Finishing 15,000 cattle a year at Dundalk, Ontario, Canada, Pallister Farms is part of a corn-fed beef initiative which aims to increase retail sales.
In among the seemingly endless green fields of soyabeans and maize, Pallister Farms is a large-scale beef finishing unit run by the straight-talking Dale Pallister and his son, Chris.
The fifth and sixth generations of the Pallister family to run the farm since their ancestors headed for Canada from England, their huge site mixes cereal production and beef finishing.
It is also heavily involved in the Ontario Corn Fed Beef initiative which aims to promote a more succulent style of beef to Canadian consumers and increase sales in the process.
With more than 1,620 hectares (4,000 acres) of crops, the Pallisters have a mixture of corn (maize), wheat, barley, edible beans and grass for hay.
The family also finishes 15,000 head of cattle a year, 75 per cent of which are Aberdeen-Angus crosses, sourced from the beef herds of Western Canada from August onwards.
Only buying steers, cattle come in at 260-320kg and are reared to between 700-750kg over an average of 260 days.
Fed a total mixed ration, the latter stages of the feeding process involves feeding high moisture, rolled corn which ensures they can become accredited for the scheme. To become accredited, they have to be fed an 80 per cent corn ration for 100 days, usually in the lead up to slaughter.
Cattle are fed twice-a-day, with the corn-fed element including a 28-32 per cent moisture corn ration which is rolled and then clamped.
Corn silaging starts in September and the cattle also receive a high protein haylage mix, corn cob meal and dry and wet distillers’ grain.
Currently receiving about CAN$1.50/lb (CAN$3.30/kg) liveweight, which equates to about £2.03/kg, Dale says while the corn-fed beef scheme gives them a slight margin over cattle not in the scheme, he believes it is the long-term benefits the scheme will provide, for example greater brand recognition among consumers, which will be the big win.
He says: “The corn-fed initiative started in 2001. At that time our industry was shrinking big time and our market in this region was being taken over by beef from Western Canada and the States.
“We had no identity for our Ontario beef which would help us distinguish ourselves. If we had not developed this we might not be here.
“The product is now a lot more consistent and, while there is a little bit of a price advantage, it is really about keeping the market going, and we now have a product we can keep marketing.
“If we can control the marketing of this product even further, this will give us a big advantage.”
And it is one they might need as Cargill, which owns the abattoir 50 miles from the Pallister farm, now controls 80 per cent of the Ontario beef market following the closure of other processing plants in the area. This monopoly, says Dale, is good for none of the finishers.
“Cargill takes 80 per cent of all cattle in the province and this means no competition,” he says. “If this does not change then there will be contraction in the number of finishers.
“Cargill will not put a basing price in for us in Ontario because it does not have to as it has the monopoly.”
Looking for a CAN$75-80 (£46-50) profit on each steer he sells after all costs have been deducted, Dale says this is being squeezed by the behaviour of the processor. But he remains philosophical.
“There is still a 10 per cent element of risk for us, the only difference is the price of cattle is much higher. Whereas in the 1980s this swing could be $150 dollars either way on a $1,500 dollar animal, it is now $250 on a $2,500 animal.
“The swing is the same, it is just the numbers which have changed.”
Having recently built a 236-metre cattle finishing shed, cattle are bought-in from Western Canada and given an electronic tag, which is required by Government, and an identification tag for the farm.
The cattle make their way from suckler herds in the west of the country and embark on the near 40-hour journey to Pallister Farms. An average wagon can accommodate about 85 steers and they begin the 1,700-mile journey as autumn nears.
But issues of labour on western units and increasing concern about animal welfare within the Canadian Government could pose a headache for the Pallisters.
Dale says: “The calving window has moved for some farms from the start of the year to the end of April or May so they can calve on grass. Access to labour is tough for some of those guys and they are shifting their systems.
“With the transport times, cattle could spend 52 hours on a truck before they were unloaded but the authorities have looked to change this [to 36 hours]. This poses problems for our cattle coming from Manitoba which take 38-40 hours to get here.
“We only have 0.5 per cent of cattle coming off those trucks with issues such as broken legs, so why are they looking to penalise us? Common sense has abandoned many of them [politicians].”
With grain grown for the cattle, many in the large sheds are on slats and the manure is then put back on to the land, representing a $50 (£32) fertiliser contribution per animal, says Dale.
When the slurry is spread, staff follow behind six to eight hours later to incorporate it in the soil and aid the nutrient benefit.
There are no disease issues or testing for things such as brucellosis or TB and everything is recorded in case the department for the environment was to launch a snap inspection.
“Touch wood,” says Dale, “this has never been an issue.”