Verifying sustainable management practices through the McDonald’s program

So what makes a cow/calf producer take an afternoon to go through the McDonald’s sustainable beef verification?
 
For Erin and Andrew Yaremko of St Paul, Alberta it was partly because they were curious about what the process actually was and partly to see how they would stack up against the McDonald’s measures. 
 
“We graded ourselves on the sustainability indicator questions and thought we would rank pretty good. It was a chance to have a free assessment and maybe some feedback on what we are doing. Sometimes you don’t really see the good things you have done until you have the chance to show them to someone else,” says Erin Yaremko.
 
They first heard about the program in one of the farm papers. They visited www.vsbpilot.ca and went through a self-assessment of the sustainability indicators. They then set up a verification time with Gordon Stephenson, through Where Food Comes From, the company managing the verification process for McDonald’s.
 
“For us going through this process shows our pride in the product we are producing. It’s another bargaining chip when we are marketing our animals,” says Andrew Yaremko. “We will use it when we direct market to a feedlot and for satellite sales”.  
 
“It’s good to be recognized by your industry peers for improvements in practices like riparian management. Over all we found it to be a very positive experience,” says Erin Yaremko.
 
Their operation is primarily cow calf with about 300 cow calf pairs, and 50 bred heifers each year. They usually background their own calves and depending on the year they might bring in some calves. They also run about 200 ewes and finish the lambs themselves.
 
Verifiers for this McDonald’s program ask producers to explain their grazing management and how it protects the grassland.  The Yaremkos have implemented management intensive grazing (MIG) moving their cows through a series of paddocks on average every three to five days, sometimes twice a day depending on the time of year and the forage stages.  MIG uses a written grazing plan, high stocking densities and grazing days per acre calculations focusing on the recovery period and not only forage quantity.
 
They graze about 1800 acres, with 1200 acres in tame pasture seeded to clovers, vetches and meadow brome.  About 600 acres is bush pasture.  Some of the pasture they rent is primarily tame with a portion in native grasses. Those native pieces are managed separately with electric fencing.  For example they try to always delay grazing into July when grasses have set seed and nesting birds have raised their young.  One of the indicators recognizes that well managed native habitat provides for wildlife and plant biodiversity.
 
The MacDonald’s program wants to know that a producer is registered on BIXs. The Yaremkos had heard a bit about BIXS but didn’t really look into it until they investigated this verification process.  
 
“We’re on BIXS now and this year’s calf crop will be registered,” says Andrew Yaremko.  “We will include the carcass data when available so potential buyers could have access to that additional information. We AI’d half of our cows and all the heifers this year.  We have EPD info on the sires. Getting data back from the packing plants would help us start to see patterns in marbling, back fat and other attributes.  Our goal is to always try to deliver a superior product so we look for new tools that help us do that,” says Andrew Yaremko.
 
The indicator process asks about riparian health, water quality and nutrient runoff. The Yaremkos have put in solar watering systems so there is very little dugout watering anymore. One area that has a good spring has been dammed with a culvert so water can be diverted through a big tire with PVC pipe taking overflow back to the water course.  There has been improved weight gain and less foot root.
 
As a result of careful grass management the Yaremkos see increased litter in their pastures and that means increased water holding capacity.  Posts for the electric fence go in easier. They see cow patties decompose quicker with increased dung beetle activity. Although they haven’t measured the soil organic matter these factors seem to indicate that overall soil health has improved.
 
They believe these and other beneficial practices made their farm more resilient in this year of drought. They have a grazing plan based primarily on past experience and grass carryover in the pastures and were pretty sure they would have enough grass. They do use a grazing stick periodically as a tool for managing rotational grazing. It helps measure average pasture growth rates and estimate of the amount of available dry matter.
 
If the Yaremkos had an ah ha moment as they went through this verification process it was when they realized how extensive their record keeping is and how it takes the gray out of their management decisions.  They started using a RFID Psion tag reader for animal traceability.  The FarmWorks software program that comes with the reader allows them to record data for pretty much every aspect of the farm management such as: when the cows go into a paddock and when they come out; when and how much manure is spread on fields, rations fed, birthing, breeding and cull records, body condition scoring, when an illness is treated and with what and so much more.
 
They purchased the Psion reader with support from the Growing Forward 2 funding for the traceability pilot with the sheep industry but it also has a very functional cattle component. It comes from England but there’s a dealer in Alberta.  
 
The Yaremkos use the Alberta Agriculture CowBytes and SheepBytes software programs to balance rations.
 
They were in the first wave of producers completing an Alberta Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) ten years ago. “It just makes you more consciously think about what you are doing, like where your fuel tanks are and if there is a spill where would it go,” says Andrew Yaremko
 
Another important check point in the verification indicators is training and certification in Canada’s Verified Beef Program. The Yaremkos have gone through that process also. Their biggest change was to move to only neck injections. It also helped them set up a system for storing and tracking vaccines and medications and properly disposing of empty bottles and sharps. 
 
The Yaremkos see that increasingly a farm will need to have a social license to run.  They see value in participating in this program as they strive for continuous improvement on their farm. 
 
“We would love to have our kids’ farm but the farm will have to be profitable and the kids need to see the value in it.  We want to see them have the tools to carry on,” says Erin Yaremko
 
“We care about our industry enough to go through this process,” says Erin Yaremko. “We understand some producers might be scared about what might come of it.  But there are not many opportunities like this where the end consumer is asking for producers input to collaborate with them. We know there is no immediate monetary gain but we are working toward something down the road.  We found it a valuable process to go through with someone like Stephenson who knows the industry and has seen a variety of operations.”
 
“This verification process will perhaps bring more value to the producer by leading to a market based tool. As a verifier I appreciate seeing conscientious producers following sustainable beef production practices bringing a safe food product to the consumer.  This verification process documents those practices. It also brings additional value to the industry’s Verified Beef Program, the BIXS program and the Environmental Farm Plan,” Gordon Stephenson.
by Peg Strankman