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June 1, 2010

Pine Haven Colony builds a reputation for food confidence

Medication records are key to VBP.

The colony is the first to be registered under the Verified Beef Program

In many ways Alberta's Pine Haven Colony has an ideal location for marketing. Situated in the beautiful rolling countryside just outside Wetaskiwin, Alta., it is close to several vibrant communities and within easy driving distance of the city of Edmonton.

The Colony is making the most of that opportunity. Today it provides a range of agricultural and food products, many marketed directly to consumers or retailers. That is based on a simple belief that agriculture today needs to provide consumers with confidence in their product.

William Hofer is in charge of the Colony's feedlot operation. That enterprise produces 3,600 head annually and is integrated with a 400 cow-calf operation. Both beef operations are officially registered with Verified Beef Production (VBP), Canada's national program for beef on-farm food safety.

The Pine Haven beef operation is designed for multiple products. On the feedlot side, most of the incoming cattle are bought as calves at 400 to 500 lbs. and will be fed to the 800 to 850 pound range and sold to finishing lots. There is also a section of the feedlot that finishes approximately 250 head of cattle a year, or about four or five a week for beef to be slaughtered onsite and sold through the colony's own meatshop. Those cattle are raised on a special feeding regime designed to appeal to the direct market consumer.

On the ranch side, the black Angus herd are summer calved and the focus is a forage raised product. "We like a smaller cow that produces a nice calf without high maintenance costs," says Hofer. "Our calves enter our own feedlot. Some may go on specialty programs for domestic or export markets and the best heifers go back into the herd."

The VBP process

The Pine Haven Colony started on the VBP program in 2008, and their experience is an example of how a well organized beef production system can easily get involved with the program. The colony joined program and completed the VBP audit or registration stage all within a few months.

"The process was simple," says Hofer. "We attended a VBP workshop held by the provincial coordinator in Alberta. That introduced the VBP program and explained everything we had to do. We found that like many producers, we were already doing a lot of this already, and what we weren't doing, made sense and was easily added to our management approach."

VBP establishes a set of standard operating procedures or SOPs, designed to ensure that proper food safety procedures are being followed in beef production. The optional validation audit involves having a third party auditor visit the farm to assess that what the producer says is being done is in fact being done properly. When the audit is completed, the operation is officially designated as "registered" under the VBP program.

The audit process is not onerous, says Hofer, and much of the reason in his experience is having good records. In the case of the Colony, a state-of-the-art record keeping system has worked very well.

"We track every animal that enters and leaves the feedlot and what is done in between," he says. "Computer searches are very easy and when an animal leaves our lot we search to see if there are proper withdrawal times and no broken needles. If there are broken needles, we can ensure the proper paperwork follows the animal.

"We have a responsibility to ensure food safety," he says. "No one can afford a broken needle entering the food system."

The VBP audit process took only a few hours, says Hofer. Basically, it operates on an eight year cycle, he explains. The first year is a full audit. The second year, we submit our records for review. We have just completed that stage successfully. Year three and four are self declaration, year five is another record assessment, six to eight are self declarations, and year nine is another on-farm audit.

Verified production

Where possible, production on the Pine Haven Colony is verified. "Our whole farm is audited: dairy, hogs, poultry, our feedmill and our meat shop," says Hofer who believes it just makes sense. "We sell at farmers markets, at our own store and to other retailers, and we promote our beef as raised to certain standards and that includes feed, humane animal care and on-farm food safety.

"A large percent of the cattle operations in Canada are already doing this stuff, so why not assure the public we are doing all these things," he says. "We say Canada has the best beef in the world so why not prove to consumers and our export markets that we do with a third party national program?

"If everyone gets on board we should be able to gain more markets."

Note: Partial support for this article provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Food Safety Systems Development Fund.