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What’s the difference between conventional beef, natural beef, certified organic beef and TK Ranch grass-fed beef?

What’s the difference between conventional beef, natural beef, certified organic beef and TK Ranch grass-fed beef?

Cattle are raised many different ways in Alberta. Understanding these differences is important if you are trying to make informed decisions about the meat you are buying. The information below is factual and is not intended to judge one producer’s management over another. However, some people reading this information may be sensitive to certain management practices described under the conventional description below. This information is listed last in case you want to skip it altogether.

  • How is TK Ranch Grass-fed Beef Different than Conventional, Natural and Certified Organic Beef?
  • How is Certified Organic Beef Different from Conventional Beef?
  • How is Natural Beef Different from Conventional Beef
  • Conventional Beef Production
cows in pasture in Alberta

It is important to note that the comparisons below do not include any information about how conventional, natural or organic producers actually handle their beef cattle or how they take care of their land and the wildlife that lives there. Even the certified organic standards do not include measurable guidelines for animal welfare or environmental stewardship — organic is more about controlling the use of chemicals and inputs (antibiotics, etc.). For more detailed information we suggest you take the time to read the Canadian Organic Standards and Regulations .

How is TK Ranch Grass-fed Beef Different than Conventional, Natural and Certified Organic Beef?

Everything we do on TK Ranch hinges upon food safety, animal welfare and environmental stewardship:

  • We're certified and third party audited to the highest pasture based animal welfare standards in North America. We're also certified and third party audited for raising grass-fed and grass finished beef .
  • We calve in the late spring and summer to ensure our cows receive nutritious wild grasses in their last trimester before birth. It's also much nicer for the calves to be born when it is warm and extremes in temperature are less likely.
  • We use Low Stress Livestock Handling to manage our cattle which decreases stress dramatically in our herd. Our cattle are kept in large pastures most of their lives. They're only confined temporarily when they're being branded, sorted or loaded onto trucks and hauled longer distances to pastures.
  • No chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers are ever used on any of our land and we manage with a strong land stewardship ethic.
  • We band the testicles of our male calves at birth which is much less invasive than using a knife. If castration is done at a later age (we keep a few bull calves, and if they don’t mature into a suitable breeding prospect they are castrated) they are sedated by a vet and given analgesics for pain.
  • We use what are called “polled” cattle (they do not have horns genetically) which dramatically decreases the need for dehorning. If a calf needs to be dehorned we use topical xylocaine to decrease the pain. On average we dehorn 3 out of 250 calves every year.
  • We don't use artificial growth hormones (implants) or other growth promotants   in any of our livestock. We only supplement them with vitamins and minerals and let them grow naturally.
  • We don't use chemical insecticides on our cattle. By not using them for decades, we've bred our cattle to be naturally resistant to most parasites. Over a three year span between 2016 and 2019, we were involved in a federal government research project studying insecticide resistance in cattle. Overall, our cattle were found to have low parasite loads compared to those routinely treated with insecticides that had become resistant to the treatment. On a rare occasion, if an animal becomes infested with parasites (like lice), we will treat them to prevent suffering. But this is done on a case by case basis.
  • No animals in our meat program ever receive sub-therapeutic antibiotics (aka feed antibiotics or ionophores ) from birth to slaughter. If an animal gets sick, we'll treat it with therapeutic antibiotics (a one time treatment) to prevent suffering or death because it would be inhumane not to. Very few of our cattle get sick due to our pasture based management and low stress handling. If they do, it’s usually as young calves in the fall when temperatures start to get cold. The average withdrawal time from when an animal is treated to when it's slaughtered is between 18 months to 2 years.
  • We freezer brand (see Freeze Branding ) as an alternative to hot iron branding which is much less painful.
  • In the winter, when the snow gets too deep to graze through, or temperatures get very cold, we move our cattle home to a 360 acre winter pen where they have access to windbreak, bedding, fresh water and feed. During the winter, when our cattle require a lot of calories to stay warm, they're supplemented with hay, greenfeed, haylage and barley sprouts (1). They're not fed grain.
  • We wean our calves in January when they average 8 months old. We do what's called a soft wean to decrease animal stress. First, they're given access with their mothers to a large weaning pen where we'll provide feed and clean water for a few days. Once the calves know where the feed and water are, they're separated from their mothers and locked in this pen. It usually takes two or three days before the calves are completely weaned, then they're moved into a larger 50 acre pasture for the rest of the winter.
  • After the snow melts, the calves (almost yearlings) are turned out onto pasture and a few of them will grass finished completely by the fall at 20 months of age. But most take substantially longer and finish at 24 to 30 months of age during their second winter. This means that on average our cattle are much older than conventional, natural and organic cattle when the grass finishing process is complete.
  • In 2015, we built our own small on-farm government inspected abattoir so that we could handle our livestock at slaughter with the utmost care and respect. Our slaughter facility is certified and third party audited to the highest animal welfare slaughter standards in North America. We're one of the only farms in Canada to have our own on-farm red meat abattoir. This means we don't have to ship our cattle to a different and unfamiliar location to be slaughtered like almost every other farm or ranch. This allows us to control not only animal welfare, but the quality of our beef. We have large dry-aging coolers where our beef hangs for 21 days before being broken down.  To control the end quality of our products, we also built our own small cutting and processing facility on a small parcel of land we purchased near Chestermere (20 minutes east of Calgary). Our beef is shipped weekly from TK Ranch to our cutting facility where we have a team of artisan meat cutters process it into steaks, roasts and ground beef. It's also processed into value added products like sausages and patties that are made without gluten, soy, corn, binders, fillers, nitrates or other unsavoury ingredients. Just nutrient dense beef, certified organic seasonings and lots of love. Today we manage all aspects of our branded meat program from birth right to the end consumer. We process between 4 and 6 beef and 8 pigs a week.

