Sustainable beef pilot moving up to the next level

With more than a thousand ranchers and feedlots on board, the challenge is making the operation itself sustainable


A shot of federal funding for Verified Beef Production Plus will help make the running of the sustainable beef program itself more sustainable — while improving it for participating producers.

The $602,000 federal grant will help the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot take a step up and become an ongoing program, said Shannon Argent, business manager for VBP+.

Shannon Argent.
photo: Supplied

“We’re seeing such an increased demand (for certified sustainable beef) and we don’t want to increase our costs dramatically to provide the resources that we need to,” said Argent.

“So that’s why this funding will enable us to automate some processes to enable us to meet that demand.”

The money will be used to improve the organization’s database to ensure it can converse with a third party.

“There’s nothing like it and we’ve built it from the ground up,” said Argent.“We’re making sure all our infrastructure is in place to be able to deliver what we need to for our sustainable beef initiatives.”

Participants in the pilot must be audited by VBP+ (or a third-party organization called Where Food Comes From) to become certified and show they are meeting the protocols developed by the Canadian Sustainable Beef Roundtable.

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The information on who is certified (a group that also includes backgrounders, feedlots, and others) must all be put in a database and the flow of cattle through the system tracked. The database links producers’ information (with their permission) with a third-party chain of custody provider such as the Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS).

“We can communicate the status of producers with the audit cycle so that when they’re saying that the cattle are passing through the chain of custody, we can validate the status of producers and where these cattle are coming from,” said Argent.

The database has been built through investments that the organization has been able to leverage through government grants.

But with about 1,000 cow-calf producers, backgrounders and feedlots participating in the program, that’s a lot of data to keep track of. This has made automation of some of those processes increasingly critical, she said.

Her organization will also be looking at best management practices for sustainability protocols so they can be incorporated into training to ensure both producers and certification services are getting the best value.

The pilot program began in 2017 when Cargill provided a critical piece of the puzzle — agreeing to process cattle certified under the sustainable beef program separately so the beef could be tracked through its plant and on to customers. The following year, producers enrolled in the pilot began receiving payments — ranging from $10 to just over $20 a head.

That sparked more interest in the program, said Argent.

“There’s been an increase in producers that want to be certified on VBP+ to access these programs,” she said.

Since VBP+ is a certification body for the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, producers who go through it are automatically certified.

“We’re trying to split the services we provide,” said Argent. “The audit delivery services — that’s how we help producers contribute to the certified sustainable chain. And then our training is another portion of what we do where we can help producers be able to access resources to be able to tell their sustainability story and become certified.”

Producers pay to take the VBP+ program (the cost varies by province) but grants have been key to creating the system, she added.

“We also have to make a self-sustaining program. We’re using these government grants as leverage to make sure we can automate where feasible and lower audits costs.”

To be part of VBP+, producers take the training and are audited the first year. In the second year, they have a record assessment. The third year is a self-declaration, and they go up for a renewed audit on the fifth year.

“This meets the needs of our end users,” said Argent.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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