produce a natural product, and we really focus on producing good quality and tender beef,” says Cory. “We pay very close attention to the genetics we use in our cattle, but it also means paying close attention on the processing side — the chilling, aging and professional cutting.”

Cory’s research for his master’s degree focused on the retail traits for selecting beef sires. He says they are continually evaluating the genetic side of their cattle operation, as well as processing techniques to ensure quality and tenderness.

With the cow-calf operation the main cowherd is Black Angus-crossed Simmental and Limousin bulls. Calves are raised on grass before being brought into the feedlot for finishing on a grain-based ration. At processing, whole carcasses are dry-aged for 14 days and then the carcass is broken and aged further depending on end-use markets or customer specifications.

“Producing quality, tender meat, aged to customer specifications is where we try to set ourselves apart from other shops and larger meat retailers,” he says.

Sample meat cuts from their own cattle are evaluated at the University of Guelph. “We need to always be evaluating what we are doing, because you can’t make changes in a beef operation over night,” says Cory.

Ongoing evaluation of herd genetics, and expanding their retail reach with a new store in 2011 have helped the Van Groningens develop a wider market for quality beef.

“You always have to stay on your toes,” Cory says. “We need to keep making improvements with herd genetics to improve production efficiency, and we need to learn more about pasture management to improve grazing efficiency. We are always evaluating to make sure we are on the right track.” †

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