How is Certified Organic Beef Different from Conventional Beef?

Most certified organic cattle are calved, hot iron branded, castrated, vaccinated, weaned, sold and feedlot finished in a very similar manner to conventional cattle. However, there are some important differences. Certified organic cattle are not allowed to be fed ionophores (feed antibiotics), implanted with artificial growth hormones or treated with chemical insecticides . They also must graze certified organic pastures (that are not sprayed with chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides) and fed certified organic grains and forages. Also, any certified organic cattle requiring antibiotic treatment for illness or disease, have to be removed from the producer's organic program and sold separately under a different label.


Most organic beef sold today is feedlot finished . As late as the 1990s, many organic cattle were still being fed and finished on the farms and ranches where they were born, but this is no longer the norm. Demand for organic beef skyrocketed which caused this fledgling industry to rapidly evolve into large commercial operations designed to capitalize on growing consumer trends. But there are some minor differences when compared to mainstream production. After organic calves are weaned, they're usually not shipped off the farm for a few weeks to let them adjust. This is called pre-conditioning and helps prevent them from getting sick when sold and shipped off the farm (aka shipping fever ). Most organic calves are sold to companies like Beretta who then have them shipped in cattle liners to large feedlots (intensive livestock operations) where they're segregated and fed an organic ration. The scale of these feedlots can vary dramatically from on-farm finishing of a few hundred head to tens of thousands of animals. In the feedlot, organic calves are given grain at a gradual rate and fed more forages (hay or greenfeed) than conventionally raised cattle. This gradual introduction to grain slows down the finishing process by a few weeks and keeps the organic cattle somewhat healthier. After being in the feedlot for several months, most organic cattle are ready for slaughter at 16 to 18 months of age when they're shipped to large slaughter facilities for processing. 

Concentrating and feeding large numbers of animals in one area for long periods of time has serious affects on our soils, watersheds and air quality.  At what point does a feedlot, whether it's organic or not, become an environmental and health liability? The transportation of feed to support the feedlot industry, not to mention the petrochemical inputs (fuel, etc.) required for production of that feed, creates a carbon footprint that's not sustainable for the food system. Please see What About Organic? to better understand some of the challenges facing the organic agriculture industry today. Grain finishing cattle, whether organic or conventionally raised, also dramatically changes the health benefits of the beef itself, please see What About Grass-fed Beef? for more information.

How is Natural Beef Different from Conventional Beef

The word “natural” can mean almost anything in the cattle industry as it's currently unregulated. Most consumers don't know what questions to ask to ensure that the beef products  they're buying are actually meeting their expectations. There are several high profile natural beef companies in Alberta that routinely feed their cattle ionophores (feed antibiotics) to prevent acidosis , use chemical insecticides to control parasites and feedlot finish their cattle on conventionally raised grain. We've even been told by one of these companies that they don't consider sulfa drugs antibiotics.

