NANTON, Alta. — Linda Loree, a vegetarian for nearly 40 years, has started a successful beef business from her southern Alberta ranch.
“I have been vegetarian and really health oriented all my life,” she said.
“I was raising all these cattle and they had to go to the feedlot. I was doing it because I wanted to keep the family ranch together, but I wasn’t feeling terrific about it.”
Four years ago, she conceived the idea of marketing grass-fed beef carrying the ranch name, Trail’s End. She approached her daughter and son-in-law, Rachel and Tyler Herbert, and they formed a partnership.
Rachel has also been a vegetarian for most of her life.
“Now that I am hands on and know they have an ideal life and good end, it is the most sustainable way to eat. You can grow it yourself. There is grass here that is supposed to be eaten by herbivores,” she said.
The Trails End Grass Fed Beef business has soared and cannot keep up with demand.
Rachel and Linda handle much of the marketing and beef orders, while Tyler, who grew up on a mixed farm at Neil burg, Sask., has the cow sense.
Cattle are on the Pfizer Gold health program and receive no growth hormones. Antibiotics are only used to treat disease. He considers a herd health program to be good animal welfare.
Pursuing a program like this allows the young couple to ranch on their own place south of Nanton. Since the operation is still growing, Tyler continues to work off the farm for an oil-field company but dreams of expanding to the point where he and Rachel and their two toddlers, William and Avery, can ranch full time.
“It is pretty tough to make a go of it on a small scale with traditional livestock, especially in this part of the country,” he said.
“With the grass-fed beef, you eliminate the middlemen and you can make a little bit more from that.”
He also prefers this lifestyle for his children, who are the fifth generation on Trail’s End Ranch.
Loree and Rachel are descended from Fred Ings, who started the OH Ranch west of High River, Alta., in 1883, and then the Midway, Sunset and Trail’s End ranches in the early 1900s.
Fred’s wife, Edith, continued ranching after his death in the 1930s and ran a guest ranch at Trail’s End until the 1950s. The guesthouse is still standing and is part of the home quarter Linda inherited in 2003.
It has native and domestic grass, willow brush and streams and was cross-fenced for rotational grazing, which is supplemented with electric fence.
Rachel grew up in Calgary and spent weekends and summers at the ranch. She was a competitive show jumper and groom and met Tyler at a horseman’s clinic. They married seven years ago and bought their place in 2007.
They started selling their beef to friends and neighbours and built up a specialized customer base through word of mouth. Some customers are on special diets, others have ethical or environmental concerns and others prefer grass-fed traditional beef and are willing to pay more.
Catering to customers
The ranch’s website, with the brand name Trail’s End Beef, also captures new customers, mostly from Calgary who are looking for local, grass-fed beef. This is the first year the family offered specific cuts rather than quarters, halves and a full carcass.
Their customers share their philosophy.
“They don’t care if it is tough, and they are surprised to discover it is tender and delicious. It is going to taste like beef, only more so,” said Linda.
They invite customers to visit the ranch and have found their customers want to meet the rancher who grew the beef.
“It is not so much about the history, even though we have a chance to talk about it. It is more that people want to meet us,” said Rachel.
Added Loree: “There are a growing number of people who are well read and well educated. They know exactly what they are looking for.”
Many customers have started vegetable gardens and some follow a paleolithic diet of nuts, fruit, vegetables and pasture raised meat. They do not eat processed food.
The family uses a black Angus bull and culled their original cow herd based on the performance of the calves once they were on the hook. They now need more heifers and are looking for yearlings to fill the growing beef demand.
Tyler wants more genetic improvement in the herd. He’s looking for cattle that gain well on grass and still produce a carcass with an acceptable grade.
They have worked with several provincial processors and request the carcass descriptions so they can track yield, grades and fat cover. The cattle never receive grain and have graded AA and AAA. They are slaughtered at 26 to 28 months of age.
Tyler and Rachel are also interested in learning holistic management techniques to reclaim rundown pastures. Tyler wants to study what the forage-based program does to carcass quality compared to grain-fed beef.
“We tried to see if there were any differences finishing on native grass as opposed to tame grass,” he said. “As long as we can keep them gaining and keep them on that fresh grass, keeping that weight gain going is key.”
They have made animal welfare changes every year since they started. They stopped branding three years ago, although they have a registered brand based on Rachel’s brother’s initials, cpl. Nathan Hornburg, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2007.
They introduced fence line weaning to lower stress among the calves.
They also want to use processors who know how to handle cattle before slaughter.
Loree and the Herberts are avid horse people, and Rachel gives children’s riding lessons at their place.
She has also pursued her love of English and local history by completing her master’s degree .
Her thesis was on frontier period ranching women in southern Alberta, based partly on her family’s history. She is now looking for a publisher.