When Brian Chrisp went to college with plans of becoming a veterinarian, he didn’t think he would ever want to come back to the family farm near Vermilion, Alta. But life intervened.
“While I was in college I switched course and got an ag economics degree at the University of Alberta. As graduation neared, I looked around at the options available. The old family farm was for sale, and had been for quite some time, so I decided to get a loan and come back and fix it up,” says Chrisp.
He worked off the farm at a number of jobs for several years to make enough money to keep the farm going — teaching at Lakeland College, the local community college, doing farm tax returns for an accountant and teaching night classes focused on farm management and income tax issues to farmers.
“I also worked full-time for Lakeland College for six years, managing their farm operation as they expanded, but after that job I have been totally on my own farm since 1989,” says Chrisp.
He ran Charolais cattle from the start and the herd grew over time, although he’s never had any full-time help. “That was one reason we started calving in late spring rather than February. We now calve in May, which is not typical for purebred breeders, and we carry the bull calves over until they are nearly two years old before we sell them,” he says.
Chrisp says there is good demand for these older bulls because they stay sound, with better feet, for not having been pushed with too much grain. They can be grown out more naturally on a predominantly forage-based ration which he believes makes them more durable than young bulls that are pushed too hard at an early age.
“We have a strong customer base of repeat buyers; many of them have bought bulls here for more than 25 years. I have always felt strongly that for the cattle industry to survive economically in the long term, a mother cow here in Western Canada has to be a scavenger and earn her keep. A lot of operations pamper their cows too much,” he says.
He doesn’t always grow traditional feeds like hay and grain. Each year he seeks out what might be the best buy for that year. “We graze through much of the year and try to minimize use of harvested feed. Some years we’ve been able to quit feeding on April 30, which is quite unique in this part of the country, and put the cows out on carry-over grass for calving. I really enjoy having the cows grazing during calving, and not having to feed them. There is no disturbance of the cows by people going out there to feed them, and they are spread out over clean pasture,” he says.
“The only calving problems I have are malpresentations and twin calves; we sometimes need to help a few of those. Otherwise, the cows basically calve on their own. A bull buyer came here a few years ago and told me he thought he was going to have to quit raising cattle because it was just too much work; he didn’t think he could do it anymore. He was calving 100 cows in February. We were chatting in the yard and I said, ‘Let’s go see my calving barn,’ and we went up into the hills. It was a beautiful day in mid-May and there were some new calves born since I’d been up there last to check on them. He was quite impressed with how healthy the calves looked,” says Chrisp.
“But he said he just couldn’t do it that way — letting the cows calve out there on their own. He asked how I could sleep at night, not knowing if the calving cows were doing okay. I told him I didn’t check mine at night.”
“That’s the hard part to get over. On the way out, that breeder had a question: ‘What if you come out one morning and there’s a cow down in the bush and you go down there and she’s dead, and she’s your best cow. What would you do then?’ I told him I wouldn’t be calling her my best cow anymore.”
“The losses, when the cows are out calving on their own, aren’t any more significant than when the cows are calving in the corral and calves get stepped on and miss-claimed. It’s cleaner and healthier for the calves being born out on pasture, with less chance for navel infection, scours, etc., and no disturbance. By using electric fence we can rotate the cows across 20- to 30-acre paddocks every four or five days and have new, clean pastures for calving,” he says.
“We very seldom doctor a young calf. They get weighed and tagged at birth, and then a little later when we split the cows into breeding groups we do calf vaccinations, dehorning, castration, and put in ID tags,” he says.
Once when Chrisp was giving a talk at the college he was asked what his antibiotic bill would be per year for his 350 cow-calf herd. “The answer is less than $200 per year, for the previous 10 years. It’s not that I don’t believe in using antibiotic, but we just don’t use as much, calving that time of year. The main things we use antibiotics for would be foot rot. When the cattle come off summer grass they go to crop residues. We have grain farmers who let us rent their land as soon as their harvest is finished,” he explains.