There are some beef producers that feed their cattle a more natural diet, and are closer to organic, but never assume anything . Always ask detailed questions to ensure the beef you're buying meets your family's needs.

Most natural beef is finished for slaughter at the same age as conventional beef, at 13 to 15 months of age, and slaughtered at large abattoirs .

Conventional Beef Production

Most farms and ranches in Alberta start calving around April 1st. There are a few that winter calve in January or February, but these numbers are decreasing every year. Producers that winter calve are often also farmers that need to be finished calving before they start seeding their crops. Some are also purebred cattle breeders that want their bull calves big enough to sell the following spring as breeding stock. Other producers think that by calving in the winter they'll make more money selling their calves in the fall because they'll be bigger and heavier. But winter calving is much more expensive than calving in the warmer months. Often heated barns are required to ensure newborn calves don't die from exposure. Additionally, cows that are producing milk need a lot of feed to both nurse a calf and stay warm. Not to mention the extra manpower needed to night check to ensure that calves being born outside don't freeze to death. Calving is the most important time of year for ranchers and few venture very far from their cows during this time. Ensuring their cows and calves are healthy and well tended is their focus.

After being born, the calves are left on their mothers for a few months. During this time they're tagged with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) button (for traceability in the national herd), hot iron branded (to prevent theft), vaccinated, castrated with a knife, dehorned (if necessary) and implanted with an artificial growth hormone such as Ralgro to help them grow faster. The cows and calves are usually left on pasture until the fall.

Calves are most commonly sold in September or October during what is called the "fall calf run" . Some calves are sold privately, others through online auctions, but the vast majority are sold through public auction markets. Regardless of how the calves are sold, some ranchers still do what is called a “hard or "truck" wean . The calves are taken away from their mothers and immediately loaded onto a truck and shipped to an auction market, a feedlot or wherever the buyer has requested. Being separated from their mothers, handled and shipped to an unfamiliar destination is very stressful on calves. It's not uncommon for them to lose a lot of body condition during this process. As a result, many can get what's called shipping fever and could potentially die without treatment. This is why many feedlots immediately treat calves arriving at their facilities with a shot of antibiotics, they want to prevent any potential disease or health conditions from happening. They also implant the calves when they arrive with an artificial growth hormone (like Ralgro ) and again at 30 or 60 day intervals until they're finished (fattened). Artificial growth hormones are used to shorten the time an animal is in the feedlot and decrease expensive feed costs. They're also are treated with chemical insecticides to control both external and internal parasites – the most common product used is Ivomec .

When calves first arrive at a feedlot, they're fed grain at a gradual rate and given more forages (hay or greenfeed) in their ration. Within about 6 weeks this ration becomes predominantly grain. Cattle have four stomachs, the first is their rumen and it evolved over millennia to have specific bacteria and other microorganisms to digest grasses and forbes that were natural in their diet, they did not evolve to digest grain. So when cattle are fed a ration that's predominantly grain, this can cause their rumen to become acidic and make them very sick. This is called acidosis and to prevent this from happening the pharmaceutical industry invented ionophores . These are a sub-therapeutic feed antibiotics and the two most commonly used are Rumensin and Monensin .

Generally the grain finishing process takes 7 months to achieve the optimum fattened weight (~ 1400 lbs) and cattle are ready for slaughter at 13 to 15 months of age. Once finished they are shipped by cattle liner loads to abattoirs like Cargill or JBS that slaughter 4500 beef every day. These companies then distribute this grain-fed beef to grocery chains like Costco, Safeway and others.

(1) Barley Sprouts (defined): When barley is malted it is soaked in water and then placed in a warm room until it grows a small half-inch sprout. Once sprouted the grain is dried. The sprout is then broken off and separated and the malted barley sold to breweries to make beer. These sprouts are clean (unsprayed), high in energy and nutrients and provide the calories our animals need to keep warm in the winter while being finished properly. These sprouts do not affect the pH balance of an animal’s rumen like grain so acidosis is not a problem. The cattle stay healthy and contented while being finished properly.