Beef with some pork, poultry and eggs on the side complete the fare at Big Coulee Farms, owned and operated by Rusty and Agnes Bellamy. The Bellamys direct market meat from about 30 beef cattle, a dozen hogs, 200 turkeys, 1,600 broiler chickens along with eggs from as many as 200 laying hens produced each year on their farm located near Athabasca, Alta., 150 kilometres north of Edmonton.
Big Coulee Farms has undergone a transition from a traditional mixed family farm in the ’70s, to a certified organic grain farm in the 1980s, to a grass-based protein-growing operation during the 2000s.
Bellamy says it was his aversion to fixing farm machinery and rising fuel prices that drove him to consider alternative farming systems after his father passed away in the mid- 1990s. They dropped the grain production and organic certifi cation process to concentrate on raising beef and started doing things differently in that area as well. After learning about how the Joel Salatin family uses pasture-based livestock production systems mirrored after nature’s patterns to supply food for the local market around his farm in Virginia, U.S., the Bellamys began adapting the methods to their operation and the northern Alberta climate.
“If I wanted to be a grass producer and get away from using diesel fuel and feeding in the corrals, I needed cows to match that type of system. For the past 10 years or so, we’ve been pushing the cows hard to get to the point where they could bale graze and do it well,” Bellamy explains. “We have what we want now with short-statured cows that look like what I call barrels with legs. They have to have a lot of gut space because we are asking them to do everything without grain.”
The herd is of British breeding, reminiscent of the cattle of the 1960s. He has culled out conformation problems such as poor hooves and udders and expects the cows to stay in the herd for about 15 years. He now has a home-raised Angus-type bull that is exactly what he wants, producing offspring that put more meat in the box than his last purchased bull, which was 1,000 pounds heavier. He is strict about sticking to a 42-day breeding season, therefore, being open is the main reason for culling a cow under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, the breeding herd had to be trimmed down to 30 animals to match grass conditions during the two years of drought leading up to 2010.
He uses a mob grazing system with a high stocking density on small pieces of pasture, moving the herd every 12 to 24 hours. The key to knowing whether you are giving them enough pasture is to watch the condition of the yearlings and two-year-olds, he says. If they start to drop off, you know your pasture size is too small.
The herd starts into the summer rotation on stockpiled grass about two weeks before calving begins in mid-May. Calving in the mob grazing system goes smoothly now that the cows are tuned into the routine. They don’t have a problem finding an open spot to calve, mothering up without interference from the rest of the cows, and quickly teaching their calves to follow along to fresh grass now that they are tuned into the system, Bellamy says.
He has trained them to move to the next pasture at the sound of a cow bell and uses a bell with a different sound to get the pigs moving along in their pen pulled behind the quad. You want the bell or your call to be consistent and last as long as the move, he explains. He begins by quietly walking through the cows to make sure all of the calves are up before starting to ring the bell and heading toward the gate. For the first few years, he would leave the back wire down so a new pair could move on its own time or a cow could go back to her calf if it stayed behind or went back under the wire. Now, the cows know that when the bell rings it’s time to get their calf and move on. More often than not, he finds the calves in the shelter of the long grass ahead of the cows.
The mob grazing system, which provides a good long rest for the forage to recover before it is grazed again, has increased forage production and diversity with a variety of grasses, clovers and alfalfa being the predominant plant types in the pastures.
Using the cows to seed is another way to rejuvenate pastures, Bellamy adds. It begins by resting the pasture until the plants set seed. The high-protein seed heads are the first thing the cattle eat as he moves them across the pasture. Being ruminants, a lot of seed passes through the digestive system and the hoof action provides the seed-to- soil contact.
The diesel that he does use goes into making bales and placing them ahead of time for the winter grazing season. If he had his druthers, he would leave the bales untied where they drop in the hayfields, but that would be an open invitation to dinner for the elk population. Bale grazing in the pastures nearest the yard helps to protect the hay supply from destruction. The bales are placed 15 feet apart from the side of one bale to the side of the next bale in rows of 12 that are 25 feet apart in areas where he wants to boost fertility. Pigtail posts pushed into the ends of the bales hold the electric wire so that the herd has access to one row at a time, which will carry them for about 10 days — less in cold weather and longer in nice spells.
