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Where's the beef... from?

Pemberton cattle growers go natural



Don Millerd is an affable guy. He's got a one-liner he's likely delivered a hundred times, but it's still charming: "Ten years ago I couldn't even spell 'cow'," he says with a laugh from his office in North Vancouver.

The punch line should be "and now I are one." But in his case as co-owner of Pemberton Meadows Natural Beef and self-described neophyte in the beef business, we'd have to change that to "and now I grows them." At least Millerd helps grow them with his equally affable partner, Bob Mitchell. (Cattle insiders do say "grow".)

In beautiful Pemberton Valley, Mitchell, along with other farmers in the area, raises and finishes beef cattle for the Pemberton Meadows Natural Beef brand.

And what happy low-stress cattle they are, generating happy local farmers - who've been able to make a living when they might not have otherwise - as well as some pretty happy beef eaters.

We love our beef, we humans, so we share our planet with a heck of a lot of cattle. According to Gira, an international market research group, almost a billion beef cattle are being raised for dinner tables worldwide, about 12.3 million of them in Canada, primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan. That's about one head of beef for every three Canadians.

Approximately half of Canadian beef is exported, but we still have enough left to chow down plenty. On average, every Canadian eats 20.2 kg (44.5 lb) of beef each year.

Most of us get our beef - in fact, virtually all of our meat - in pristine, plastic-wrapped packages from our local grocery stores. But given the nature of Canada's commercial beef system, which generates the more than 90 per cent of beef not provided by operations like that in Pemberton, we haven't a clue how a steak or roast goes from hoof to plate.


From disaster to delightful surprise

At least two good things arose from the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) disaster that crippled the Canadian cattle industry in mid-2003: Canada developed Verified Beef Production, one of the best cattle tracking systems in the world, and Pemberton Meadows Natural Beef was born.

At the time Bob Mitchell was raising calves on the 200-acre family farm he'd grown up on in Pemberton Valley since the 1950s. His part-time neighbour since the '60s, Don Millerd, had just bought another nearby property and was wondering what to do with it.

Back then, Mitchell would raise his calves until they were about six months old then sell them at auction for finishing. This is the way most B.C. cattle are typically raised - some kind of cow-calf operation that entails finishing, which means feeding and growing calves at a feedlot to a size suitable for butchering. Backgrounders are also often used - farmers or companies who buy calves to grow them larger before they go to feedlots.