For fourth-generation rancher Rachel Herbert, raising hormone- and antibiotic-free beef is different, but not abnormal.
“All the stuff we’re doing isn’t abnormal,” Herbert says of the grass-fed, grass-finished beef operation she and her husband Tyler operate near Nanton. “Most ranchers are following really excellent protocols and doing a lot of the same things we’re doing. We’re just hormone and antibiotic free and grain-free as well.”
The Herberts decided to take a different approach to their operation when they began establishing their own cow herd at Trail’s End Ranch eight years ago.
“My husband understood that starting from scratch with a small herd, you just don’t do as well at the auction if you’re only putting a handful of cattle in,” she said. “It just made sense to build from the ground up and go value added.”
Different management practices
This type of beef production requires a different mindset — and a bit of patience. Unlike beef that finish in a feedlot, the Herberts have their cattle on a forage and hay-based diet, which takes about a year longer to reach a high-quality beef stage.
“We butcher everything when they’re over two years old,” said Herbert. “They grow their frame all winter, and in that second winter, they get really big, and then they get on the grass in the summer and really thrive. They’re nicely marbled and finished that way, without any hormones.”
The Herberts also forgo antibiotics, within reason. “If anything gets sick, we treat it,” she said. Any cattle treated with antibiotics are removed from the commercial sales and used by family and friends.
To keep their herd healthy, the Herberts vaccinate well in advance of weaning using the three-step Pfizer Gold program. Their management practices are designed to prevent illness as well, through the herd’s forage-based diet, non-confinement, and cross-fence weaning.
“Reducing the situations that can cause illness is what we do,” said Herbert. And many years, she says, nothing gets sick.
More work, but more reward
Because some of the inputs are reduced, Herbert believes it probably costs about the same to produce hormone- and antibiotic-free beef as it does to produce traditional beef, despite the extra year it takes to finish each animal.
“There is a lot more time invested in each of these animals, and there’s a whole extra winter of wintering and haying,” she said. “But if you look at the price of grain, that’s a huge cost for getting conventional beef ready for finish. I think it probably evens out.”
Marketing the beef is where the real work comes in. “That’s the work that most cattle people don’t do, that extra little bit of marketing,” Herbert said.
The Herberts rely on word of mouth, social media and their website to increase their sales, and so far, it seems to be working. Their customers pay for butchering and buy products in bulk at a small premium over beef in the supermarket — an added advantage of marketing beef directly.
“We are getting a premium for all our beef, and we can set the price, so we know every year what we’re going to make,” Herbert said. “We’re not just waiting for fluctuations in the market.”
Producing and marketing their beef this way has also made the family more aware of the final product.
“We actually get to see and hear about, and consume the final product. We know from birth all the way to the carcass what kind of quality of cattle we’re producing,” Herbert said.
That knowledge helps with changing genetics, culling, and seeing how their management practices are working.
And their customers appreciate that traceability as well. More and more, they are interested in being better connected to where their food comes from, a trend Herbert thinks will continue.
“People are actively looking for grass-fed, grass-finished beef,” she said. “It’s a good way for people to feel connected to the whole process and to their ranch.”
This interest in primary food production was also behind A&W’s recent announcement that it would be transitioning to hormone-free beef, according to Susan Senecal, chief marketing officer for A&W.
“As we started looking at consumer behaviour and preferences, Canadians have more and more interest in the food that they eat,” she said. “We discovered that beef raised without steroids or hormones was of huge interest to them, and we thought that we should take up the challenge to see if we could deliver that beef to our customers.”
Consumer response has generally been positive, but the move has earned mixed reviews from cattle producers. Senecal hopes to continue building relationships with Canadian producers as A&W expands its hormone- and steroid-free beef program.
“We look forward to having even more Canadian ranchers join with A&W as we launch into hormone- and steroid-free beef.”