Island cattle producers seek B.C. niche

Ranchers want to build a Vancouver Island beef brand and promote unique attributes to attract local consumers

COURTENAY, B.C. — Vancouver Island cattle producers hope to overcome their isolation from the mainland and find their own voice by creating a regional chapter of the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association this spring.

Angus producer Brad Chappell of Courtenay, B.C., said island ranchers are currently grouped with a mainland region of the provincial association, but a separate island region could help them draw attention to their specific concerns and have access to association programs.

“We need that umbrella organization working on their behalf,” he said in an interview during the Islands Agriculture Show, which was held in Courtenay Feb. 13-14.

The average herd size on Vancouver Island averages 100, but some herds have 400 head.

Chappell said a group of producers representing 1,300 head is working with the B.C. agriculture ministry to explore niche markets. There is demand for grass-fed beef, he added, noting producers’ success with sales to island grocery stores.

Chappell said advances in technology and equipment have allowed producers to grow good forage on poorer land.

He said cattle numbers fell on the island when the Crow rate was abolished because it meant higher freight costs between the island and mainland.

“The killing of the Crow killed off the ability financially for people to feed (livestock) here,” he said.

Urban encroachment on agricultural land and producers who retired without heirs to take over their farms also led to the decline.

It has previously not paid for producers to improve herds with better genetics because any premium they received disappeared in freight costs.

“They weren’t getting the value they needed,” he said.

Kevin Boon, general manager of the provincial cattlemen’s association, sees an opportunity to double or triple cattle numbers on the island and welcomes new members.

“I don’t care if you run 10 or 10,000 head,” he said.

Boon also said money from the long-disbanded island chapter is available for a new chapter to use on branding. A verified beef program could be an effective marketing tool, he added.

Boon said the provincial association can play a role in advocating for island producers and working with government.

“It’s not just for you today but how to keep you involved so your (next generation) can carry on in a sustainable way and meet the standards society put on us,” said Boon, citing practices to create sustainable grass production, protect riparian areas and maintain habitat for endangered wildlife.

“Being good stewards will give us the social licence to continue.”

Boon said producers on Vancouver Island can capitalize on their mild climate.

“If you don’t have to buy freight, you can offset some of the extra costs (of grain production), “ he said.

He advised producers to capitalize on the grass-fed, local and antibiotic- and hormone-free trends by offering consistency. One way to do that is finishing animals on the same grass variety for the final 60 days.

Boon recommended using genetics that suit the land base and working with local abattoirs such as Gunter Brothers Meat Co. near Courtenay.

He said island opportunities include a captive herd and consumers who want to buy local and support the region’s economy.

“Build an island brand, identify product attributes to meet what the consumer demand is,” he said.

“Find the demand and stick with it.”

He said government funding is needed to improve the industry with marketing projects such as branding island beef and producing videos to play at retail stores.

He noted the power of social media in disseminating information to the masses and said interest among consumers in food and food animal production cannot be ignored.

“At the end of the day, they will believe what they want to believe,” said Boon.

“We have to listen to them.”

Jennifer Woods of J. Woods Livestock Services in Blackie, Alta., encouraged transparency on farms so that their stories can be shared with consumers.

“Make it public,” she said.

Develop farm websites that state farm policies and practices for the public to see, and make sure that animal care practices that focus on the five freedoms are on display at places such as farmers markets.

“You want people to know this is our commitment and this is how we are committed to them,” said Woods.

She suggested education through blogging, school tours, websites and farm tours.

“Open your doors, you have nothing to hide,” she said.

“If you’re not comfortable, ask yourself why. When they begin to feel we are not, that social licence is taken away from us and legislation is put in place.”

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