True North to offer greener pastures for grass-fed beef

The processor is setting the foundations for a grass-fed program targeting cull cows and bulls

The processor is setting the foundations for a grass-fed program targeting cull cows and bulls

Manitoba’s only federally certified beef plant is on the hunt for animals that have never tasted grain.

Carman-based True North Foods is on the road to becoming a supplier of grass-fed beef for an as-of-yet unnamed, major client. That client recently approached company owner Calvin Vaags with the request.

A new program from True North Foods promises to add a new, premium-included, marketing option for grass-fed cull cows and bulls.

There are still details of the deal to hammer out, Duane Vaags of True North Foods said. While he could not name the potential client, Vaags said only that the request came from, “a large retail chain customer” located “across Canada.”

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In the meantime, he and True North have started laying groundwork for a program to supply that meat. Vaags has recently spent his time reaching out directly to producers who might be eligible, gauging interest, and putting the word out to the larger cattle sector, including a plug at this year’s round of Manitoba Beef Producers district meetings.

“We’ve got to get this going, just due to the nature of the cattle cycle,” he said. “Most of these farmers are preg checking and sorting these cows out, so they’re getting ready to market these cattle, but the customer — we’re still finalizing a few details here and there.”

For the purposes of True North Foods, “grass fed” means an animal raised only on silage, hay, pasture or, “any forage that does not contain starch from cereal grain or corn and was not contained to a feedlot/grain-fed system.”

True North Foods is now actively on the hunt for producers who might be interested in marketing their grass-fed cull cows and bulls. Vaags himself recently spoke with about 50 producers across the Prairies, Ontario and as far as B.C., although he noted sourcing from those more far-flung regions would come with logistical challenges.

“Obviously, Manitoba is the easiest, but we’re going to have to go into Saskatchewan/Alberta in the long term to hopefully supply this market,” Vaags said.

Producers coming into the program can expect a 20-cent premium, based on dressed hanging weight, according to True North Foods. The plant hopes to build up from about 40-50 cattle in the first kill week, Vaags said, although it’s not yet clear how much beef will eventually flow through the program once fully up and running.

Recruiting

While producer interest has been “fantastic,” according to Vaags, there’s little data on exactly how many Manitoba producers can tap into the program.

Grass fed is something the Manitoba Beef Producers hears about “here and there,” general manager Carson Callum said, but the producer group does not have hard numbers on how many of its members might be eligible for the program.

“It’s definitely becoming almost a buzzword, you could say, in the media, but it depends,” he said. “There’s a lot of different production systems across the province in relation to the beef sector, but we know folks are looking at this strategy as well.”

The program will, however, be a rare local option in a landscape where marketing for grass-fed beef has been scarce on the ground.

Aaron Nerbas, who runs a grass-fed herd near Shellmouth, says most options for cull cows are either an order buyer or the standard auction mart. Options like Alberta-based Top Grass Cattle Company do offer grass-fed marketing, and similarly offer a premium, he noted, although freight can quickly become prohibitive, unless the producer is sending a full load of cattle.

“We qualify, so if we can get a premium and the freight isn’t counterproductive, then it makes sense for us to try something like that, for sure, rather than the traditional commodity market,” he said of the True North Foods program. “In the commodity market we’re the same as everybody else, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but an additional premium of ‘x’ amount a head is always welcome.”

Grass-fed backlash

For some conventional grain-fed beef producers, however, the program’s welcome has been less warm.

News of the program sparked social media posts, with some producers referencing well-broadcast restaurant chain ads on hormone-free and grass-fed beef, many of which have caused consternation among the sector. Others questioned the commonly cited marketing messages behind grass-fed beef, which often portray it as either tasting better, more environmentally sound or healthier, all statements that can and have left conventional beef producers feeling attacked.

Others, meanwhile, posed questions on how the “no starch” claims would be verified.

Callum, however, argued for a more live-and-let-live approach to the debate.

“It’s another option for producers to be able to market their particular business model,” he said. “There’s a lot of different ways to raise beef and a lot of different ways to market your animals and no way is better than the other in our mind.

“Having more options is not a bad thing,” he added.

Vaags, likewise, racked the debate up to personal preference.

“People get a little hot under the collar, a little expressive when they see something and they disagree with it, but my personal experience so far has been excellent,” he said. “All the producers have been very positive.”

Future

While the program is good news for producers with qualifying bulls or cull cows, it will give little ground for producers yearning to market prime animals.

While Nerbas is more involved in breeding stock than commercial beef, his farm does market the bottom half of each calf crop. Currently, those market-bound calves head to the standard auction mart.

The True North Foods program, targeted as it is to cull cows and bulls, won’t improve the market options for those calves or any finished animals, at least not yet.

“I don’t know what the future’s going to hold,” Vaags said. “Are we going to be able to market grass-fed beef into the local grocery stores and the restaurant trade with your typical slaughter-age animal?… I don’t know. But my hope is that this program will kind of build the framework, set the groundwork so that we can do that in the future.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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