TK Ranch

TK Ranch

In 1995 Colleen and Dylan Biggs took a big step into the abyss of direct marketing their own beef.  TK Ranch was raising conventional cattle in the grassland of east-central Alberta south of Coronation and north east of Hanna.  The Biggs were working to decrease production costs but still losing money.

Now after 21 years of working through the development of a vertically integrated grass fed pasture to plate model they are taking another step into full integration of their value chain with an innovative approach.  Very soon they will be opening an abattoir on their ranch and a cutting and processing facility close to their Calgary market.

“Virtually all small abattoirs in rural Alberta are struggling. When I started talking about building our own abattoir I had so many calls from people all over saying, hey my facility is for sale,” says Colleen Biggs, one of the owner/operators of TK Ranch.  

“A lot of these small processors are facing the same issues, trying to find employees, trying to make ends meet, and trying to meet all the new government regulatory demands.  It’s just not an easy industry to be in involved in, I think especially if you’re making your primary income from processing.”

So TK Ranch started to look at all the issues.  Years of direct marketing their products made them feel they have decoded most of the system. Having a reliable processor is really, really, important.  They have had a very good relationship with Alberta Prairie Meats in Duchess but have outgrown their capacity.

“After being in business for this long, getting up at 5 or 6 in morning and going out to load cattle in -25 or -30 or plus 30 and driving all that distance is starting to be not very humane – for us. Our program currently involves hauling animals to slaughter (in Duchess) a one way trip of 175 kilometers. Then we go back down, load up all the beef, pork and sheep and bring it back to the ranch. Then we package the orders and drive them to Edmonton and Calgary.  Right now we are driving 2000 kilometers a week to service customers.  We needed to look at making it more efficient for us, more humane for us and the animals and getting us closer to our market.”

“There is a real push from our clientele for on-farm slaughter.  These people are asking for products from animals that are treated as low stress as possible. That’s the number one question from our customers - how are animals killed and is it a humane kill?”

“So we opted to have the abattoir on the ranch. It’s a kill and chill facility. We will have a provincial inspector on site for the kill. Then hang the carcasses for 21 days and break them down. Employing people in middle of no-where is a struggle. We thought we could keep the kill on the ranch to meet customer needs, then move the value added cutting and processing closer to our target market, which is Calgary, then we could access employees from the labour pool in that whole area.”

“So we bought land just north of Highway 1 close to Langdon and are almost finished building our cutting and processing facility there.  We will do all kinds of products like dried cured sausage and other value added items which is certainly where the profit is in the industry.  Our customers are looking for niche products not readily available in the marketplace,” says Biggs.

They are planning to have a store front.  They currently have an on line store at tkranch.com. People order online and are met at prearranged pickup locations in Calgary and Edmonton.  That will continue in the short term and then perhaps the store will develop more in the future.

Biggs says that there is an unbelievable number of people asking for an opportunity to have an on farm experience to see where their food is coming from.  She sees that as a good news story for the beef industry and as an opportunity to add stability to the industry and help producers’ manage the volatility in the commodity beef market. Direct marketing has allowed them to set their own market price.

Currently the operation sources from four other families that produce beef cattle and one family supplies poultry. Biggs sees great opportunities for other ranches to become involved if they are interested in following the established program.

Biggs says they have been very fortunate to have great support from community.  People are excited to have a local abattoir again.  

The abattoir will have capacity to hang 45 head of beef so in short term they think they will process about 15 head a week.  That’s five a week for their own programs and space for 10 head for people outside the program.  The plan is that in three to five years they will double that production.

“We expect the abattoir to be up and running in about 8 weeks (mid-March) and the cutting facility should be ready in about 4 weeks (mid-February),” says Briggs.

“I think there are lots of producers looking for alternative streams of income.  Once you are out there in the market you hear about opportunities. The world wide web has really changed our food industry,” says Biggs.

There are big challenges for small producers. “All the infrastructure the government has invested in today is based on export so geared to big production.  There’s a beautiful incubator in Leduc but it is a federally inspected facility so small producers like us that are provincially inspected can’t access that plant,” says Biggs.

Biggs doesn’t see the food industry in Alberta as being particularly friendly to small producers.  There are no provincially inspected refrigerator trucks to rent and almost no coolers. So TK Ranch found that to meet all provincial requirements they really had to create their own value chain and the infrastructure to support it.

Biggs says that to be successful you really need to have all parts of the animal sold before the animal is killed. TK Ranch tracks their inventory very closely to pick up on the changes in the market and adjusts their cutting to meet the emerging trends.  They sell most of their meat by the cut. Biggs says it’s a balancing act for sure.

TK Ranch has always looked for marketing opportunities and found the interprovincial barriers a frustrating challenge.  Back in 2009 Biggs approached the CFIA with a question.  She had studied the Canadian Meat Inspection Act and interpreted it to mean she could ship across provincial lines if she sold direct to the customer and not to retail chains or restaurants.  It took five months to get a response back but it was a letter that basically agreed she could ship up north to individuals.  So TK Ranch began shipping to families in places like Yellowknife.    

Biggs says they were surprised to find two Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officers at the ranch this past November saying that after receiving a complaint they believed TK Ranch was selling beef illegally out of province.  The original letter of approval was shown and the officials responded that selling direct to consumers across provincial borders was a grey area in the Act.  One of the officials asked where the TK Ranch website was hosted.  Just so happens that the woman who manages the website works out of Nevada.  So in spite of the cattle being raised in Alberta, provincially inspected at slaughter in Alberta, and processed at an Alberta inspected facility the official stated that Biggs was technically selling beef illegally into Alberta from Nevada.

The CFIA did allow their November shipment up north to proceed but said the matter was going to be sent to their legal team and shortly after Biggs received a cease and desist letter.  Biggs asks the question, “If the CFIA believes that our meat is safe for consumers in Alberta, which they do, then why is it unsafe once it crosses a provincial boundary? The implication is that the Alberta Meat Inspection Branch is somehow failing to achieve adequate food safety standards. This doesn’t make any sense because if they were the CFIA would intervene in the interest of public safety. I can only think that this is not a food safety issue at all. Instead I believe it’s a political trade barrier being enforced by the CFIA that needs to be addressed. For 20 years it’s been rumoured that these provincial trade barriers would be removed with a harmonized food inspection standard. If we can get this issue resolved the beef industry will only benefit.”

Biggs admits, “Getting these two facilities built has been more than challenging.  But it’s an amazing feeling to see the drawings done in March begin to materialize into something. This is an opportunity to change the way we view slaughter and processing to better reflect our changing demographics in both rural and urban Alberta.”

“Maybe we will see several small abattoirs send carcasses to a central processing facility that acts as a hub close to a big market.  We are very pleased to have the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency support us in this.  It’s an opportunity to take another path that could be beneficial for other producers in the future addressing issues like labour,” says Biggs.

 

By Peg Strankman