Direct beef marketing not for ‘faint of heart’

Some producers sell into niche markets like natural, organic and grass fed, while some market beef themselves in a pasture-to-plate program. By selling direct to consumers, producers can set their own price and be better paid for their efforts.

Dylan and Colleen Biggs of TK Ranch near Hanna, Alta., sell meat to customers who want to reconnect with their food and know how it is produced.

“Direct marketing is a big job and not for the faint of heart, but can provide income stability for farm families,” said Colleen.

In the early 1990s, the couple felt they had done everything they could to lower costs of production but they were still losing money. Then the bank called to ask how they were going to service their debt.

“We had three small children and Dylan was working 14-hour days managing the ranch. It looked like the only option was for me to get a job, but it would pay less than what I’d have to pay for child care,” she said.

They decided to take control of their own marketing and add value to what they were already doing.

In 1995, direct marketing beef in Alberta was unheard of. Some ranchers kept a steer to butcher for family and friends but everyone bought meat at grocery stores. “When we called Alberta Agriculture to get information about selling direct, they told us we would fail,” Colleen recalled.

“We decided to take the risk anyway, and invest our time and limited resources into a grass-fed program.”

That evolved from producing humanely raised livestock to processing, developing their own brand, meeting with retailers, building warehousing facilities, co-ordinating deliveries and dealing direct with consumers — and building their own abattoir.

“Meat quality is essential so we mortgaged everything we owned in 2014 to become one of the first families in Canada to have our own on-farm government-inspected red meat abattoir. Then the recession hit, so we started custom-processing as well, to augment our income,” Colleen said.

“We have a meat-cutting facility near Calgary where it’s easier to get employees. We slaughter beef on the ranch and do dry aging, then break down the carcasses and take them to our cutting facility. We have a store there, and an online store.

“Under our TK Ranch brand we sold natural dry-aged grass-fed beef, then expanded our program to include grass-fed lamb, heritage pasture-raised pork and soy-free chicken.”

The Biggs’ meat business is built on repeat customers.

Dylan and Colleen Biggs say Alberta Agriculture told them they would fail when they first asked for information about direct marketing beef. | Biggs photo

“They have faith in us and know our product. Producers need to understand that no matter whether the animals are grass-fed, grain-fed, animal-welfare-approved, natural or whatever the label, if the end product isn’t good, it gives the whole label a bad name,” said Colleen.

Some producers think they can slaughter a long yearling off grass and have a good eating experience, but that isn’t always the case. Proper handling is required, and Dylan has been teaching low-stress-handling for decades.

Producers who want to market their own animals should start slow and learn as they go, advised Colleen.

“Pick the best 10 to 15 percent of your animals and direct-market those and ship the rest. Talk to people who’ve been at it a long time.

“Figure out who you’re going to sell to — people in your community or a broader market. This is hard for people in rural communities far from population centres. When we started in the 1990s I delivered meat and drove thousands of kilometres every month with three small children in car seats in our crew cab and two chest freezers with a generator in the back.”

Producers contemplating direct marketing are advised to pick the best 10 to 15 percent of their animals and ship the rest. | Biggs photo

She also said producers should sell halves rather than steaks, roasts and ground beef. That avoids a freezer full of less popular cuts.

“Quarters and eighths are popular and as long as you value them properly, this works. You must charge a little more for eighths than for quarters and a little more for quarters than halves because there’s more involved in getting them ready.”

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