Camping with the cows motivated John and Deanne Chuiko to envision their future differently.
The Chuikos, who run CJ Ranching near St. Walburg, Sask., lived in town with their two young children, Matt and Rylee, and managed calving by moving out to the cow herd. May camping can be chilly in north-western Saskatchewan and John recalls their daughter wearing baby socks on her hands to keep warm.
Still, it was an enjoyable experience, and soon Deanne’s parents joined in. John’s parents were in the home yard of the ranch. Originally John’s brother planned to take over the third-generation family operation, which sits on the northern edge of Saskatchewan’s parkland. John had pursued training as a welder and was working in the surrounding oil patch.
But when John’s family sat down, they started talking about a different strategy. Then John and Deanne decided to take over the place. They bought the home quarter and switched houses, with John’s parents moving to town and the younger couple moving to the ranch. By 2015, the younger couple were permanently on the home place.
“We knew communication was important and that we all needed to be on the same page,” John says of the family transition discussions.
John’s sister and her family also continued to live on the ranch until just recently. John and Deanne are grateful that their kids spent a lot of time with their cousins growing up. John’s dad is still involved and does as much as he wants to. This eased the transition as he can be relied on for help during busier times.
The Chuiko family had been rotational grazing and working on improving that end of the operation. Then a number of events happened which resulted in what John calls a paradigm shift.
The Chuikos learned of a holistic management conference in Russell, Man., and decided to attend. “I had been reading Don Campbell’s articles in the Cattlemen and was keen to learn more,” says John.
The conference resulted in significant changes for the couple. Gabe Brown, soil health guru from Bismarck, North Dakota, was one of the speakers and motivated them to expand their viewpoint. Deanne says the entire drive home they shared ideas and plans, and talked about how to learn more. A holistic management course was slated for North Battleford, Sask., a few weeks later and they signed up. Later they attended Steve Kenyon’s Greener Pastures workshop and also joined a local management group.
In John and Deanne’s opinion, it’s extremely important to keep learning and attending conferences. They were looking for help to make changes, and the decision-making tool aspect of holistic management was just what they needed.
They also knew that they wanted to rely less on John’s oilfield work and focus more at home. Their two kids were a bit older and Deanne could switch out of her part-time oilfield administration job and become more involved in the ranch.
Taking the holistic management course together was a game-changer for the couple.
“I was always a helper,” says Deanne. “But now I am fully involved and feel like an equal partner. We plan and make decisions together.”
John still sometimes has off-farm work so Deanne handles whatever she needs to, whether it’s moving fences and cattle or loading out.
They wanted to expand the number of cows, which they did through both ownership and custom animals. They spent a lot of time on financial planning and carried out the projections five years. The plan included cash flow, net worth and income and expenses. The Chuikos shared it all with their banker. That impressed their banker, and they continue to have a positive working relationship with the bank. They also monitor their financial plan every month.
“That helps give us the peace of mind on our path and through it all and where we are going,” John says.
The grazing strategy became much more intensive with daily moves. They put in over nine miles of single-strand, high-tensile electric fence for water alleys and bush paddocks. The perimeter fences are permanent. Strip grazing is done with step-in posts and turbo wire. John has also built a fencing system on their quad. Instead of gates they use PVC pipe to prop up the wire and create gates where they want them.
“The first year of more intensive grazing was a steep learning curve,” says John. He used past experience to calculate stocking rate. Grazing days were based on a 90-day plant recovery period.
“Surprisingly, we were very close to our calculations,” he laughs. “Grass grows grass, so it is important to leave some behind.”
Forage species are becoming more diverse.
“We get excited when we see beneficial species such as vetch and clover that we never planted. The planned grazing and recovery time are giving those plants the opportunity to flourish,” says Deanne. “The more we learn about soil health, the more we realize that we don’t know enough about it.”
“Going forward this is an important piece,” John adds. “We need to have the ability to adapt. Change is a constant.”
They are experimenting with high stock density and winter bale grazing for brush control, as that is an issue where they live. Bales are set out in groupings for 20-day moves in the winter. They buy hay locally, but with the dry start to last year’s growing season have expanded the area they are drawing from. The kids are paid to remove the net wrap as the cattle use the feed. Elk herds can be a problem in some areas, so in those cases they don’t set out bales ahead of time.
Calving starts May 10. In 2018, they completely switched their grazing starting point and order so cattle would be grazing paddocks at a different time of year and plant maturity than previous years. Cows are checked once a day. They aim to have all the cattle in one herd.
“One group is easier for us,” says John. “Less watering spots, less hassle, less everything.”
The Chuikos want cows that fit their operation. They focus on dollars per acre instead of dollars per head. Their gross profit shows that moderate-framed cows fit the bill for their operation.
The couple recently completed the Verified Beef Production Plus training as they see long-term benefits. “We had to tweak some things but excelled at the grazing component,” says Deanne.
People are important to the Chuikos. That includes their kids, parents, extended family and their community. As well as the holistic management group, the couple are involved with their kids’ activities, be it coaching or cheerleading.
“Nothing stays the same and there will always be curveballs. We have to make sure the grass part is working, the finances are working and our relationship is working,” says John.
Kelly Sidoryk ranches with her family west of Lloydminster, Alta. She consults in a number of areas including succession planning and holistic management.