Ross Macdonald is happy to talk about how he and his wife, Christine Peters, strive to produce quality beef on their ranch near Lake Alma, Sask.
Thanks to a series of television commercials, Canadians from coast to coast have now heard their story.
It’s about feeding grass and hay, the couple says during the A&W spot, and raising the type of cattle that can thrive on that diet and on their landscape.
They didn’t adjust their practices to sell to the fast food chain.
They were already selling to Spring Creek Ranch of Vegreville, Alta., which started in 2003 to source and market beef raised without antibiotics or added hormones, full traceability, high marbling and grading scores and sustainable production practices.
Spring Creek supplies A&W with Canadian beef that meets its specifications.
Ross Macdonald, Christine Peters and their daughter, Mesa, seen here in a 2014 file photo, supply A&W with beef. They are featured in a recent TV commercial by the restaurant chain. | File photo
A&W’s marketing campaign, which promotes beef produced without added hormones or steroids, still draws a lot of criticism, but Macdonald said there is room for producers who choose low-input production.
“The vast majority of contact we’ve had are from people completely out of the blue,” he said.
“(They say), ‘we do this, too, but we felt sort of that we needed to hide it or that we can’t be vocal about what we’re doing.’ ”
Macdonald said he wasn’t prepared to read a pre-scripted message but instead would talk about why they do what they do.
Their philosophy is to raise cattle on forages, keep calves over and send them to a feedlot for just a short time. They are working toward quality based on that low-input method using a Hereford base crossed with Angus genetics.
Macdonald said there is more to it than a premium earned by marketing through Spring Creek.
“With the steers that we’ve sold to Spring Creek, we get the feedlot and the carcass information back,” he said.
“We’ve made some changes in our breeding program. Although the logic is there when you’re selecting those genetics, unless you’re retaining ownership or receiving that information back, you don’t really know.”
After about six years of selling to the Alberta company, the Macdonalds are finally getting enough information to validate their logic.
“We’re starting to get enough data now to see that the changes we’re making at the ranch levels with some of the ultrasound and genomic tools that are available … are translating to the feedlot side of things as well,” he said.
Genomics have helped select herd sires that are now producing higher quality carcasses with less time on feed.
Some in the industry still promote the practice of feeding higher energy feeds earlier in life to obtain a better carcass grade, but Macdonald said they saw a different opportunity.
“If you can select for some of those animals that can provide those higher quality grades off of more forage in their diet, then hopefully when they hit the feedlot it should be even further compounded,” he said.
“We should be able to get highly functional forage cattle that also provide high quality feedlot carcasses.”
Their selections are trending in that direction.
Macdonald said economic research done in the United States has found that niche or brand advertising doesn’t affect overall beef demand. In fact, it enhances it.
As well, trade agreements with countries that want beef produced without added hormones and other inputs offer other opportunities for Canadian beef producers.