Young cattle producers managing risk on the ranch

Whether it’s growing feed or selling cattle, Trent Macnab likes to spread out risk

For Trent Macnab, diversity in the winter feeding program has been a way to reduce risk and help build soil nutrients.

The regime includes standing corn, straight barley for swath grazing, a cocktail crop mix for swath grazing and bale grazing. It also allows them to have a rotation on their fields, “which cattlemen typically don’t have,” says Macnab of Maple Ridge Ranch at Mervin, in northwestern Saskatchewan.

Macnab works with his father, Gary, and manages a balance of owned and deeded land, with a third owned and the balance rented. One thousand of those acres are cultivated and of that, 200 to 300 are cash cropped. The remainder is used for either annuals for feed or winter grazing for the cattle. They currently run about 275 cows and background their own calves, then take them to grass. The herd is predominantly Black Angus with a few Reds and exotics. All the bulls they purchase come from within a 15-mile radius or from a similar type of operation. Macnab feels this is helpful as the bulls are already acclimatized.

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Swath grazing is not new to Macnab, as his dad and uncles were some of the first to start doing it 25 years ago. Macnab says the neighbours used to tease them that they just wanted to go hunting so needed a way for the cows to look after themselves. Some of the rational behind their strategy is that straight barley and corn offer more options and rotations for weed control. Annual crop mixes have included barley, forage peas, brassicas and occasionally Italian ryegrass or a clover.

Earlier this year the operation expanded with the addition of another place near parents Bonny and Gary’s operation, which the family had previously farmed. Macnab, his wife, Kacie, and two young daughters have relocated there. With a small increase in land base and transition to more cash cropping, they hope to take advantage of the nutrient cycle improvement and organic matter increase with more cash crops, depending on the feed situation from the previous year. The soil sampling still calls for nitrogen but Macnab believes they won’t have to fertilize at the full rate on the previously swath-grazed and corn-grazed fields.

Gary and Trent Macnab pre-conditioning a steer calf.
photo: Courtesy of Macnab family

“We could easily reduce the nitrogen requirement by 20 per cent and maybe down the road by 50 per cent. Or maintain 100 per cent the recommended nutrient rate and increase yield by 20 per cent, which others in the area are seeing with a straight swath-grazing scenario.”

Calving starts at the end of April and goes into May. The cows are hauled from the yard to pastures with stockpiled grass. The annual crop mixes are the first to be grazed in the fall with the calves still on the cows around mid-November until mid-December, when they wean. The dry cows then go onto the straight barley swaths until the end of January, with corn grazed in February to mid-March when the snow is likely the deepest and crusted. This is also the time for the lowest nutritional requirement for the cows matching up with corn’s nutrient availability. A hay/greenfeed mix is bale grazed in March and April.

The calves are backgrounded together, steers and heifers on a hay/greenfeed mix and four to five pounds of oats, with bales one day and oats the next. The bales are rolled out with a deck truck in the 60-acre paddocks. They are shooting for a gain of one to 1.5 pounds per day while backgrounding. Off grass the following season, the yearlings are between 950 and 1,000 pounds. They also purchase calves from a neighbour who follows a similar management program.

The yearlings go to the nearby Fairholme community pasture over the summer. It was the largest Saskatchewan pasture head-wise and second-largest land-wise, and has now been turned over to the patrons. Macnab is involved as a committee member.

Spreading risk is also at the forefront of their cattle marketing plan. Combining yearlings with his brother and aunt now gives them enough numbers to contract semi loads.

“Basically a load at a time, as the money is there,” explains Macnab. They stagger the sales out as contracts throughout the season. The last group usually goes through the stockyards.

Back to the farm

After high school Macnab worked for four and a half years at the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories.

“It had basically been implied that I would come back to the farm, and in some ways I never fully left, keeping a cow herd of 30 to 40 during that time.” Macnab’s brother Michael is involved but also currently works off the farm. He rents some of the land and owns some of the yearlings.

Trent and Michael Macnab running calves up the chute.
photo: Courtesy of Macnab family

As part of the succession plan, two years ago, Macnab and his dad formed a legal partnership which they operate as one entity. The equity share is split according to contribution, with his dad providing the equipment.

Macnab has also joined forces with long-time friend Mark McNinch to form McMac Ranching, a distributor for Union Forage. Part of the intent had been to increase cash flow to the farm, but Macnab truly enjoys learning and working with other producers. They have been doing some speaking engagements to discuss new forage options, specifically teaming up with some of the local extension specialists’ workshop days. The partners have also had the opportunity to travel to Oregon and New Zealand.

Macnab feels there is great opportunity on the forage side of things. “We can now look at backgrounding calves on swaths and seeding winter annuals.”

A new — or maybe resurrected — idea is to attempt to get three crops in two years. For example, in mid-May seed an early greenfeed to harvest in August. Then seed a winter annual, such as winter triticale, winter wheat or fall rye from mid- to end of August. This crop could be harvested the following June. They would then seed in early July to harvest as fall/winter grazing. The harvesting could be either mechanical or with livestock. They are going to experiment with this on a small scale.

Macnab is enthusiastic about the opportunities for younger operators. “One of the best things a young producer can do is network and team up with a producer, whether it’s family or not, that is looking to retire or slow down.”

There is usually a financing opportunity, he says, and for the older generation to avoid some up-front taxes. “The challenge with that is finding someone that is like-minded that they can work with.”

“As far as our operation, whether my brother is ranching full-time or not with me, we’ll be running it, and dad is looking to have less ownership but still be involved in the day-to-day operations. Whether it is cow-calf or yearlings, we like to keep our options open. I don’t think we need to stick on a certain number of cows, just be flexible with our pastures, feed and cash crops, always keeping in mind the health of the land, animals and ourselves.”

With long-time roots in the area, from both a Scottish and Icelandic heritage, and a positive, entrepreneurial spirit, the future looks bright for this young Saskatchewan rancher.

About the author

Contributor

Kelly Sidoryk ranches with her family just west of Lloydminster, Alta. She consults in a number of areas including succession planning and holistic management.

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