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When it’s time to say goodbye to your herd

As an agricultural lender, Steve Ganczar has seen many of his clients grapple with the decision to downsize or disperse their cow herd. Ganczar, a senior lender and supervisor at a credit union in Dauphin, Man., always empathized with the heartbreak that this decision can create, whether it was due to financial or health reasons.

As a farmer himself, Ganczar knew that downsizing his own herd was inevitable. “I knew with my parents getting older, there were no plans for me and my wife to move to the farm, so this decision was going to come sooner or later,” he explains, “but you’re never prepared for it.”

Ganczar was raised on his family’s farm at Valley River, Man., a small community northwest of Dauphin. After leaving home for post-secondary studies, Ganczar, who now lives in Dauphin with his wife and daughter, began a hobby farm upon returning to the area in 2003. He was drawn to the Simmental breed and purchased his first females in the fall of 2004, hoping to build a herd of 10.

His hand-picked herd grew to 56 head by fall 2016. In terms of breeding, he focused on raising tan calves that were in demand from eastern markets. “They do very well with our management program and our feed, so roughly half my animals were white Charolais, and they’d be bred to a Simmental bull,” he says. “The other half of the cows were either red Simmental or there was a few Red Angus that were bred to Charolais bulls.” They used around 400 acres of pasture land and currently have 235 acres of hay and feed land.

Ganczar always worked full time while farming, starting out as an agronomist upon returning to Dauphin. In 2007, he began his banking career as a loans officer, and worked his way up to his current position. “My career’s taken off. It’s been terrific,” he says. “I’ve got four lenders that work under me, and we’re all busy.” His parents still live on the farm and keep an eye on the herd when he is at work. Generally, he takes two weeks off near the end of March to be on site for calving.

By early 2017, Ganczar felt that he had too many irons in the fire. “I had to be in three places at once — I had to be at work, I had to be at the farm, I had to be at home,” he explains. “Having that many animals in an intensively managed herd was just taking too much of my time, and I was starting to get a little bit burnt out.”

As the year went on, Ganczar noticed that this stress was beginning to take a toll on him. “I found myself being a little cranky and not the easiest person to work with on the farm.” He struggled with being tired, less able to focus and having a lack of patience.

This situation came to a head during the August long weekend, when he started to feel poorly during haying, and soon learned that his immune system was starting to shut down. When Ganczar investigated the cause, his doctor advised him to make a major change. “He looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘Something’s got to give. You’re passionate about your family, passionate about your job and passionate about your farm… You have to give up something.’”

Taking into consideration their home in town and his parents’ age, Ganczar and his family decided to downsize their herd to 10 head. Now he learned for himself just how upsetting this situation can be. “It’s like losing a family member,” he says. “I’m very glad that I’m able to still keep a handful of animals because I can’t imagine my life without having some sort of livestock on the farm.

“I had a lady down the road that had rented me 210 acres of pasture, and it was just the most beautiful, scenic pasture,” he explains. “Every time I went to the farm, I pulled off the highway onto the gravel road that leads to the farm. That was the first thing I’d see, those cows in the field, every day on the ridge, and it was just great. That was probably one of the things that bothered me the most. I remember pulling out of that pasture many times last fall, just being flat-out upset and sometimes with tears in my eyes because next year I knew it wasn’t going to be my cows in that pasture.”

Ganczar was adamant that he wouldn’t sell his cattle through an auction market. “I couldn’t personally watch my cows go through the ring,” he says. “Plus, I couldn’t see myself loading my cows in a trailer and taking them to the auction mart. Mentally, that was just not going to happen.” He was also concerned about finding a buyer that would manage the cows in a similar, low-stress manner.

Thankfully, the right buyers came along. “I was very fortunate that I had a local young family that was looking to expand, and it was exactly what they were looking for,” he says. “They wanted a tame herd, because they have a very young family and they want their family to be involved.”

Together, they worked to compromise on which females to include, and both parties went away satisfied with the deal. To help out the buyers with their feed budget, Ganczar was able to feed the cows before they left for their new home at the end of the year. “I had 10 acres of grazing corn that I’ve always done,” he says. “I wanted to feed the cows until December 31 so I could use up my corn and get some value out of that 10 acres.”

This deal worked out better than he could have imagined. “The fact that I was able to feed them until December 31 helped them a lot because it helped his feed situation,” he says. “My herd was going to one place. They weren’t going to get split up. They were going to be taken care of because he’s got the same type of handling values and animal welfare values that I have, and it just made the situation so much easier to handle.”

By early January, his herd was down to 11 females. “I was really expecting to be super upset the day that the last cows went. When they went, it was like the weight of the world went off my shoulders.” He’s found that his remaining cows have brought back his original passion for raising cattle. “I absolutely love farming again,” he says. “My work and clients notice that I’ve got a little more energy.”

Looking to the future, Ganczar is excited about new possibilities for his farm. “We can produce really good-quality forages on a consistent basis, and our land costs are fairly cheap,” he says. “We’re going to be doing some custom niche-marketing haying, along with some large-scale haying for some local markets.” He already has one long-term client lined up, as well as others who have asked about purchasing small square bales.

Many options to consider

When considering downsizing or dispersing your herd, seeking the proper financial advice for your situation is of the utmost importance. Ganczar learned this earlier in his career, when he first wanted to farm with his parents after high school but was unable to get the necessary financial advice. “No one at that time told me that, ‘Hey, that farm isn’t big enough to support another person from a financial standpoint,’” he says. “I’m a banker because I want to give people the advice that I couldn’t find when I was in desperate need for it back in ’97, ’98 and ’99.”

Ganczar stresses the importance of taking emotion out of the equation. “The issue with a lot of my farm producers is it becomes an emotional decision,” he explains. He often recommends that his clients speak with an agricultural consultant to assist with this. “They will look at it from a strictly business standpoint and take the emotion out, and a lot of my producers are better for doing that.

“What it boils down to, especially if you’re farming as a living — that’s your lifestyle, that’s how you make your income — it is about making money,” he says. “If you’re not making a living and you’re struggling every day of your life just to put food on the table, you really have to look at whether it’s worth it.”

Many producers, he notes, hang onto an operation or a particular program because of a family connection. For him, that connection was that his grandparents farmed this same land. “I take great pride in still being able to farm it, being the third generation. But at the end of the day I know that they’re looking down on us… (and) would rather us be healthy and happy and not be stressed all the time.”

There are a variety of options to explore when selling cattle, so it doesn’t have to result in taking them to auction. “There are young people that really want to get into this business of cattle, but maybe can’t get the capital to buy the cattle. If you can work out a deal where you can lease them and still kind of have ownership and be part of it, I think it’s great,” he says. “You can control who takes them, how they take them and where they take them to.”

It’s vital that producers talk to someone about what they’re dealing with. “There is no shame in phoning the rural stress line, talking to your banker, talking to your neighbours and friends about your situation,” says Ganczar, who has had clients ask him about his experience when considering their own situations.

“You shouldn’t be ashamed that you’re selling your cattle,” he says. “It was a tough decision, but it can be done.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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