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A Chapman Business Plan

Chapman Farms of Virden, Man. was honoured to receive not one, but two prestigious awards in 2010 being recognized as the Red River Exhibition’s farm family of the year and one of Manitoba’s graziers of the year.

Darren and Parry Chapman, their cousin Rob Chapman, his nephew Justin and brother-in-law Jeff Elliott represent the fourth and fifth generation of the Chapman family to carry on a farming enterprise that has grown from one homestead quarter in 1903 to a spread of approximately 12,000 acres of cropland, 1,800 in hayland, and 3,000 acres of pasture with 500 cows.

Cattle had been out of the picture since the late 1970s when the family diversified into a commercial hay operation developing sales across Canada, into the U.S. and overseas. On the heels of a couple of poor-quality hay crops, cows were reintroduced in 1999. Despite the fallout from BSE, the herd has remained of value as a way to market their lower-quality hay and to improve profitability on their lower-quality land that was costing too much in inputs to keep in grain production.

Being a large, diversified, multi-generational farm allows people to become somewhat specialized in their particular areas of interest. Rob is the mechanic and looks after spraying operations. He is still involved with the beef operation when needed, but has passed the day-to-day herd management role to Jeff. Parry handles the book work, while Darren manages the hay operation. The farm also employs three to seven seasonal workers and three full-time employees, including Len Skelton, who has been with them for 40 years.

Chapman Farms produces large round bales, medium square bales and continues to make small square bales of the best-quality hay for dairy and horse customers. The medium square bales make legal height and width loads to simplify shipping long distances into the states. The round bales are mainly for more local markets. A lot of “grinding hay” from their 2010 production year went to feedlots in Iowa and Texas. Their forage inventory for sale including all of the feed test results is posted on the Manitoba Forage Marketers’ website.

They stick to three basic forages for hay and pasture — straight alfalfa, straight smooth brome grass, and alfalfa-grass with the grass component being either meadow or smooth brome, or crested wheatgrass depending on the type of land.

Forages on light land are always sown with a nurse crop of oats or wheat at a rate of about one bushel per acre. Depending on the growing year, whether the stand is for hay or pasture, and distance from the yard, the nurse crop might be taken early for silage or left to be harvested for grain.

Sometimes, the old way proves to be the best and that’s been the case when it comes to forage-seeding equipment, Rob says. After trying the broadcast-harrow method, then the air seeder, they have gone back to a press drill with six-inch row spacings.

The commercial hay fields are kept in production for five to 10 years depending on their condition, then rotated into annual crops for at least two years before being sown back to forages. They are fertilized with commercial blends according to soil test recommendations, however, they have moved to bale grazing to fertilize pasture land. The boost of nitrogen and organic matter from the urine, manure, and bale residue tends to wipe out the alfalfa, but has done wonders in turning around some of the old hayfields now used for grazing.

“This has dramatically increased our carrying capacity,” Rob adds. “We retained heifers to increase the herd size from 450 to 500 and could bump that to 700, but would just as soon play it safe by leaving some grass behind than getting stung in a dry year.”

The Chapmans re-entered the beef business with a mixed-breed herd and have been using Angus bulls for the most part. They recently purchased a small herd of 25 purebred Angus cows with the intent of eventually raising their own bulls.

In April, the pairs are divided into five groups of 60 to 160 cows to move to different blocks of pasture across their land base for a May 1 start to calving on stockpiled paddocks set up with bales as needed.

“Calving in February used to be hard on everyone and the calves,” Rob recalls. “We would go hard seeding, haying, harvesting, then into winter calving. This way gives us a break. Now we are calving during seeding, but there is far less labour required. During that time, the cows are tended to once a day, with quick checks now and then through the day.”

The cow groups are managed in a twice-over grazing system that carries them through to November. Back at home, the calves are vaccinated and turned back with the cows for about three weeks of swath grazing on millet. December brings weaning, pre-checking and culling.

The calves are backgrounded in the feedlot until May when they are divided into three groups — steers, market heifers and replacement heifers — for summer grazing. The market animals are sold off pasture through the auction market about mid-August.

The yearling grazing program is more intense than the twice-over system for the cows because they graze pastures with the highest-quality forage that contain a high percentage of alfalfa. To mitigate bloat problems, the Chapmans follow the standard practice of moving them frequently and always at midday to try to maintain consistent consumption.

As an added measure of prevention they have set up a portable metering system that continuously injects a detergent solution into the water as it flows from the shallow pasture pipeline into the stock tank. Alleyways simplify providing access to water in central locations and cattle movement from pasture to pasture.

They say it’s hard to know whether the detergent solution works because they have never discontinued its use to find out what would happen. There are always a few incidents of bloat each summer — some for no apparent reason and others when inclement weather disrupts the regular grazing pattern. So far, the additional gains from the high-quality forage definitely outweigh the losses.

The cows bale graze from December through April. The selected bale-grazing site is set up with the straw and hay bales intermixed in rows of 30 fed two rows at a time to provide about a week of grazing for 450 cows.

They now use net-wrap, leaving it on the bales, and cleaning it up in the spring. Though sisal twine saved the work of gathering twine, they found it didn’t hold up well by the time it came to placing the bales on the wintering site.

The old hayfields don’t have enough bush to provide adequate shelter. Portable windbreak fences moved with the cows as they graze through the wintering site are placed in a U-shape to give protection from the wind whichever way it blows.

Last year, the Chapmans developed a second winter water source so the herd could be divided into two wintering groups (mature cows and heifers). The original watering system is supplied by a deep pipeline below the frost. There are enough cattle drinking from the insulated tank to keep the water open without heating it. The new system uses a solar-powered pump on a well to fill a small tank.

The Chapmans are one of the co-operators in a Manitoba Agriculture study to evaluate the impact of bale grazing on soil fertility, forage yield response to fertility and species composition on bale-grazed versus non-bale-grazed sites. Data has been collected from grazing cages and soil samples to a depth of two feet on three of their pastures for the past three growing seasons. Results from the study will be used to make recommendations on bale placement to limit nutrient loss from overland runoff in the spring and during periods of high rainfall, how long to wait between repeat bale grazing on the same area, and the best forage composition for areas to be bale grazed.

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Windbreak fences are placed in a U-shape to give protection from the wind whichever way it blows

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