The stock tank is located just inside a four-foot-wide opening in an old granary in which he keeps a firebox stoked to prevent the water from freezing. It takes a couple of lengths of garden hose to fill the tank from the hydrant once a day, after which the hoses are rolled up and kept in the heated barn that houses the laying hens during the winter. It’s a simple and inexpensive system without the worry of power outages or malfunctions causing freeze-ups as was his experience with using watering bowls — usually on the coldest days of the year!
The calves stay on the cows until sometime in March, by which time you can hardly call it weaning because they’re not getting much milk and eating their fair share of hay, he says. He separates the pairs for about three weeks to complete the natural weaning process, then reunites them with the cows to form the grazing mob. They graze as long as pasture and weather conditions allow. He tries to deliver the yearlings to his processor as soon as possible after they come off pasture. Those that aren’t needed to fill pre-booked orders go into the bale-grazing system to be processed as needed.
Any heifers they can manage to hold back as replacements are bred for the first time as two-year-olds. With three nice prospects this year, strong demand for their beef, and decent moisture conditions, they hope to be able to begin the rebuilding process.
Diverse animal species
“We started full force with beef and pasturing broiler chickens in 2000 and the pork and eggs have been customer driven,” Bellamy comments. “Beef and eggs are year round with pork starting to get to that point.”
Every February they mail out a newsletter to all of their regular customers who place their orders for the year. This way, they know how many chicks, poults and piglets to purchase and will grow extra if possible to sell from their home freezers as long as the supply holds out.
All of the poultry and pigs are reared outdoors in portable pens or shelters routinely moved to fresh grass. Because they are monogastric species, they receive additional grain to meet their nutritional requirements. The laying hens are housed in the barn for the winter and receive second-cut alfalfa in the ration to provide the beta-carotene that gives the egg yolks a bright orange-yellow colour.
As soon as weather permits, the layers move into their summer home, which is a henhouse on wheels with a large outdoor area enclosed by electric poultry netting. The unit is moved when the grass runs out, which is every week or two. Their heritage breeds have a productive lifespan of three to five years as opposed to the one-year production cycle of modern laying breeds.
The broilers are protected from predators by placing the 16 shelters side by side in a tight row and moving them as a bunk to provide fresh grass. Each 10×12-foot tarp shelter is covered by a tin roof with a door at the front end and roll-up tarp at the back end for ventilation.
The pigs are pastured in 16×32- foot pens constructed from 34-inch-high pigwire that are moved every day. Again, a heritage breed — the large black — has proven to be the best for their system. Their big, floppy ears block their vision making them far less mobile than their rooting relatives and much more content to stay put. They purchase the piglets as weanlings in the spring and finish them out by fall, though the 2010 lot had to be held into the new year because of the difficulty and delay in sourcing weanlings last spring. Once the weather turned cold they were housed in a bank of straw bales with the two sows retained on the chance they may have to rear their own piglets.
Connecting with customers
Big Coulee Farms is one of about 400 reasons why people flock to the St. Albert Farmers’ Market every Saturday from June through October. Billed as the biggest outdoor farmers’ market in Western Canada, the vendors’ booths string up and down two full city blocks.
Meat must be processed at a provincially or federally inspected plant to be able to sell it at a farmers’ market in Alberta. The Bellamys’ beef and pork is processed in a provincial plant at Barrhead, while a provincial processor at St. Paul handles the poultry, including pickup from the farm.
All of their meat is sold as frozen product. The best buy is a whole beef because there is no repackaging involved and it simplifies the record-keeping. They charge a bit more for halves, more again for quarters, and premium prices (about twice as much as supermarket beef) for individual cuts. They also sell a family pack, which is the same weight as a quarter, but with more or less product of the customer’s choice.
The Bellamys have built up a substantial list of regular customers through the farm’s 10-year association with the farmers’ market. He speaks highly of this established venue and encourages anyone who is thinking about direct marketing to link up with their nearest farmers’ market. Not only is it satisfying for consumers to talk with the people who grow their food, but he appreciates the long-term, face-to- face relationship with customers — and even hugs from happy customers from time to time!
For more information, contact Big Coulee Farms at 780-675-2485.