Producers eye beef certification programs

Some join these types of programs for the premium prices, while others do so to improve consumer confidence

Canadian consumers have myriad choices when it comes to quality beef. Among those choices is product from certified grass-fed programs that have an audited process guaranteeing the beef comes from cattle raised in a specific way.

Several Alberta cattle producers have chosen an Oregon-based certifier as a way to provide consumers with information about their production methods.

A Greener World offers certification in four categories: grass-fed, organic, animal welfare and non-GMO.

Julia Palmer of Scott Palmer Ranching, which has ranches in southern Alberta and in Saskatchewan, said her operation is able to extract a premium from the marketplace because of the certified grass-fed designation the ranch has obtained from A Greener World.

The ranch also has the certified animal welfare approval designation from that organization, meets Canadian organic certification standards, is certified through the Global Animal Partnership, is qualified to export beef to the European Union and is in the Canadian Verified Beef program.

It means a lot of paperwork, said Palmer, but “it has added value for us. We saw an opportunity to add value to our beef herd and it just made sense for us. That doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense for every producer.

“I have a lot of respect for my fellow beef producers, and I know that there’s a lot of people doing really amazing and important things who are not necessarily certified.”

Meticulous records are key to certification, which may be the reason some producers choose not to seek it. Palmer makes use of modern traceability tools and relies on her production team to ensure the standards are met.

The 1,200-head cow herd calves from late April to early June. The calves are raised on grass and sold as yearlings. The ranch makes its own hay to feed the herd over winter, ensuring compliance with EU requirements that the feed is organic and GMO free.

“Grass-fed works for us because we have the grass to feed cattle on. It’s affordable, efficient conversion of the grass. Your forage quality is going to determine your beef quality.”

Operations that seek such certifications do pay fees, said Palmer, and besides concise records, there is an audit and inspection process to retain the various designations.

“Is it going to add value to my operation? I think you have to really consider whether it’s going to be worth it for you,” she said.

Justine Berry of Flaghill Ranch in east-central Alberta near Craigmyle said her operation also has the certified grass-fed and animal welfare-approved designations from A Greener World.

For her, a price premium isn’t the main goal for obtaining certification. Consumer confidence is the larger point.

“The goal on our family ranch is just to educate consumers, not to persuade them into grass-fed but more so to just allow them to make those informed decisions and find which branch of this industry their values align with,” said Berry.

In that sense, she said certification has been valuable and hasn’t presented many operational challenges.

“We do an annual audit, which really isn’t anything more than a couple hours of our time because everything that they’re auditing for is kind of stuff that happens all throughout the year, so it doesn’t really involve any prep work or anything. It’s just everyday at the ranch,” she said.

That is a key reason they chose A Greener World as the certification body.

“We chose to go with them because they were a known source and all of the things they were looking for kind of aligned with everything we were doing with our ranch already. So it’s just kind of a great way to explain to people that we’re third party audited. It’s not just our own beliefs. It’s double checked.”

Flaghill maintains a herd of about 150 cows and sells its grass-fed beef straight from the ranch.

Berry said she thinks consumers can get easily confused by the different labels put on beef, from grass-fed to natural to antibiotic free and organic. Their levels of knowledge about beef production vary widely, so being able to point to a specific certification program, with requirements clearly articulated, can be a help.

Palmer shares that view.

“Grass-fed means a whole (lot) of different things, depending on who you ask,” she said.

“I think consumers who are serious about knowing where their food is coming from … do try to understand what grass-fed means.

“I am hopeful that consumers will value beef that is raised in an ecologically sound manner on our landscape. I know so many producers who are doing exactly that.”

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