My name is Darcy Goodrich, and I am an Ethical Omnivore, though it was not always so. I was born into a ranching family, and from a young age all I wanted to do was raise cows and be a cowboy. As time went on that dream grew up with me, until one day I was running my parents’ ranch. I had never really been involved in financial decisions so I had a fairly naïve view of things, assuming that all one had to do was own 5000 acres and 500 cows and one would certainly live happily ever after. When my wife and I took over the ranch completely, and had to make ends meet for ourselves, our view on things began to change.
The conventional cattle industry is one of volatile cycles. The highs are high and the lows are a crash. Many international trade factors dictate what the price of live cattle or boxed beef will be from week to week, which invariably leaves cattlemen helpless to their own fate. After a few short years of taking the brunt of that market volatility square in the pocket book, we decided to try and find other avenues for our product. We began researching export markets to Asia and European Union(EU) countries with other rancher friends. We devised a plan, formed a company and found contacts in various export companies, brokerage firms and government trade groups. We eventually found markets eager for “Natural Alberta Beef” in Belgium and Germany. With things looking promising, we surged ahead confident that this value chain would pay dividends that conventional markets could not.
So with 3 families involved, and a local feedlot willing to feed our cattle a “natural” diet of oat/barley silage, rolled barley and alfalfa hay, free of hormones or antibiotics, we filled pens with 350 yearling cattle weighing approximately 700lbs. This was the first time in my life that I had placed my own animals in a feedlot or CAFO setting, and since I had worked in feedlots as a pen rider previously, I was somewhat apprehensive as to how they would be cared for. We planned to make monthly visits to the feedlot checking our animals to ensure the staff was caring for them properly. We were also going to visit the slaughter facility at Balzac, Alberta that had recently opened and been certified as the only slaughterhouse in Western Canada for EU export products. It was April of 2003, and we had no idea what was about to happen on the world beef stage.
May 20th, 2003 I was having breakfast when an announcement came over the radio that a case of BSE or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, which immediately closed all markets for Canadian cattle and beef products. We were stunned, and didn’t know what to do, or expect. Local government officials and our contacts with the federal trade groups ensured us that it was a temporary precautionary measure and that it would be resolved soon. We stuck to our plans of fattening the cattle and having them ready for September delivery to the slaughterhouse. When we made our visits to the feedlot at the end of May & June, we were relatively happy with the condition of the cattle. They were growing quickly, and appeared healthy. By July however, the summer thermostat was cranking up, and temperatures were reaching 35 degrees Celsius. When we arrived at the feedlot, we were shocked at what we saw. The cattle had been growing very rapidly, being at an age and stage in their growth where they were getting heavy on their feet, and the daily routine of walking for feed and water was becoming a chore. Combined with the heat and dry dusty pens, they were suffering. Some of them had mucus and blood coming from their noses, and we felt horrified. I had seen worse conditions in my life, but these were my cattle, that I had raised from babies, and the vision burned in my head will stay with me forever.
We spoke to the feedlot owner about watering the pens down to control the dust, which they agreed to do. It was little help as the animals were getting 3-4 pounds heavier every day, eating a high energy ration that generated intense heat, only to have to stand in dry heat all day. We were meanwhile frantically working on our export market, trying to find some loophole that would enable us to get special permission to still have the animals processed and ship the beef to eager clients overseas. It was to no avail, as we were told that the borders would remain closed indefinitely, and at the same time, we received news that the slaughterhouse, our only EU certified slaughter facility, was closing it’s doors and going into receivership. All our work for 2 years had been crumpled into a ball, set aflame, and the ashes blown away before our eyes. Although, we couldn’t crawl into a cave and lick our wounded pride, because there were 350 hungry mouths being fed, and that feed bill still had to be paid. They say from the fire of adversity ingenuity shall rise, and so it came to be that our natural Alberta exported beef, transformed into direct marketed beef to Alberta families. We called and emailed everyone we knew, trying desperately to sell as many halves and quarters of beef as we could. Within 45 days, the animals were at a size where they could simply not stay on feed at the feedlot or we would risk serious health issues, so it was with gritted teeth that we agreed to take the going market price for fat cattle from a slaughterhouse in southern Alberta, who now of course had a captive market for all the beef cattle in western Canada, and the luxury of offering us the lowest price anyone had seen in decades. When the dust settled from our adventure, 250 head were sold well below our cost of production to the conventional slaughterhouse, and approximately 100 head had been direct marketed by us and our partner families. My wife and I vowed that day, that we would never fatten another animal in a feedlot again, nor would we feed them a high grain ration. So that is our tale of how we became Ethical Omnivores. It is not a common one, being 4th generation ranchers, but it has been an interesting one full of hard lessons and rewarding relationships with amazing people. We have come to create a good market for Pure Country Stock Farm 100% grass finished beef, from our Galloway cattle. They are conceived, born, raised and fattened on hay and pasture their entire lives, and we feel it is the healthiest possible way to raise beef. And if it can be done in a western Canadian climate, it can be done almost anywhere. Managed properly, good grazing practices like those taught through Holistic Management International, will improve soils, waterways
and ecosystems, ensuring that the land is providing, and being provided for.