CALGARY, ALBERTA – In the rolling hills south of Calgary, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch (CRMR) raises game for its herd of resorts and restaurants.
These hills are a special place, visited by chinook winds, called the “snow eater” by locals as warm winds come over the mountains, melting the snow and exposing the grasses. Once the wintering ground for bison, this Southern Alberta region became a ranching hotspot about 120 years ago.
The CRMR was organized in 1996 on 550 acres, now surrounded by 8-foot game fences. The owners, Pat and Connie O’Conner, now have additional land to raise hay feed for 500 to 600 animals, making the operation essentially self-sufficient.
“It was natural to start raising our own elk, bison and reindeer to get the quality and consistency we wanted,” Executive Chef Alistair Barnes says. Before the ranch, “we would get great product one week, then we’d order again, and it wouldn’t be the same quality. Now, we have Alberta lamb, duck, chicken and quail, but game is definitely our big seller. It makes up more than 50 percent of sales in our restaurants.”
When visiting the ranch, Terry Church, the director, will tell you the cold-adapted animals live outside year-round. They are moved around, depending upon the amount of grass and forage available, and as pastures start declining in the fall, they are fed hay.
Young, weaned calves 5 to 7 months old find it hard to get enough energy out of hay to grow to their optimal level, called “good body condition.”
“So we feed them some grain as well,” Church says. “We raise all our animals without hormones, antibiotics or animal protein (in the feed). This is increasingly attractive to a lot of customers.”
The animals give birth in spring. After a year and a half to two years, they are moved for processing. Then the meat is aged 21 to 28 days and shipped to Barnes at the CRMR facility in Canmore, the site of the company’s bakery, pastry kitchen and commissary, as well as a large refrigerator and huge freezer. When chefs at the company’s various locations require meat, freshly baked bread, jams or other products, they let Barnes know, and the item is shipped out on a CRMR truck. About 85 percent of the meat goes to the lodges and restaurants. The remaining 15 percent is sold to outside customers.
“We try to use the whole animal,” Barnes says. “Obviously, it’s easier to sell primal cuts: the fillet, the strip loin, the rib-eye.” The chefs use their creativity for the rest of the meat: cured meats, pastrami, elk ham out of the leg muscle, sausages for breakfasts, salamis, stews and even Osso Buco. “Of course, we also make ‘Ranch’ Burgers of 50 percent elk and 50 percent buffalo, ground up.”
Four luxury resorts – two around Banff, one near Lake Louise and another on coastal British Columbia – and five fine-dining restaurants in Calgary are part of the ranch’s holdings. Barnes decides which locations receive which cuts of meat.
“One or two restaurants might get the buffalo tenderloin, while a couple of other properties will receive strip loin or rib-eye,” he says.
Some of the animals have a special history, and Church has plenty of stories to tell. Abandoned, day-old calf Terra was found a year ago during a cold and rainy spell. The herd had moved on, and she was left behind.
“I knew she was abandoned. I suspect her mother had twins. Commonly, the mother will go with the stronger of the twins. Our options are leave the orphan there to die or be eaten by coyotes, or, our choice, bring them home and bottle-rear them. So, from the beginning, Terra considered people and dogs her herd.”
The ranch now includes a direct sales store selling jerky, jam, frozen meat, honey and Elk Velvet Antler pills. Church says, “Elk antler is a natural anti-inflammatory. It brings swelling down. It’s good for arthritis.”
In spring, elk antlers grow and feel like velvet. Normally, the antlers calcify and fall off. “We get (the antlers) before calcification when blood is still in them. The Asian market slices them and makes a broth. That doesn’t go over well in North American markets. We make it into pills,” Church says.
For more information on the Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch, its products and store, visit the website at www.CRMR.com, or write Box 54 RR8 Site 5, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2J 2T9, or call toll-free 866-563-2242.