Award winning ranchers carve space in niche market

From sheep, to pigs, poultry to cattle, Tyler McNaughton and Sacha Bentall of Cutter Ranch tried different types of animal production and have landed on a model that allows them to stay true to their farming philosophy — use their land wisely and produce products they are proud of.

“Probably our greatest success has been the ability to farm how we want to as a couple and to be successful in that venture,” says McNaughton. “We started from scratch a decade ago and we are still here, we are still growing and we have been able to maintain our commitment to how we want our animals to be raised.”

As 2018 BC and Yukon region winners of the Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award, Cutter Ranch has come a long way over the past 10 years. The couple started as a sheep operation in Clinton, BC on Bentall’s family farm before purchasing a quarter section of land in Fort Steele, BC, which is where they currently operate. The plan from the beginning was to raise high-quality meat in a low stress environment for the animals.

Both raised in farming families, returning to the land was always in the cards. “We knew there was an increasing demand for locally produced meat with a high standard of animal husbandry,” says McNaughton.”As consumers, we were unable to find the types of products we were looking for so our goal was to fit into that niche market, which continues to expand every year.”

Their pork is raised using mobile pastures that allows them to move the animals frequently across the land. They seed the pastureland, so the pigs can be moved to even marginal areas of the ranch.

In 2016, the couple streamlined their pork production by phasing out farrowing and using purchased weaner pigs. The decision to focus on pork immediately paid off. In the first year, sales of their pasture-fed pork increased 219 per cent and in year two, sales increased a further 30 per cent.

At the same time, the couple decided to eliminate poultry production and move into cattle ranching. Bentall says that while there was a big demand for their chickens, they were unable to scale up that part of the business and still manage other areas of their enterprise, including sales. The operation is lean — McNaughton and Bentall run the business entirely on their own. With two children at home, resource management is critical.

“There’s always a bit of trepidation when you shift from one type of animal production to another,” says Bentall. “You don’t want to give up on something you have worked hard to build and something you enjoy. But there is a satisfaction that comes from making good, forward-looking business decisions.”

While they always raised a few cows, two years ago they chose to rent a neighbouring farm to pasture cattle, which allowed them to continue with their low-density production philosophy. They now maintain that additional farmland with 35 cows that they see from calving through finishing to make sure that the end product is what they themselves would choose to eat.

“Raising cattle was something that both of us already knew how to do,” says Bentall. “The increased demand for beef made it a good business decision but there is also the pure enjoyment for us of getting back out on the range, and back to our farming roots.”

The couple use the term “ethically raised,” when discussing how they choose to operate their ranch. For them, that means doing as much as they can to create a low-stress environment for their animals. McNaughton says this meets the demands of those who buy their products.

“We give our animals as much freedom as possible,” says McNaughton. “They are raised 100 per cent outdoors in a very calm environment. It’s a system that is very easy for us to do and it is very gratifying that there are others out there who are looking for this type of system.”

They continue to change the mix of animals on the ranch. In the summer of 2018 they decided to disperse their sheep flock and invest even further into pork production. “We only operate on a quartersection and our goal is to raise our animals without confinement,” says McNaughton. “Sheep require space and we were unable to grow our business and keep producing sheep in the manner which we would choose.”

In the past they have worked with local schools to bring children to the farm to witness the lambing process. While a busy time of year for visitors, Bentall says she thinks it’s important for kids to see where their food comes from. “Lambing is fairly gentle and is safe for children to be around,” says Bentall. “We want to inspire kids to get involved in ag and witnessing new life is a wonderful thing to see. We want to continue to work with kids in the future and are working with local teachers to see what that would look like going forward.”

In terms of selling their product, McNaughton and Bentall set up shop at three or four farmer’s markets each week. They also sell directly to high-end restaurants and food service businesses. They’ve developed a modular and mobile fulfilment system that allows them to deliver frozen meats quickly, and which also allows them to scale up as demand increases.

“Our market right now is definitely a niche market, and our customers are willing to pay a premium for animals raised the way we have chosen,” says McNaughton. “We are continuing to build our relationships with grocery stores in this area and we do hope to eventually move into bigger markets and see our logo in more places. Right now people hear about us through word of mouth, and we’ve been able to sell all we produce without having to take any other marketing approaches.”

Bentall says that in the future, they want to be able to scale up even further and she says direct connections with their customers helps them do that. “Today we get immediate feedback, which can be challenging but it gives us a great opportunity to instantly respond to what our customers want. We are open minded as to what the future will be — we know there will be different advances in technology, environmental shifts or consumer trends. But we feel confident that we have hit on a successful formula and we are just now hitting our stride.”