When Ranchers And McDonald’s Spend A Week Together, Amazing Things Happen!!

Many of us have enjoyed a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder with Cheese, but have you ever glimpsed at the business behind the burger? Have you ever wondered how the beef gets from farms and ranches into those juicy, beefy sandwiches? (Are burgers really sandwiches??)

This April, I had a rancher’s dream opportunity. A chance for a behind-the-scenes peek at McDonald’s business. An insider’s view into not only their corporate executive minds, but also a chance to speak with their restaurant owners – those with boots on the ground, literally selling the beef from my very ranch.

In theory, cattle ranchers and the burger giant McDonald’s should go together like peanut butter and jelly – but in reality, there is rarely a direct connection between retails and those who raise the beef that they are selling. As food producers, we have made a concerted effort in the past few years to connect with the people who consume our food, but have somehow skipped over those who are selling it.

Full disclosure, I have been a huge fan of the McDonald’s organization for many years now. They have treated Canadian beef producers in a way that no other end user ever has before. Beyond their commitment to serving Canadian grown food to Canadian people, McDonald’s has done so much more. In a world of fear based marketing, McDonald’s has risen above and embraced the primary producers of food. Their “Not Without Canadian Farmers” campaign has filled farmers and ranchers from across Canada with pride. So, when I was invited to Orlando to attend the McDonald’s World Wide convention, I didn’t just jump at the opportunity – I leapt.

 


The convention itself was a once in a lifetime experience. There were 15,000 people from all over the world registered. To put that into perspective, the population of people attending the conference was more than 23 times larger than Ituna, the town we ranch near. The conference population would have been in the top handful of largest cities in our entire province. It was BIG.


My purpose for attending this massive event was twofold. I would have opportunities throughout the week to meet and talk with McDonald’s executives, their greatest minds who keep the global wheels of their entire organization rolling. From supply chain to communications, I was to have the unique chance to share with them my thoughts on how to bridge the gap between beef producers and consumers. I was also going to spend time in the Sustainable Beef booth speaking with restaurant owners and corporate McDonald’s people about what sustainability means to my own ranch.


From the first session (which happened to feature a surprise performance by Pitbull), I had an entirely new appreciation for their commitment as an organization to sustainability. There, on a stage in front of thousands and thousands of people, global CEO Steve Easterbrook spoke of their Scale for Good commitment. As the largest restaurant company in the world, they saw that they could create positive change in a way that no one else could. They could make changes within their own restaurants, as well as within their supply chains, which could have ripple effects across the globe. He spoke of this with pride, as well as determination. It would not be an easy task, but it was a noble one.


It made me think back to when McDonald’s first launched their Sustainable Beef Pilot here at home. It was a ground breaking approach, for an end user to come to us, as an industry, and say “Here is our goal. Let’s work together to figure out the best way to get there.” By all accounts the project was a huge success, and has now transitioned to being a part of the Canadian Round Table for Sustainable Beef. There is also now the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot with Cargill and partners like Verified Beef and BIXS, which brings the work that McDonald’s started even further along. All along, McDonald’s vision has not been about creating an elite brand of beef to market, it has been about helping beef producers learn from each other and to grow as an industry.

Being on the enourmous conference floor helped me see McDonald’s restaurant owners in an entirely new light. The scope of their business is not unlike that of a large farm. There were booths for drink dispensers, uniforms, print material, insurance, banking, cleaning supplies, and on and on and on. Chatting with many restaurant owners, it was a complete surprise to find that succession planning was just as big of an issue in their business as it is in my own.

Spending time one on one with those owners, also helped me see that they are as disconnected from food production as consumers are. It was absolutely fantastic to see just how excited each one was to hear directly from a beef producer, and to get a little glimpse into a cattle ranch. Cargill, who makes all of Canada’s patties for McDonald’s, had created an amazing 360 degree video showcasing beef production from ranch to feedlot to processing plant and through to patty plant. It was a huge eye opener for each person to see, and was incredibly fun for myself, to be able to guide them through the video with anecdotes from my own farm. Every single time that I introduced myself as Adrienne, a Cattle Rancher from Canada, I was met with the same huge smile and exclamation of “No way!! That’s amazing!!” It was heartwarming to see not only the excitement of people wanting to talk to ranchers, but also that McDonald’s saw this need, and wanted to make sure that as many people as possible had the opportunity to learn from us. Yes, learn FROM us, not talk down to us. It was so refreshing, just thinking about it now has me craving a Big Mac….

 

Corporate Executive VP, Francesca DeBiase believes in beef producers. She made me feel as though we are on the same team.

