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A small cow-calf herd built with pride

In 1969 Dave Grist’s parents bought a farm in Erin Township, Ont. Dave was 30 years old at the time and his father, Ken, had just retired with no pension. He thought he would buy a few cows to give his father something to do while earning him a bit of income.

The thought of using EPDs — Expected Progeny Differences — would have been science fiction.

Dave’s off-farm career was as a schoolteacher. His wife was a teacher too. He worked in the city and came out to the farm on weekends.

The cow-calf operation expanded from three cows to around 20, which was all that would fit in the old barn. They were one of the first to have a Charolais bull back in the ’70s; using Shorthorn, Simmental, Limousin, Hereford — all types of cows. They were looking for quality, based on how they looked, and ease of calving was always important since they had little experience. Temperament was important too; if they had to hide behind a feeder to escape a cow’s wrath, she didn’t stay long.

And as for the bull, temperament was number one because of safety concerns. It only took one incident to make them realize that safety was paramount. They turned out a young bull into a loafing parlour only to have to hide behind posts when it wanted to play — with them as the toy — until they could escape.

The plan was to sell calves in the fall since there was nowhere to separate them from the bull or feed them separately. When it came to selling them though Dave soon found out that what he thought was a great looking animal wasn’t what the market wanted. Their calves would weigh up to 800 pounds at six or seven months of age, but the feedlot buyer wanted cheaper, lighter calves.

“We were always proud of our calves,” said Dave. “They had great body condition, got great feed, they looked amazing, but people said they were too fleshy.” Dave Grist struggled with that for many years.

The next generation – Dave Jr.

While young Dave showed a passion for farming and equipment at an early age, he generally figured that most of how his Dad did things was ridiculous. They would hand clean the barn with wheelbarrows because they couldn’t get equipment in the barn and feed 3,000 small squares in a year, 20 every day. “I couldn’t do what he did,” admitted Dave Jr.

But when Dave Sr. fainted in Home Depot one day, life at the Grist Farm changed. His aortic valve was only 25 per cent useful. For a man who didn’t know how to stop until the job was done, the last six years have been hell.

Father Versus Son

“I’ve always wanted to farm, but not being able to make money at it is a really big problem,” Dave Jr. admitted, especially now, as the father of four young children. Aside from farming he owns a second-hand store in nearby Kitchener which allows him the flexibility to schedule around changes in the weather when the farm calls.

Their farm still consists of 20 cows — 19 purebred Angus and one sentimental crossbred, which Dave Jr. says makes his dad happy, “he can tell which one it is, the only one with white, all the rest are solid black or red.” This year they’ve got nine bred heifers and 20 calves on their 98-acre farm and rent another 120 acres.

Getting good advice

Until then calving ease was an after-the-fact issue: the calves would come before you could judge the bull.

Third generation EPDs

Along came another friend and mentor, Jason Koudys. With his background and experience, he asked Dave Jr. the important question: Are you breeding for show or traits that the commercial guy would appreciate?

Dave Jr. considered himself pretty naïve so he didn’t want to show animals, but what he did enjoy was the statistical side.

He’d learned from Koudys how to look at EPDs, pedigrees, and trace the background of cattle to third and fourth generation before deciding which cow he wants before he ever sees her. At the sale, it was just a matter of confirming in person what he had already decided on paper.

And Koudys happened to have just the bull they needed — an Angus, a black, but a red carrier, setting the stage for their mixed red and black herd.

It used to be when they saw a cow was close to calving they would cancel appointments and not leave the farm. “It was that bull,” said Dave Jr. “We went from utter chaos, panic and arguments at calving time to 42 calves born by that bull that we didn’t have to do a stinking thing with. We never even saw one of them born.”

The Grists now have two herd bulls, one mature to clean up after A.I. on the main herd and one yearling as a backup, in case of unforeseen injury and to clean up after A.I. on the yearling heifer group. Dave Jr.’s goal is to have a uniform looking calf crop born within 80 days, with A.I. calves in the first 30 days and natural service calves in the next 50.

EPDs for the plate

Others have also started to notice. “Seed stock sales are very important,” says Dave Jr., “it’s our best foot forward. I don’t offer animals for sale from our seed stock program that I wouldn’t be proud to put our herd letters on.”This year he’s selling bred heifers instead of bulls. The reason for this is simple: he did 50k panels on his top calves and the results led him to keep a new yearling herd bull and nine heifers for seed stock. The others didn’t make the cut; they were sold as stockers or freezer beef.

The Grist farm debut was a futurity sale in Orangeville about five years ago, where they had the top-selling Black and Red Angus heifers. This was confirmation to the father-and-son team that they were heading in the right direction. Ironically, with little experience or interest in showing, they had to pay someone to prepare the animals and walk them in the pre-sale parade. “The animals looked great but there was more to it for me,” says Dave Jr.

Their vision of a good calf remains the same, although now they have put in a new barn to finish their own calves, ensuring that their genetics didn’t get lost at an auction with a pen full of other similar-looking calves. Three years ago they did a heifer test group of 11 and last year they finished five bulls in another test group through BIO (Beef Improvement Opportunities). Weighing and data collection have become part of their routine.

Incorporating the performance program from the Canadian Angus Association gives additional information to buyers of their cattle at registered Angus auction sales. “Now, I would never buy an animal without EPDs and I think there are more and more people on the same page as I am,” says Dave Jr. “Some people wouldn’t even look at them (EPDs) in a sales catalogue, or maybe even understand them. That’s fine, but there is no way I’m losing a sale of a nice-looking animal to a buyer that thinks like me, that simply needs to know more than what’s on the surface.”

Breeding goals

He’ll use low birth weight sires, almost exclusively in the negative one to two range, but sometimes a little less. “I can remember too many times where I spent time at 2 a.m. pulling my guts out, trying to get a calf out and still alive with my dad or a neighbour before we started using EPDs. Not a fond bunch of memories.” Dystocia also has a poor effect on rebreeding, increasing the amount of time it takes for the cow to recover and rebreed, plus the calf is stressed and that can often affect the amount of time it takes for it to stand and nurse. They’ve only pulled three calves in the last six years. “Definitely an EPD that I would never ignore and certainly one that is crucial when breeding a heifer.”

For weaning weight, plus 50 to 70, yearling weight plus 75 to 110. There are lots of A.I. bulls on the market, including their latest yearling herd bull, that maintain a negative birth weight with lots of growth. Their Red Angus yearling bull has a -1.8 BW but still has a +64 WW and a +110 YW.

The milk EPD is typically between +15 to +25. “An animal’s ability to produce milk can’t be ignored, especially when producing seed stock and our replacement heifers.”

Other traits include carcass data, REA and marbling.

“I’d like to get rewarded for what we’re doing,” says Dave Jr. They’d both like to hear “I want that heifer. It came from the Grist place.” That’s something to strive for.

Fourth generation

The fourth generation of the Grist family, 11-year-old Nathanial, started 4-H last year. Dave Jr. won’t discourage the boy from farming. He watches from a distance as his son goes nose-to-nose with his calf, combing it, hugging it, making a connection just as he did at that age. He hopes that his son will take a liking to the showing part so he can prepare the cattle for the sales.

“I’m sure my friends wonder why I do this,” admitted Dave Jr. “My wife shakes her head and puts up with a lot. Someday I would like to make money, but in the meantime I will continue to do other things to allow me to farm.”

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