“We have run cows out on those fields all winter, until the first part of March, just scavenging the rough feed. This saves feed, labour and fuel costs. When we do that, however, we supplement the cows with energy (for the cold winter), but they can fill their belly on whatever’s out there,” he says.
The calves are usually weaned in late November and most of them are wintered on the ranch. “We feed some unique things to the weaned calves. Over time I have fed things like loose oat hulls that come from about 300 kilometres away, as a filler, and buy whatever is available to use for energy — such as pea screenings/pea flour, lentil screenings, etc. There is a lot of traditional thinking to overcome, regarding feed.” Cattle are amazing animals, in what they can utilize.
“We haven’t watered cows in winter for 25 years; they lick snow for water. If the snow is adequate they do fine, especially when they are out grazing. Most people who think this won’t work are trying to visualize cows in confinement trying to lick enough snow, but when they are out in big pastures they can just keep grazing and licking snow, more or less continually,” says Chrisp. Dry cows that are not lactating can readily get enough moisture by eating snow. Thus the calving time has to be right for this to work.
“We haven’t bedded cows for 20-plus years. There have been a few odd times they’ve been here in the yards because of feed conditions, but most of the time they are wintered in the hills eating carryover grass and a bit of supplement.” There are many ways to help ensure that the cows are working for you instead of you working for them.
Even the young bulls are raised on a predominantly roughage diet. “They have an adequate ration but generally we are able to bring them to a two-year-old sale weighing 1,600 to 1,700 pounds and the buyers are happy with them. We are not competing at a show and these bulls don’t have to be fat,” he says. The bulls do a better job for the customers growing up eating what they will be eating out on the job.
“This spring we had our 32nd annual sale with our Vermilion Charolais group — myself and three other contributors. Our sale is third largest in Canada for number of Charolais bulls sold at one time. Our price averages are very competitive with other Canadian sales. Last year our average on 70-plus two year olds was the highest in Canada with the exception of someone who only sold five bulls and another breeder who sold 10 bulls. This year our average was about $6,900 per bull so we are very happy with that.”
The bulls are all halter-broke. “Traditionally, when we started selling bulls and consigned them to a number of sales, they had to be halter-broke. We have modified our methods over time. I usually have girls doing the halter-breaking because they are gentle with the cattle. We have a system set up so there is no hard work involved. If you look at the time it takes to get an animal standing tied to the fence chewing its cud, it works out to less than one man/woman hour per animal. Having cattle gentle and halter-broke is an added benefit that customers appreciate. “A person can handle those bulls easily, and load them into a trailer out in the middle of nowhere on the end of a lariat,” he says.
“We watch the animals and try to work with them instead of against them. If something is going wrong, you just need to stand back and see what you are doing wrong, instead of cursing the animal for doing something wrong.” When working with animals, problems are almost always the result of the person handling them incorrectly. Low-stress handling pays off in having the animals easy to handle.
“One neighbour girl who worked here for a long time said that when she first started, she wondered when the hollering would start. She worked here for 12 years and it never did start,” says Chrisp.
Open to change
“I got involved with holistic management in the late 1980s. It seemed to fit what I wanted to do — not only with the land and the people but the whole setting. A few of us local ranchers took a relatively intense five-day course on holistic management and stayed in close contact with one another since then. We joined a management group that has monthly meetings,” says Chrisp.
“This has been helpful through the good times and the tough times, sharing ideas. We don’t always agree on everything but we discuss them at length. The biggest key to our management program over time is that we have to continually be thinking of networking and being open to change. It is too easy to fall into traditional ruts and habits and keep doing things the way we always did them,” he says.
Being involved with a group of people who are trying to be innovative is helpful. “They are very candid. One of the fellows I consider to be a mentor would sit there and ask why, whenever I told him what I was doing. This made me think. To explain it to him, I had to explain it to myself.”
“When I give a guest lecture at a college class, there is always a comment or question that I ponder afterwards. The students really make you think about things.” Being open to non-traditional ideas is a plus.