I was amazed with how much their corporate executives wanted to chat with us ranchers, and how much they valued our opinions. We sat down with many of their corporate staff to share our views on how we thought McDonald’s could continue to do business with beef producers. The idea that they not only wanted to bridge the gap between their beef producers and their customers, but wanted our opinions on how best to do that, gave me goose bumps. These people, including the Corporate Executive Vice President herself, Francesca DeBiase, as well as many other vice presidents, directors and managers of McDonald’s global business, deeply valued our boots on the ground experience.

 

Corporate VP, Sustainability Keith Kenny walked the trade show with me, highlighting Scale for Good sustainability projects.

From McDonald’s Canada’s CEO, Chief of Marketing VP and General Council VP, each were thrilled to meet and chat. I met a man  who works in their HO treasury branch. I asked him about how they hedge markets and peg currency to lower their risk. He was shocked and amazed to hear that farmers need to be experts in these areas as well, and that we, as producers, need to be constantly managing our exposure to markets. He had never thought of agriculture as that kind of business before. It was a great conversation.

It was a week that filled me with pride in the food I am producing, as well as excitement for the future of the beef industry. In my eyes, those golden arches are glowing pretty bright these days, in ways that this country girl would never have expected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real Numbers for Beef’s Environtmental Footprint

Last year on Earth Day (April 22nd), my local paper published an article on how to be more “green”. In it, they suggested going meatless for some of the time because of beef’s poor environmental footprint. I wrote an article to counter this idea, as I see every day what beef’s actual footprint looks like. Read that post here

While doing some research for that post, I spoke with Tracy Herbert from the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC). She pointed out that while there has been quite a lot of research done in this area, there had not yet been an effort to pull the data from all those studies together to come up with one over-all consensus, but that they were working on it. 

I am happy to report that the results from phase one of that study are in, (see it here), and things are looking very positive for the beef industry! Over all they have found that we are producing significantly MORE beef (32% more), while using significantly LESS resources (24% less land and 29% less breeding stock), and creating a significantly SMALLER environmental footprint (15% less greenhouse gasses). 

  
While I only have to look out my front window to see first hand what beef does to (or for) our environment, this study that puts exact numbers on what we do is very exciting. We can only improve if we know where we started, and every farmer I know only wants to improve how they farm. I can’t wait to see where we are in 10, 20 and 50 years from now! 

For more info, visit the BCRC’s website, here. Or read Real Agriculture’s article on the study here

  
 

Is Eating Beef Bad for the Earth? The Ups and Downs of the Beef on Your Plate

Earth Day is a wonderful thing. We can all use a day dedicated to reflection on each of our own individual impacts on the earth’s health. That being said, it can be difficult to wade through the conflicting advice of what is (in actual fact) good for the environment. Searching online can lead to what I call “Google Diving – The New Era of Dumpster Diving”, because you have to sort through a lot of garbage before you can find those golden nuggets of fact.

Last week’s Earth Day brought about numerous articles, blog posts and media stories with lots of advice. Some suggested that going meatless was one way each of us could reduce our environmental footprint. Seeing beef production from my side made me automatically question the validity of that statement, so I decided to do a little digging, and find out what beef’s impact really looks like to dear Mother Earth. What I found did not surprise me. Beef production does have an impact – of course, everything does!! But here is the kicker – beef has both NEGATIVE and POSITIVE environmental impacts, and both must be taken into consideration when looking at the whole.

The Canadian beef industry does produce greenhouse gasses. Our cattle use water and use up land base, take food (such as barley) out of the human food system, and can pollute water with ammonia, phosphorous, manure and bacteria. These are facts that no one will dispute. But what is missing is the other half of our “hoofprint” – the good half. Luckily, we are not all just feedlots and burping cattle.

Did you know that in Canada, one in three acres of agricultural land is not suitable for growing crops but is suitable for raising cattle? Beef cattle also use feed that would otherwise be wasted, as it is not suitable for human consumption. Eighty percent of feed eaten by Canadian cattle are grasses that are inedible to people, and another 10 percent are grains that are deemed too poor of quality to enter the human food chain. Cattle producers are an opportunistic bunch – we will take whatever grains people do not want to eat and make a lovely, nutritious feed ration for our cattle. It is a great environmental impact to be able to take low quality forages and convert them to high quality protein for humans. Consider us the original recyclers; taking frozen, ugly and unwanted barley and turning it into steak!

Beef cattle management has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Improved management practices have not only allowed Canada to become an international beef production leader, but has also had enormous environmental benefits. These management practices have increased the amount of beef produced per acre, reduced the amount of feed and water required to raise each animal, reduced days to slaughter, which in turn reduces manure and greenhouse gasses produced.

