Sustainable practices reap rewards for longtime Hereford breeders

Coulee Crest Farm takes pragmatic, down-to-earth approach when making improvements to its operation

Sustainability has always been a guiding principle for the Radau family at Coulee Crest Farm.

“It’s something that we’ve always practiced before we even knew what the word meant, just to ensure the long-term viability of our operation and the environment and the profitability of farming on this land,” said Randy Radau, who farms near Bowden, Alta. “We’ve always taken sustainability very seriously, or our operation wouldn’t have lasted over 90 years.”

After being nominated by Ducks Unlimited, Randy and Sandra Radau and their family were awarded the 2019 Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) for Alberta. They were presented this award at the Alberta Beef Producers annual general meeting in December 2018.

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cow and calf on pasture

“We have always taken a pragmatic, down-to-earth approach of trying to make improvements to our operation. We’ve never been really big on buzzwords and that sort of thing,” said Radau. “It’s just nice to be recognized for doing it for so many years.”

Radau is the third generation of his family to operate their farm. His grandfather bought three quarters of land east of Bowden in 1927.

“My dad and uncle farmed with my mother for a number of years here, and we’ve always been a mixed grain-cattle operation, and we’ve just expanded the cattle over the years,” Radau says.

Their operation is currently around 3,500 acres. Two thousand acres are pasture and hayland, with the rest devoted to grain production.

Raising cattle appealed to Radau from the time he was a child. “I always enjoyed watching calves grow and being involved in the life cycle of cattle, and I built up a herd through 4-H to where I had enough cows when I graduated from high school that they went a long ways to paying for my university,” he recalled.

“It was just what I always wanted to do. My first interest always around the farm is the cattle. I just enjoy the genetics, the constant drive to improve, and it was an easy choice from when I was fairly young that I wanted to make my career in the cattle business.”

The Radau family has raised purebred Hereford cattle for 75 years. They currently run around 200 purebred females and 160 commercial females. They expanded into the commercial herd during the BSE years, Radau says. The commercial herd is Here­ford and red baldies, and they breed the red baldies to a terminal sire. Right now they’re using Charolais bulls, he added.

Their purebred females calve in April and May, with their commercial herd following in May and June. “We’ve always been backgrounders, so it suits our operation. We retain our calves and background them over the winter and sell the commercial end of our cattle in February.”

Radau continues to be impressed by the traits of the Hereford breed, which has worked for their program from the start.

“We like their docility and their winter hardiness and their feed efficiency. They work well in our operation, and I’ve never really wanted to pursue a second purebred breed. I just wanted to concentrate on really doing a good job with the Herefords,” he said. The Radaus have sold genetics around the world and have a solid customer base of ranchers who buy bulls from them every year.

The Radaus used to show cattle as part of their marketing, but now they prefer to focus on the seedstock aspect of their business, selling bred heifers and yearling and two-year-old bulls by private treaty.

“We like to feed them less grain and ensure their longevity, and by just selling on the farm we feel we can do that and really meet our customers’ demand. We’ve gone away from the show-type cattle, and we just want to raise really useful ranch-style cattle.”

Coulee Crest Farm has joined different certification programs to help open new markets for their cattle. “We just recently became Verified Beef Production Plus audited, so we’re just trying to gain a premium if there is one out there in the marketplace,” said Radau.

Their herd has been European Union-certified for about six years, and though they have found this market to be limited, they’re hopeful that the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) may provide new opportunities. Radau said there are obstacles, such as a lack of packing plants certified to ship to Europe.

“I’ve talked to importers that are currently in Europe that are interested in the cattle, and they think there could be a huge market for Canadian cattle. It’s just there seems to still be some roadblocks in the way, so hopefully those will disappear.”

Improving sustainability one project at a time

The influence of sustainability practices at Coulee Crest Farm stretches back to previous generations, and Radau has maintained some of the improvements his father and grandfather implemented.

“There’s a spring on our farm that my grandfather developed. It was probably developed 70 years ago, I would imagine, or more, and my dad has improved it, and we’ve tried to maintain it. And it’s still watering cows now with no energy costs and works year-round,” he said. “We’ve got fenced-off areas that provide wind shelter for our cows and also wildlife habitat, and we’ve had them for years and years. The improvements have lasted for generations, and I’m glad to carry it on.”

This solar waterer draws from a nearby dugout to water the Radau’s purebred cows for four months over the winter, without freezing. Before installing this system, they chopped ice to water the cows.
photo: Luke Radau

The value they place on sustainability is illustrated by several beneficial practices. “We’ve done a bunch of different things to try to make improvements that will benefit both the environment — the soil, water and grass health on our operation — and make things better for our cattle and the profitability of the operation,” said Radau.

