The transition from a tobacco farm to Texas Longhorn ranch in southern Ontario’s foremost tobacco-growing region wasn’t without turmoil for Cathy and Bryan Gilvesy, but the rewards far outweighed regrets as they reinvented the farm to better reflect their philosophies on agriculture and life.
The latest material reward came in the form of Ontario’s environmental stewardship award (TESA) presented by the Beef Farmers of Ontario in February. It is unique among others they’ve received in this category, including the Tillsonburg Chamber of Commerce Environmental Award in 2014, a Minister’s Award for Environmental Excellence in 2012, and the Canadian Agri-Food Award of Excellence for Stewardship in 2008, in that TESA represents recognition of the good work they do from peers in the beef industry.
“Why we have a focus on doing environmental projects is because of the influence of the ALUS (alternative land use services) program and the technical support available. In 2008, we were the third ALUS demonstration farm in Ontario,” Gilvesy explains. Being a tireless advocate for the program and sustainable farming led him to accept the position of executive director for ALUS Canada in 2015.
ALUS is about farmers and ranchers voluntarily using their land in alternative ways to put it into environmental service and providing technical and financial support for their role in conserving and restoring nature’s benefits, he explains.
Although Manitoba was the birthplace of ALUS in Canada, arising from the initial 2006-08 pilot project in the Rural Municipality of Blanshard, Ont.’s Norfolk County, where the Gilvesys’ YU Ranch is located near Tillsonburg, became the epicentre of early activity. ALUS Norfolk is the longest-running ALUS program in Canada having grown from a pilot program in 2007 to a county-wide program involving more than 175 farm families.
The program expanded into Grey and Bruce counties, the municipality of Bayham, and eastern Ontario in 2012.
The Gilvesys have 150 acres of their total 350 acres enrolled in the ALUS program. One project established buffer zones to exclude cattle from the Little Otter Creek tributary that runs through their property upstream from Lake Erie and maintaining shade trees along its course to support habitat for brook trout.
Another manages woodlots to eliminate non-native species, protect old trees, and provide habitat for wildlife.
Their hedgerow of flowering shrubs was established to support pollinators, as do flowering species, such as echinacea, showy tick trefoil and brown-eyed Susan, in the diverse tall grass prairie mix they restored on 45 acres. Early accounts indicate at least 250,000 acres of tall grass prairie existed in a parkland-like setting around Norfolk County.
The tall grass prairie field, initially planted for conservation purposes, has become integral to the ranch’s grazing program. It is a blend of locally sourced big bluestem, indian grass, switchgrass, showy tick trefoil and round-headed bush clover. These are heat-loving, drought-tolerant warm-season forages that aren’t ready to graze or hay until late July into August. The timing turned out to perfectly complement the early-season growth habit of the cool-season mixes, typically orchardgrass, tall fescue, ryegrass and white clover. Those paddocks are rotationally grazed to keep fresh forage in front of the cattle and recycle nutrients across the land.
“With temperatures frequently over 30 C here in summer, the cool-season grasses go dormant, so we open the native pastures, which have served nature in the meantime. By then the natives are shoulder height so we can pretty much park the herd there until the rains and cooler weather come back and the cool-season pastures start to produce again,” Gilvesy explains.
“ALUS is a simple notion really. We do these projects that are a benefit to Canadians and to us,” he adds.
Texas Longhorn cattle fit into the farm’s makeover from the tobacco farm the Gilvesys purchased in 1979 to a ranch in 1993 because they are hardy, low-maintenance cattle that do well outdoors year round. Although that’s a common scenario out west, he says it’s not the general practice in Ontario.
“We needed to keep costs low and, because our market is 100 per cent grass-fed beef, we needed a breed that could efficiently convert grass to beef,” Gilvesy explains. True to their expectations, Longhorns harvested around 24 months of age yield lean, tasty beef. The natural tenderness is enhanced by the wet-aging process.
YU Ranch’s annual carrying capacity is about 200 head. This includes the breeding herd and calves at various stages in the finishing program so that they are able to send animals for harvest every second week throughout the year.
The Gilvesys count themselves fortunate to be able to work with two excellent family butcher shops in nearby Simcoe, the Van Groningens of VG Meats and the Mediemas of Townsend Butchers. The beef is vacuum packaged and frozen as steaks, roasts, stew beef, ground beef and patties for pickup by the Gilvesys. It is sold from the ranch store and delivered to customers, including restaurants in Tillsonburg, Simcoe,Toronto, Guelph and Kitchener. The longest standing of their restaurant customers have been with them for nine years.
Ontario’s burgeoning local food movement has also helped draw attention to the YU Ranch brand. The ranch is a farmer-member of Sustain Ontario, an alliance of public organizations, food and farm businesses, and individuals that support healthy food and farming. It also became a certified Local Food Plus producer while the project ran under the auspices of the Land Food People Foundation for 10 years ending in 2014.
“Grass-fed beef is a small niche market, but it allows us to develop our brand and bring retail dollars back to the ranch, but you have to be able to talk about this and other things you do on the ranch. Consumers like to hear your stories,” Gilvesy says.
Storytelling is another skill he has perfected. He regularly hosts tours of the ranch, speaks at meetings and events, and makes himself available to mainstream media for interviews to help consumers understand why and how the ranch does what it does. The ranch’s website is geared toward consumers with enough detail to explain the production basics, but not so much as to boggle the mind.
The concept of sustainability they adopted for their ranch includes economic viability, enhancing environmental quality and the natural resource base, while integrating natural biological cycles, and enhancing the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
They aim to capture free energy from the sun as much as possible in their everyday management. Solar panels capture energy for pumping water from a pond into troughs to water cattle on pasture and charging the battery packs for electricity to run the freezer section of their delivery van. Excess electrical energy generated by the vehicle’s alternator also charges the battery packs. Next on the renewable-energy drawing board could be capturing stream flow to generate hydro power.
Rotational grazing of cool- and warm-season mixtures ensures actively growing plants continuously soak up energy from the sun throughout the growing season. The forages and trees in the woodlot transform carbon dioxide from the air into plant material that stores carbon and releases it into the soil to build soil organic matter. Soil organic matter filters water and improves water infiltration for plant growth to fuel the cattle.
The ranch produces enough forage to graze the herd in summer and provide hay for the winter although the winter feeding period has become difficult to define because of erratic weather in recent years. Hay is rotationally fed as whole bales on pasture to carry on the nutrient recycling regime year round.
Grassland Meats is a new snacks division of YU Ranch launched early this year by their children. Joe, a high school student, and Paula, now at university, have been testing recipes for beef jerky in their home kitchen for the past four years. Encouraged by friends and family, they entrusted their recipes to VG Meats and Townsend Butchers to take their hobby to the next level and now offer sweet and spicy beef jerky, spicy beef pepperettes and classic all-beef frankfurters made from YU Ranch beef.