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A farm built for two

700 cows, a feedlot, two people… and it works

A picture-perfect scene of 700 black cows set against a canvas of white transforms to pairs on a collage of gold and green as Bryce and Dawn McKenzie put the final touches on their calving season. They have the strokes down pat after 38 years in the beef business and share some insights on how they manage a large cow-calf and backgrounding operation on their own.

Swath grazing has been a focal point since Bryce stumbled across the idea in 1988. It was a dry year and some grass he had cut didn’t seem worth baling. It was a pleasant surprise when the cows found it later under the snow and cleaned it up. Figuring that worked well, he tried a few more acres the next year, and the next, eventually adding spring-seeded oats to be cut in July for grazing later on.

Back then, the operation was much smaller. He grew up on a grain farm a few miles away and in 1976 bought an empty quarter along Highway 7 east of Rosetown, Sask., to start his own beef operation with eight cows, a bull and a dream! The couple has a knack for repurposing good used buildings to meet their needs and over time has moved in their home and five hip-roofed barns, each for a specific purpose.

Today, the cows and heifers swath graze baler oats from December 1 through to March 15. There hasn’t been a winter yet they haven’t stayed out the full 100 days, Dawn says. They graze together on a quarter section at a time and the swaths are laid down in such a way that the herd has to walk across them on the way to the water bowl. With 700 animals traipsing back and forth, it’s not long before snow and ice on the swaths get kicked aside and they’re into new swaths.

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Lots of portable windbreak fences cut the wind chill considerably, but they’ll start supplementing with grain for extra energy if it gets below -28 C. There’s not enough sunlight hours on those short winter days to give the cows a chance to warm from the outside in, Bryce says.

They plan for one acre per cow for the 100 days, or 700 acres total. Underseeded with fall rye, the fields do double duty in spring for the new pairs and bulls. The fall rye greens up early drawing the cattle across the stubble to spread them out as they clean up remaining swaths.

The bull battery is kept fully charged with one for every 15 to 17 cows to ensure 75 per cent of their calves arrive in the first cycle. They’ve switched to range-raised Angus-Simmental bulls and have definitely seen the promised 20-pound weaning weight advantage using the hybrids compared to straight Angus bulls.

Since finding some bloodlines that are adding length and depth on the calves without compromising calving ease, they’ve been keeping the bulls longer and buying in more of the 70 Angus-type replacement heifers needed each year.

The herd is brought into the yard a couple of weeks ahead of calving starting April 1. Pastures with a clear view from the dining room window are reserved for this purpose and readied by pushing up the snow ahead of time to give the cattle lots of dry ground.

The calving pasture leads up to the barn area where there is a large bedded corral surrounded by windboard fencing. The animals are free to come and go during the day, then are locked into the bedded area at night to ensure new arrivals are safe and sound.

Feeding in the afternoon helps keep the herd on a daytime calving schedule, so there’s not much night checking as long as the weather co-operates.

New pairs are moved out of the calving pasture each evening and morning, with heifer pairs going to their own pasture and mature pairs to another. Moving the pairs out helps prevent mismatches and mis-mothering and spreads the herd over more ground to reduce crowding as it doubles in size.

They aim to have 75 per cent of  their calves born in the first cycle.

They aim to have 75 per cent of their calves born in the first cycle.
photo: Debbie Furber

A large pen directly back of the barn is for new pairs in cold weather and those needing extra time to mother up. Bryce designed a handy calf carrier attached to the back of a four-wheeler to get new pairs up to the barn area quickly and safely. The calf rests on its belly with legs dangling through the frame as if in a standing position and the cow follows right along behind.

The two calving barns don’t see as much use as when calving started in February, but they still come in handy when weather turns ornery. The area below the hayloft in one barn is insulated with a home-built maternity pen in an enclosed room and permanent pens across the alley. The back section is open to be used as a loafing area for calving cows and can be set up with pens as needed. This area and the second insulated barn with temporary pens are cleaned out after calving to be used for storage.

