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Alberta duo spots opportunity lying beneath their (horses’) feet

Wood shavings isn’t the most exciting product but horses love it and Alberta produces it in abundance

A Sherwood Park-area mother and son knew horses love wood shavings for bedding, and when they discovered that Alberta sawmills generate an abundant supply, they saw an opportunity to play matchmaker.

Donna and Alex von Hauff, who operate Strathcona Ventures, have since expanded into a variety of health, dust control, and non-wood-related products for both horses and humans.

But spruce-pine-fir (SPF) wood shavings for animal bedding remains their main focus and their market extends well beyond horses to include a wide array of livestock — supplying horse stables throughout North America and Asia along with dairy, poultry, and cattle operations as well as the greenhouse and resource industries.

The von Hauffs’ leap from horse enthusiasts to suppliers to the equine industry is exactly what the province is hoping to encourage, said Toso Bozic, a bioenergy and forestry specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

“Alberta’s forest industry generates high volumes of waste products like wood shavings,” said Bozic. “We can help interested Albertans investigate the potential of these waste materials, and develop business plans around finding customers for them, just like what Strathcona Ventures has done.”

The von Hauffs have learned a lot since starting their business in 2010, with the most important lesson being that venturing into the wood shavings market is not for the faint of heart. The business, they say, is a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface.

For example, their clients typically have very precise requirements, but the quality of wood shavings varies widely and ranges from sawdust size to material the size of a toonie.

“It’s sort of like wine,” said Alex von Hauff. “Some people like wine out of the box and some people won’t touch it unless it is $150 a bottle.”

That was a big part of the learning curve — recognizing that each sawmill generates a certain wood-shaving dimension depending on its planer, the size of lumber being manufactured, and the species of wood being processed. The von Hauffs source from several sawmills and they’ve become experts in knowing who can supply what and when.

“The wood shavings that they generate don’t have to be great, just consistent,” said von Hauff, adding he and his mother work through a shavings procurement broker who is very well acquainted with their needs.

Alberta is a good market because it can provide the volume that Strathcona Ventures needs but relationships with suppliers is the key to creating a successful animal-bedding business, he said.

Their broker conducts detailed interviews with prospective sawmill suppliers to determine the quality, quantity, and accessibility to the wood shavings, but the von Hauffs have to be constantly monitoring supply in a business that can easily become a logistical nightmare.

Although they would love to have long-term supply contracts, the nature of the sawmill business usually precludes that, said von Hauff. And the business of buying wood shavings can be “cutthroat” and organizing the transportation of bagged or bulk wood shavings is highly stressful, he said.

They provide primarily a bagged product because it stores well and produces much less waste than a bulk product, said Donna von Hauff.

The business is just one example of how agriculture can use waste products generated by Alberta’s wood industry, said Bozic, adding he’d be happy to talk to anyone who has any ideas for other opportunities. He can be reached at 780-415-2681 or [email protected].

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