What’s the difference between conventional beef, natural beef, certified organic beef and TK Ranch grass-fed beef?

Cattle are raised many different ways in Alberta. Understanding these differences is important if you are trying to make informed decisions about the meat you are buying. The information below is factual and is not intended to judge one producer’s management over another. However, some people reading this information may be sensitive to certain management practices described under the conventional description below. This information is listed last in case you want to skip it altogether.

It is important to note that the comparisons below do not include any information about how conventional, natural or organic producers actually handle their cattle or how they take care of their land and the wildlife that lives there. Even the certified organic standards do not include measurable guidelines for animal welfare or environmental stewardship — organic is more about controlling the use of chemicals and inputs (antibiotics, etc.). For more detailed information we suggest you take the time to read the Canadian Organic Standards and Regulations.

How is TK Ranch Ethical By Nature® Grass-fed Beef Different than Conventional, Natural and Certified Organic Beef?

Everything we do on TK Ranch hinges upon food safety, animal welfare and environmental stewardship:

  • We calve in the late spring and summer to ensure our cows receive nutritious wild grasses in their last trimester before birth. It is also much nicer for the calves to be born when it is warm and extremes in temperature are less likely.
  • We use Low Stress Livestock Handling to manage our cattle which decreases stress dramatically in our herd.
  • No chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers are ever used on any of our land and we manage with a strong land stewardship ethic (see Land Stewardship on TK Ranch).
  • We band the testicles of our male calves at birth which is much less invasive than using a knife. If castration is done at a later age (we keep a few bull calves, and if they don’t mature into a suitable breeding prospect they are castrated) they are sedated by a vet and given analgesics for pain.
  • We use what are called “polled” cattle (they do not have horns genetically) which dramatically decreases the need for dehorning. If a calf needs to be dehorned we use topical xylocaine to decrease the pain. On average we dehorn 3 out of 250 calves every year.
  • We do not use artificial growth hormones (implants) in our production model.
  • No animals in our meat program ever receive sub-therapeutic antibiotics (aka feed antibiotics or ionophores) from birth to slaughter. If an animal gets sick we will treat it with therapeutic antibiotics to prevent suffering and death because it would be in-humane not to. Very few of our cattle get sick due to our management and if they do it’s usually as young calves. The average withdrawal time when an animal is treated to when it is slaughtered is 18 months to 2 years.
  • We freezer brand (see Freeze branding — A More Humane Choice) as an alternative to hot iron branding.
  • We wean our calves in the early winter and do what is called a soft wean (see Low Stress Weaning — Happier, Healthier Calves) to decrease animal stress. Once our calves are weaned we do not sell them, we move them to their own pen (away from their mothers) where they have free access to fresh water and hay and shelter from the elements.
  • We do not feed our cattle grain, ever. Instead they are supplemented with barley sprouts (1). Our calves stay in a large 50 acre pen for the winter. After the snow melts these calves (now yearlings) are turned out onto pasture and a few of them grass finished completely during this process at 20 months of age. Most finish at 24 to 28 months of age during their second winter. This means that on average our cattle are much older than conventional, natural and organic cattle when they the grass finishing process is complete.
  • In 2015 we built our own small on-farm government inspected abattoir so that we could handle our livestock at slaughter with the utmost care and respect. We also built a cutting and processing facility on land near Chestermere (20 minutes east of Calgary). Today we manage all aspects of our branded meat program from birth right to the end consumer. We process between 4 and 6 beef and 8 pigs a week.

How is Certified Organic Beef Different than Conventional Beef?

Most certified organic cattle are calved, hot iron branded, castrated, vaccinated, sold and feedlot finished in a very similar manner to conventional cattle. However there are important differences: they are not fed ionophores, given antibiotics, implanted with artificial growth hormones or treated with chemical insecticides. They also must be fed certified organic grain and forage and grazed on certified organic pastures. This means they are not sprayed with chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.

Most organic beef sold in Alberta today is feedlot finished. When organic calves are weaned they are usually not shipped until the process is completed (the calves stop calling for their mothers and are on feed and water). This helps to prevent them from getting sick (see shipping fever below). After being shipped to an organic feedlot these calves are given grain in their ration at a gradual rate and fed more forages (hay or greenfeed) in their diet than conventional cattle. This gradual introduction to grain slows down the finishing process by a few weeks and keeps the organic cattle somewhat healthier. Most are ready for slaughter at 16 to 18 months of age. But it doesn’t address the significant effects feedlots have on our environment or how grain finishing affects the health benefits of the beef itself.