Calving days are busy from sun-up to sundown patrolling calving pastures on four-wheelers. They expect about 30 calves a day at the peak of the first cycle. The standing record is 125 calves in four days.

Procedures are kept to a minimum during calving. As soon as possible after birth the bull calves are banded and each calf receives a dangle tag numbered to match the dam’s. These are prepared ahead of calving and kept organized in a large tray built for this purpose. Details of the births are recorded in a pocketbook to be entered into the computer each evening.

Their rule of thumb is to give the cows what they need to take care of their calves, Bryce explains. In addition to their regular health and mineral programs, the cows receive vitamin ADE shots and a scours vaccine ahead of calving. They’ve found this makes the calves stronger at birth and the vitamins and immunity pass through the milk to get the calves off to a good start.

Toward the end of calving they’ll start moving the pairs over to a swath-grazing field greening with fall rye. The pairs are moved farther from the yard as the calves get older, starting in one of three 40-acre paddocks that each hold 30 to 40 pairs. Another three 80-acre paddocks hold 50 to 60 pairs apiece. Two 160-acre pastures hold about 80 pairs each and then there’s a quarter section of grass.

It works like a fine waltz in real life, Dawn says. The smaller groupings help spread out the pairs to reduce crowding in stormy weather compared to running all of the pairs together on a quarter. Lots of four-foot-high windbreak panels are set up in random fashion around the pastures so calves can easily find spots out of the wind.

Their efforts have combined to essentially eliminate early-calfhood illnesses. Coyotes are more likely to take a calf than scours, he says. It’s not unusual to spot them sneaking into the calving pasture as they scan the area with binoculars from the window between patrols.

Branding and vaccinating happen before trailering the pairs to summer pasture. In years gone by, they’d arrange crews to help, but all of their work to get everything ready the day before turned out to be a waste of time if the crew cancelled on short notice.

The calf-handling system they built is much more reliable. It’s a mini chute and squeeze across from the regular setup for the cows with alleys and gates arranged for easily sorting the calves from the cows. Here, Dawn has painted a silhouette of a pair on the side of the big barn that works like a charm to attract cattle back down the alley to the point where it turns.

The two of them can work 80 pairs and as many as 100 in a steady four-hour session. It takes a few days to get the job done, but they can work at their own pace when it fits their schedule.

After weaning from the 17 summer pastures, the cows graze their way into two large pastures reserved for fall grazing and then trailed to the first swath-grazing field in December.

They consider themselves fortunate to have all of the 42 quarters owned and 30 quarters rented land in their system contiguous so that the cattle can be trailed everywhere.

Ten quarters are for hay and silage. Alfalfa is the mainstay for silage for their backgrounding operation, not only because of its nutritional value, but because it’s a perennial that makes good use of early spring moisture on their sandy land and it’s ready to chop in July before custom silage crews get tied up doing annual crops.

Another 10 quarters are for growing oats and lentils in rotation. The oats, mainly for the feedlot, are stored in open-ended soft-cover Quonsets that double for equipment storage as they empty out.

In recent years, they’ve scaled back their 2,000-head feedlot operation by eliminating most of the custom backgrounding to concentrate on backgrounding and marketing their own calves. They’ll buy in some as well, depending on their feed supply.

Weaning is in October with calves from each pasture group penned together so they’re with familiar animals. They hold off on vaccinating until the calves are settled in and well started on feed. In December, they’re sorted according to size and sex.

They’ve been marketing straight off the farm for the past seven years, aiming to have the feeders out of the lot before calving starts to simplify the workload.

The feeders are weighed and sorted into seven-, eight-, and nine-weight heifer and steer groups penned in semi-load lots for viewing. An information sheet with the closing date for bids and details on each group, including the health program and their veterinarian’s contact information, is circulated to order buyers they’ve contacted beforehand.

Though the jobs are never ending and require a diverse palate of skills, the McKenzies don’t call it work because they are living their dream and have the security of being self-sufficient in pasture, silage, hay, grain, and labour.

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