One such example is using solar power to pump water from an undeveloped spring on Spruce Coulee, which runs through their land. This has proven to be very helpful for their everyday operations, as the system doesn’t freeze during the winter.

“There’s less nutrient load downstream, and it’s made it easier for us to water the cattle.”

Other advantageous improvements have to do with manure use, such as moving the wintering site for their purebred females to the grain fields where the manure will benefit crops. They try to integrate the cows with the grain farm, so one benefits the other, Radau said.

“We compost our manure that we produce from our backgrounded calves, and we truck that out to a different field every year so we’re not over-applying manure close to home. We compost it for a year and a half out in the field and then spread it. We see an immediate benefit to the cropland.”

Some of their environmental improvements were made possible through special projects with organizations such as Ducks Unlimited. One such project, completed a few years ago, focused on a large wetlands area within one of their pastures. It had been partially drained before they bought the land and the slough had dried out in the past. Ducks Unlimited worked with them on surveying it and developing a berm system to restore water levels to what they were before there was modern farming in the area, Radau says.

“It was a real benefit for us this year because it maintained a water level that was good for the cows, maintained their water when it might have gone dry this past year when it was so hot and dry. And it maintained the wetland area for the ducks and geese.”

Ducks and geese aren’t the only wildlife around. In addition to several types of birds, Spruce Coulee supports deer, moose, elk and cougars, and the Radaus have even spotted a grizzly bear on their land.

“We see the wildlife all the time and we try to accommodate them and work with them,” said Radau.

“It’s all about balance. If the numbers get too large then there’s a problem, but with the small numbers you can learn to live with the wildlife. When we fence, we’re thinking about game trails and how to make sure that the wildlife recognizes that the fence is there.”

For example, they’ll flag or somehow mark the fence to prevent wildlife damage, so the wildlife and cattle can all live on the land.

Spruce Coulee is designated by Red Deer County as an environmentally significant area (ESA). That designation includes landscape elements or areas with environmental characteristics essential to biological diversity, soil, water or other natural processes within the region.

The Radau family worked with Ducks Unlimited to restore wetlands in one of their pastures.
photo: Stacey Domolewski

Radau says the main reason for the designation is to flag development permits in the area. For example, if someone wants to build a house on the edge of the coulee bank, they need to look at septic systems and how it will affect the water.

“It’s been a benefit for us because we kind of have a second layer of concern at the county, that they need to be aware that this is an important area and they should be watchful of development,” he says. “But it has not been a detriment to us as our agricultural operations go.”

In fact, they hope the county’s recognition that the area needs to be cared for will benefit their operation in the future. The county has some programs to help fund initiatives such as water systems in the wetland areas near the coulee, Radau says, and so they’re looking at those programs to help fund some of their projects.

With all the family has done through sustainability practices and environmental improvements, being named this year’s TESA winner for Alberta is especially meaningful for Radau. Telling someone in agriculture that they’re a good steward of the land is probably the greatest honour, he says. It’s like receiving “a lifetime achievement award for all the effort we’ve done over the years where we weren’t really thinking about it as far as winning an award, just trying to make improvements on our operation.”

Promoting environmental stewardship in agriculture is something Radau strives to do when communicating with consumers.

“What worries me is the disconnect — the rural-urban disconnect — where people don’t understand modern agricultural practices, and they don’t think people in agriculture are good stewards or that they treat their cattle or animals humanely,” he said.

But they do have a good-news story to tell, he said, and that excites him. Whether it’s through an interview or talking to people in the city, he’s always happy to spread the news of sustainability and good stewardship. The Radaus also host people from the city on their farm.

“We bring them to the farm and expose them (to agriculture) and let them see how well we care for the animals, and how well-cared animals and productive animals are naturally profitable for us.”

Sustainability will continue to shape their operation, as they aim to make one or two improvements each year. “I’m planning on developing a water tank system from an existing spring, piping some more water to a second pasture and getting the cattle away from watering in a shallow wetland area,” said Radau.

“My second project I’m looking into for this year is a seasonal creek crossing at a different location, using a rig mat and some wing fencing that allows both the cattle and quads and light traffic to go across it. It will benefit the operation and reduce bank erosion and silting.”

As for long-term goals, Radau is excited to have the next generation become part of Coulee Crest Farm.

“Our son, Luke, is graduating from university with his agriculture degree and is planning on coming home to the farm, so we’re looking forward to incorporating the fourth generation into the operation. So we’re busy working on our goals for succession planning and including him in the management of the operation.”

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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