Alberta's Woman of Vision a champion of grass-fed organic beef
By Leslie MacDonald, August 2, 2011
Their story sounds like something straight out of a fairy tale. Beautiful vegetarian meets her stereotype of the big, bad cowboy rancher who turns out to be passionate about animal welfare and the environment. They fall in love, and 22 years later have four beautiful daughters and one of the most respected ranches on the Prairies.
But, as Colleen Biggs soon discovered, life on an Alberta ranch or farm is anything but a fairy tale. The tough economic realities of very slim margins, set market pricing and uncontrollable cost fluctuations almost forced them off their land.
That's what led this tenacious former military drill sergeant to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and develop a business model that has made her an innovator in Alberta's cattle industry.
Colleen and her husband Dylan own TK Ranch, a remote, 4,000-hectare spread north of Hanna, about a three-hour drive southeast of Edmonton, with 600 head of cattle, 108 ewes and 25 breeding sows and boars as well as a dozen horses. Their program involves breeding and raising their animals the way Mother Nature would. That means they don't use pesticides, artificial growth hormones or antibiotics, and they use humane practices that respect the animals. They freeze-brand their cattle with liquid nitrogen rather than using more painful hot irons. Their calves are born in the spring, just like animals in the wild, and reared for 24 months, unlike the common industry practice of artificially inseminating cattle to breed in winter so they can be put to market within 12 to 16 months. And only they handle their animals.
"Dylan is really like a cow psychologist, for a lack of a better word," says the warm and engaging Colleen. "He has been teaching low-stress livestock handling for many, many years. He uses position and movement to get our animals to do what we need them to do instead of using electric stock prods or force and fear."
They handle their animals from birth to slaughter because, Colleen adds, "You ask any hunter about stressing an animal prior to the kill and they will tell you that it really affects meat quality."
But what really sets TK Ranch apart from other operations is that their cattle and sheep are grass-fed their entire lives, which Colleen calls an extremely rare practice in Canada.
"The marketing in this country toward grain-fed beef has been unbelievable. People think a good steak comes from a grain-fed animal. But cattle, for example, are ruminant animals. They have four stomachs. The carbohydrates in grain make them sick because they cause their (stomach) rumen to become acidic. They develop acidosis, which causes their liver to abscess. So (to combat that), the animals are routinely given pharmaceutical drugs like Rumensin, an ionophore which is very similar to an antibiotic."
Colleen says 99 per cent of certified grass-fed organic beef is grainfinished in an organic feedlot. Because of the cold Canadian winters, it takes longer to finish animals on grass. Grain speeds up the growing process, so almost all grass-fed animals are fed grain in the three months before they are slaughtered.
"When you start feeding grain, the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acid ration changes dramatically," explains Colleen. "So it's really important to know to ask if that organic beef is grass-or grain-finished."
Sixteen years ago, Colleen and Dylan found themselves at a serious crossroads. In just one week, the set market price for steers dropped from $1.37 to 67 cents a pound. With their equity suddenly cut in half, the banks started phoning to ask how they were going to make their loan payments.
They were faced with an impossible dilemma. If Colleen got a full-time job off the ranch, there was no one to raise their three children, who were then quite young, as Dylan was working the ranch 24/7. Even then, with only minimum-wage jobs available locally, Colleen would have had to move to Edmonton, Calgary or Red Deer to take advantage of her University of Alberta degree equivalent to environmental sciences. In that scenario, the children would have to move with her. Or the family could give up ranching altogether.
Colleen decided to change the paradigm of the beef industry by direct-marketing to stores and consumers, a model that was virtually non-existent in the mid-1990s. It was a challenging route because health food stores at that time were catering only to vegetarians. So she went to the chefs at some of Calgary's finest restaurants and asked them to do what she called the acid test. She gave them her grass-fed beef and asked them to compare it with the absolute best beef product they could get from any other supplier.
"The chefs thought that was the greatest thing. It spread like wildfire, and we began selling to many restaurants all over Calgary. Community Natural Foods started to carry our products and the rest is history."
Today, all their beef, lamb and pork products are sold directly to restaurants, stores like Planet Organic in Edmonton or delivered directly to customers across Alberta through the TK Ranch website.
To say that Colleen is passionate about the origins of our food supply is an understatement. When she was 18, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given just months to live. She left the military, where she had learned the value of discipline, and went to work on a farm on Vancouver Island, where she was introduced to a new way of eating.
"I went on a macrobiotic diet, which was no milk, no meat products and no sugars of any kind. I went into remission in eight months.
"It showed me the ability of a body to heal when you've given it the nutrition it requires. It also taught me a lot about what we're doing to our food and how that can have a serious effect on your individual health."
Sustainable practices are a way of life for the Biggs family, whose children are all involved in the farm or in health-related careers. They are reminded every day of their responsibility to the environment, living in the middle of some of the last tracts of the endangered wild northern fescue prairie. Last year, they won the National Prairie Conservation Award for, among other things, their efforts rescuing and treating injured wildlife on their land.
Colleen is also committed to raising awareness about another endangered "species" — the family farm.
"I think we are in a farm crisis," states Colleen. "Over the last 20 years, we've gone from small family farms to big, factory, corporate farms because a lot of the family farms can't make enough money to make ends meet. And we have very, very few young people who want to stay on the family farm. Canadians should be very concerned about our food safety."
Colleen is doing her part by mentoring young people who come from all over the world to learn about the TK Ranch model. She is also building a training centre to pass on her knowledge about growing food, food preparation and creating alternative business practices. But she warns Canadians have to do their part by buying from local producers if they want to have a sustainable local farming community.
The TK brand is an upside down heart with a "C" beside it. Colleen jokes that's because she turned Dylan's heart and world upside down when he fell in love with her. Now, she's not afraid to do break the trail for others by leading by example.
"You cannot be a shrinking violet in this industry," Colleen says with a smile.
"Back in the mid-'90s, I was told I'd never be successful selling grassfed beef in Alberta beef country. You have to follow your heart and do what you believe in, regardless of the naysayers out there. You can't give up because it's too easy to give up. And I'm not that kind of person for sure."
Colleen Biggs is the Woman of Vision for August. For more information on the Woman of Vision, go online to global tv edmonton. com/ woman of vision.
~ Edmonton Journal 2011