The story of TK Ranch goes back to the 1950s and remains a family business today. Today, Colleen Biggs, Owner, provides a glimpse at what it takes to provide Ethical By Nature®, Happy Food® in today’s ever-changing and challenging farming and ranching environment.
“My father-in-law TK Biggs started TK Ranch in 1956. My husband was raised here on the ranch and I moved here in 1989. There's always been a focus on environmental sustainability because TK Ranch is located in one of the last tracts of endangered Northern Fescue Grasslands in the world. In addition to this, ensuring our livestock were treated with respect using low stress handling has always been important. My husband has taught low stress handling all over Canada and the northern US to all sectors of the livestock industry for over 30 years,” says Colleen.
In the early 1990s they learned about the health benefits of raising strictly grass-fed and finished beef. It was also when they started thinking about their direct marketing model; the shift to direct marketing was made in 1995.
Biggs, explains, “The livestock and meat industry is controlled by multi-national corporations that set the price they are willing to pay farm families for their cattle. This means that livestock producers have no control over what they are paid for their animals, regardless of how well they manage their farms or ranches. In 1995 the price of cattle dropped substantially cutting our equity in half in a very short time. With three small children at home and Dylan managing the ranch, we couldn't get off-farm jobs. We decided that we needed to do something different to add value to our livestock, so that's when we started direct marketing.”
“We were one of the first farm families in Alberta to start marketing strictly grass-fed and finished beef and faced many barriers when we started,” she continues. “We wanted to be able to sell our products across Canada, but to do this our beef would have to be federally inspected. To use a federal inspected plant, we'd have to process a minimum of 50 beef at one time and these plants only offered whole boxed beef services. The logistics and costs to use existing federal plants and infrastructure were impossible for us to consider. We only wanted to process a few beef at a time, which meant we had to look for alternatives.”
The Biggs used custom processors for 20 years before building their own abattoir.
“In 2015 we started construction of a small provincially inspected red meat abattoir on TK Ranch with a focus on animal welfare, and a meat processing facility and store on land just east of Calgary. Today we are one of the only farm families in Canada with our own on-farm government inspected facilities. This gives us full control over how our animals are handled and our meat is processed.”
They didn’t stop there.
“As someone who is allergic to gluten and many other products, I realized years ago the need for value added products that people like me could enjoy. Once we had our own processing facility we were able to make a full line of artisan sausages, patties, jerky and other products made without gluten, sugar, soy, corn, MSG, nitrites, nitrates, starches, binders and fillers. Our products are only made with nutrient dense meat raised on TK Ranch and single ingredient certified organic seasonings and spices. Our newest products combine our grass-fed and finished beef with our very popular pasture raised pork. Our beef and bacon burgers are now one of our biggest sellers. They are especially popular because they are suitable for both keto and carnivore diets.”
For the Biggs, it has always been about providing best for families and for the environment. Colleen explains, “Much of our motivation has been altruistic; we could see how our food system was broken and wanted to create an alternative sustainable model for others to follow.
“Grass-fed and finished beef is an integral part of endangered grassland ecosystems. Historically bison and other wild herds filled this role. Using cattle as a tool to sustainably graze grasslands helps keeps the land healthy and bio-diverse. The end product is nutrient dense, delicious beef. It's a full circle approach to food production.”
She adds, “Having a third party audit process lends credibility to our program. The term grass fed is not regulated in Canada and can mean many things. Many consumers make the mistake of assuming grass fed means the animal was raised outside on pasture/grass and never fed grain. This is not always true. Some producers selling grass-fed beef confine their cattle in feedlots and feed them hay and silage. Others have their animals on pasture but supplement them with grain. If consumers don't ask the right questions, they might be duped into buying something that doesn't actually meet their needs. Having a stringent third party audit gives consumers confidence in our products.
“The same can be said about animal welfare. There are several certifications that are not worth the paper they're written on. Many still allow the confinement of livestock in barns and feedlots. For example, most certified organic beef raised in Canada is feedlot finished on grain. Animal Welfare Approved is the most stringent animal welfare certification in North America.”
Colleen explains further challenges that they are intent on overcoming for themselves, and other producers.
“Our government has invested in export driven economies that can only be achieved by mass production. This includes creating federal regulatory programs, like the Safe Foods for Canadians Act. To sell outside of Alberta, a meat processor must hold a federal license. Since the highest risk comes from plants that process 4,500 beef a day, the regulations are written to mitigate them at this level. The administrative burden, as well as the costs involved to implement a federal program designed for mass production, is virtually impossible for small processors like us. Our biggest challenge is not being able to sell our products outside of Alberta, even though our province has some of the most stringent meat inspection regulations in Canada.
“Last year, during the Cargill shutdown, the government asked me to submit a paper on diversifying the livestock and meat agency. I suggested they change provincial meat inspection to a domestic category which would allow inter-provincial trade. This would create an environment for small companies like ours to grow our business and involve many more farm families. Livestock producers would have more market opportunities for their animals instead of being forced to sell to monopolies. Unfortunately, the Minister of Agriculture responded by saying it was too difficult to work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). So, a lack of political will to create a diversified meat industry is at the core of our biggest challenges.
At TK Ranch, the family works tirelessly to create a sustainable model for others to follow.
“Our biggest reward has come from the many farm families we have mentored over the years that have thanked us for our courage and perseverance to overcome insurmountable odds to succeed, and from the thousands of Albertans that continue to support our program that vote with their dollars to change the food system,” says Colleen.
TK Ranch is proud to have received several local, provincial and national awards for their commitment to animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
“But the most special one,” says Colleen, “was the Martha Kostuch Wilderness Defenders Award we received from the Alberta Wilderness Association for our lifetime commitment to the conservation of endangered wild prairie and sustainable agriculture. I personally knew Martha, so it was an honour to receive this award.”
What does the future hold for TK Ranch? They will continue to fight for sustainable food systems that support families, small producers, and the environment.
Colleen concludes, “The loss of endangered grasslands continues to happen at an alarming rate. We are considering creating a program where consumers invest in conserving Alberta endangered grasslands for the production of nutrient dense grass-fed and finished beef. This is in the preliminary stages but promises to create a conservation program that is directly related to a sustainable food system.”Learn more online, on Facebook and Instagram.