To boost beef industry, N.L. government invites farmers to have a cow

The provincial government is betting that by spending a little cash to buy better cattle, Newfoundland and Labrador's modest beef market may be able to grow.

A research project led by the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources has bought and transported 15 pregnant Hereford cows to three farms in western and central Newfoundland in the last three years.

"This is the beginning stages of growing a beef industry, in our opinion, so we got a ways to go," said Sabrina Ellsworth, a research manager with the department.

Little beef is produced in the province — about 1,000 kilograms annually, a drop in the bucket compared with the 14 million kilograms imported in the same time frame — and much of that local meat has come from breeds or crossbreeds ill-suited to end up as food, said Ellsworth.

Herefords, however, are widely used across Canada for beef production, and can make the most of Newfoundland and Labrador's marginal pasture quality and cool climate.

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"They're a very, very hardy breed. They do very well on the landscape in Newfoundland and Labrador," said Ellsworth. "They're very easy to handle. They're like giant dogs, in a way," she said, making them ideal candidates for a research project that requires of weigh ins and observations.

Taste test to come

That docility was on display Wednesday as a few Herefords hung out at Spring Meadow Farm in Springdale for a project update, already sporting shaggy coats for the winter ahead.

Farmer Tim Young began taking part in the project last year when he received five Hereford cows, who have all since given birth.

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"They've been doing exceptional," he said, adding the calves are gaining more than two pounds a day. 

Young is new to the industry, having taken over the farm in 2017. He currently has 60 cattle, and hopes to increase his herd to about 200 in the next few years, and says the genetic diversity the Herefords bring is key.

"My goal with the farm is to be able to bring it to the next level, for sure," he said.

The province bought the cows and paid for their trip to Springdale, a financial hurdle the government said has so far impeded farmers from doing so on their own. In turn, Young is in charge of feed, vet bills and any other care required. Provincial researchers check in monthly to chart progress.

While Young hopes to be able to produce enough beef to sell to grocery stores and restaurants, the entire research project is still in its early stages and little slaughtering has so far been done, as for the most part the cattle haven't reached maturity.

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"The true test to the quality of the beef we are producing will be at time of slaughter," said Ellsworth.

"So when we actually compare the meat quality, the marbling, the cuts — all of those components will be examined at that time." 

Six steers are expected to be harvested this winter.

Carbon and cattle

Ellsworth said the total government investment in the cattle — which are also living on farms in Daniel's Harbour and Cormack — is about $100,000 so far.

Beef has been making headlines as of late for its large carbon footprint compared to other forms of protein, thanks to a combination of energy use in its production, as well as the methane the animals emit naturally. A recent United Nations report stated both farming and eating habits need to change worldwide, including choosing more plant-based foods over meat.

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According to the province, most of the 13.8 kilograms of beef imported into Newfoundland and Labrador in 2018 came from elsewhere in Canada. The minister of fisheries and land resources argued that cutting that transport would cut emissions, and is a more practical approach to the problem than asking people to change what's on their plates.

"The most practical step is to reduce the carbon footprint of the beef that we do eat, and the best way to do that? Produce it right here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Don't ship it in," said Gerry Byrne.

Twenty-five calves have been born since the research project began in 2016.

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