Traditional on-farm finishing of small numbers of cattle is no longer the norm. Larger intensive organic livestock operations (ILOs) have evolved to meet consumer demand for organic meat. Concentrating and feeding large numbers of animals in one area for long periods of time have serious affects on our soils, watersheds and air quality. The scale of feedlots can vary dramatically from on-farm finishing of a few hundred head to tens of thousands of animals. At what point does an organic feedlot become an environmental liability? The transportation of feed (whether it is organic or conventional) to support the feedlot industry, not to mention the petrochemical inputs (fuel, etc.) required for production of that feed, creates a carbon footprint that is not sustainable for the food system. Please see What About Organic? to better understand some of the problems facing the organic industry today. Grain finishing also dramatically changes the health benefits of the beef itself, please see What About Grass-fed Beef? for more information.

Once finished most organic cattle are sold to commercial companies like Beretta, loaded onto cattle liners and hauled to large abattoirs for slaughter and processing.

How is Natural Beef Different than Conventional Beef?

The word “natural” can mean anything in the cattle industry as it is currently unregulated. Most consumers do not know what questions to ask to ensure what they are buying is actually meeting their expectations. We know of several high profile natural beef companies in Alberta that do not track their use of therapeutic antibiotics, use chemical insecticides to control parasites, feedlot finish their cattle on conventionally raised grain grain and use ionophores routinely to prevent acidosis. I have even been told by one of these companies that they do not consider sulfa dugs antibiotics.

There are some natural beef producers that are closer to organic, but never assume anything and always ask detailed questions of the people raising food for your family.

Most natural beef is finished for slaughter at the same age as conventional beef — at 13 to 15 months of age – and slaughtered at large commercial abattoirs.

Conventional Beef Production

Most ranchers in Alberta start calving around April 1st. There are a few that winter calve in January or February — but these numbers are decreasing every year. Producers that winter calve are often farmers that need to be finished calving before they start seeding their crops. Some are also purebred cattle breeders that want their bull calves to be big enough to sell the following spring as breeding stock. Other producers think that by calving in the winter they will make more money selling their calves in the fall because they will be bigger and heavier. But winter calving is much more expensive than calving in the warmer months because cows that are producing milk need a lot of feed to both nurse a calf and stay warm — not to mention the extra manpower that is needed to night check to ensure calves being born in the cold do not freeze to death. Calving is the most important time of year for ranchers and few venture very far from their cows during this time. Ensuring their cows and calves are healthy and well tended is the focus for most.

After being born the calves are left on their mothers for a few months. During this time they are usually Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tagged (for traceability in the national herd), hot iron branded (to prevent theft), vaccinated, castrated with a knife, dehorned (if necessary) and implanted with an artificial growth hormone such as Ralgro to help them grow faster. Most often the cows and calves are left out on pasture until the late fall.

Calves are usually sold in September or October during what is called the ‘fall calf run’. Some are sold privately and others at public auction. For those cattle producers that have embraced the world wide web — internet cattle auctions are also available. But regardless of how the calves are sold, many ranchers still do what is called a “hard wean”. The calves are taken away from their mothers and immediately loaded onto a truck and shipped to an auction market, a feedlot or wherever the buyer has requested. Being separated from their mothers, handled and shipped to an unfamiliar destination is very stressful on calves. It is not uncommon for them to lose a lot of body condition during this process. As a result many can get what is called shipping fever and could potentially die without treatment. This is why many feedlots immediately treat calves entering their facilities with a shot of antibiotics. They also implant the calves when they arrive with an artificial growth hormone (like Ralgro, above) and again at 30 or 60 day intervals until they are finished (fattened). Artificial growth hormones are used to shorten the time the animal is in the feedlot and decrease expensive feed costs. They also are treated with chemical insecticides to control both external and internal parasites – the most common product used is Ivomec.

When calves first arrive at a conventional feedlot they are started on grain at a gradual rate and fed more forages (hay or greenfeed) in their diet. Within about 6 weeks the ration becomes predominantly grain. Cattle have four stomachs — the first is the rumen and it is designed to digest grasses and forbs normally found in an animal’s diet — it is not designed to digest grain. Grain rations can cause an animal’s rumen to become acidic and they can get sick with a condition called acidosis. To prevent acidosis the pharmaceutical industry has invented ionophores. These are a feed additive very similar in nature to antibiotics. Two commonly used ionophores are Rumensin and Monensin.

Generally the grain finishing process takes 7 months to achieve the optimum fattened weight (~ 1400 lbs) and are ready for slaughter at 13 to 15 months of age. Once finished they are shipped by the liner load to abattoirs like Cargill or JBS that slaughter 4500 beef every day. These companies then distribute the beef to grocery chains like Costco, Safeway and others.

(1) Barley Sprouts (defined): When barley is malted it is soaked in water and then placed in a warm room until it grows a small half-inch sprout. Once sprouted the grain is dried. The sprout is then broken off and separated and the malted barley sold to breweries to make beer. These sprouts are clean (unsprayed), high in energy and nutrients and provide the calories our animals need to keep warm in the winter while being finished properly. These sprouts do not affect the pH balance of an animal’s rumen like grain so acidosis is not a problem. The cattle stay healthy and contented while being finished properly.