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Drought affects supply of grass-fed beef

Pastures are at a variety of stages and conditions across Western Canada as severe drought was followed by rain. Despite improvements, many pastures are stressed, like this one near Hilton, Man., last week. That is making the supply of grass-fed beef even more challenging.  |  Jeannette Greaves photo

Short supplies of grass-grown cattle last year have become even tighter as demand rises and grass doesn’t

The impacts of this year’s drought continue to affect all ranchers but the strain on pastures is having a particular effect on grass-fed beef producers.

Duane Vaags was having issues sourcing grass-fed beef for his True North Foods packing plant in Carman, Man., last year. The job hasn’t gotten any easier this year for the company’s program co-ordinator as options for grass-fed cattle are more limited due to the lack of feed.

“The drought has affected all producers, it’s just a non-grass-fed producer has a few more options available to carry through the herd,” said Vaags. “Whereas a grass-fed producer is limited to certain types of feed. They just can’t go out and buy barley or corn to supplement the energy.”

Grass-fed beef isn’t necessarily a standardized accreditation, so producers will face varied challenges, he said. But the highest standards are difficult at the best of times.

“When you want to bring under 30-month animals to the marketplace and they’ve never seen a drop of grain, that is a challenging thing to do,” said Vaags. “But it is possible.”

The opportunity to gain a premium price for grass-fed beef isn’t going anywhere, he added.

“Demand is always there, it’s just whether we can supply it,” said Vaags.

That demand is being driven by fast-food chains like A&W, which has made use of grass-fed beef products as a marketing tool for its burgers.

“Very soon after, McDonalds said they were going to have, ‘sustainable beef,’” said Vaags. “I don’t know what their protocols are, but I suspect they are very similar.”

There are feed options for grassers, said Vaags, but it’ll come down to what’s available in a producer’s area.

“It’s really an individual producer; how much he can navigate these difficult times to stay grass-fed,” he said. “It’s possible but it might not be economically feasible.”

That means there will need to be a trade-off for those producers to consider, said Vaags. Is it worth continuing with grass-fed status or is it time to move to regular feed as the premium paid for the product is no longer worth the effort?

“In our particular market, the demand is there,” said Vaags. “It’s more of a logistical problem in getting the cows to the plant, processed and packaged and off to the consumer.”

Vaags said the desire of the industry is to move more of the product’s higher quality cuts into the retail sector.

For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

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