Please excuse the American graphic, but it is just as applicable to my ranch here in Canada. Management decisions that make sense financially also must make sense environmentally. Recent cattle management evolutions, such as bale grazing, not only reduce labour requirements, but also dramatically improve soil quality and allow us a method of rejuvenating at risk soils. Spreading manure from our feedlot on hill tops not only improves those degraded soils, but also keeps manure and bacteria away from wetlands and waterways. Beef cattle management is getting better everyday, and that is great for the environment!

COWS EQUAL GRASS

Grazing cattle are an integral part of both the beef industry as well as the natural grassland ecosystem. On our ranch, breeding cows spend 99% of their lives out on pasture. These vast rolling acres of perennial forages (grasses and alfalfa) are a huge benefit to dear Mother Earth. As well as what I can see from my ranch porch, I found some very interesting Canadian facts from the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC).

Our grasslands provide needed habitat for displaced wildlife and birds. Since seeding the majority of our farm down to perennial forages, we have seen a huge increase in not only populations of wildlife, but a huge increase in diversity of species as well. Some, like moose, are neat to see, but seeing endangered or threatened species that make their home on your land is downright heartwarming. We have seen burrowing owls, whooping cranes, prairie chickens and swift fox. Local deer are very much confused. They do not believe we operate a cattle ranch. If you have ever driven past the feed yard from December to March you will clearly see that they believe it is a white tail deer ranch, and we live to serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner. From salamanders to coyotes to moose – our grasslands provide a safe home.

Forage and grasslands are good for the air and the soil. Alfalfa is perhaps the most common and favorite forage feed for cattle. Alfalfa not only produces its own nitrogen, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, it also has an amazing tap-root system that can grow as deep as 20 feet to find water in dry years. This amazing tap-root can force its way through hardpan soil, loosening the layers for future plants. Many grain producers use alfalfa in their annual crop rotation as a way of improving the soil health. All this, and cows think it’s delicious!

Did you know that Canadian grasslands sequester (capture, hold and store) carbon emissions of 3.62 million cars per year? Yes, you’re welcome Urbanites! The grasses that my cattle need are taking the pollution from your mini-van and storing it away from where it could destroy the ozone. I think I may have a big juicy steak tonight to celebrate that!

Over-all, it is clear to me that beef producers still must consider their environmental impacts when making management decisions. In any food system there is capacity to cause either great harm or great good to the environment. I feel one hundred percent confident stating that with the use of cattle and forages, the land we are in care of is in better health today than that which we purchased it in, and it will be in even better health tomorrow. When looking at the Canadian beef cattle industry as a whole, I feel confident in eating my beef guilt-free. So pass the steak!

For more info go to where I got my facts:
beefresearch.ca
farmfoodcare.org

Earth Day on the Ranch

At first, I thought Earth Day here on the ranch was just like every other day. After all, every day we provide habitat for misplaced wildlife, everyday we sequester carbon in our vast acres of grassland, everyday we aim to improve the soil structure and health. 

But when I thought a little harder, and looked a little deeper, I realized that although we have the earth’s health in the back of our mind all year round, Earth Day is a reminder of so much more. 

A Time Of New Beginnings 

April is when our heifers calve.  By Earth Day (April 22nd) we are just into calving. This year we have 12 calves on the ground (1088 to go!). The birth of new calves is always a wonderful thing, but the first few born each year are extra special. 

  

When these calves are born from the heifers that were raised in our own herd, it is a full circle moment to see them start out so healthy and strong. 

Beyond the obvious new beginnings of calving, spring is full of new beginnings all over the ranch, you just need to look a little closer to see them. 

  

Delicate new shoots of grass are bursting up from amid the old dead leaves. The sound of croaking frogs is a constant song in the background of every cow-checking trip. Pussy Willows have erupted their incredibly soft buds, begging to be picked and displayed in the house.  In spring, even the most old things seem new again. 

A Moment of Reflection 

Earth Day reminds us to take the time to have a closer look at our impact on the world around us. As much as we believe we are doing a great job at being Stewards of the Earth, there is always more to be done. Can we tweek our grazing plan to improve the longevity of our grassland, reducing the need for rejuvenation (and all the fossil fuel and chemical use that goes with it)? Can we change our herd health program to better keep the animals in our care in the best health possible? Can we manage and reduce the drainage on our land to have minimal impact on the land down the road? 

Earth Day is a reminder that of all the answers we have found over the years, sometimes you still need to ask some hard questions. If I have ever learned one hard final answer in Agriculture, it is that no one has all the answers. So we will takes these new beginnings, and be grateful for them. After all, I hope that someday our great-great grandchildren have the opportunity to ask hard questions of themselves on Earth Day.