What a difference a decade has made for Brad and Lisa Betcker and family, Tanner and Morgan, who operate T Bar Cattle Co. just south of Medicine Hat, Alta. They’ve expanded from a cow-calf ranch near Elkwater, secure with steady income from Brad’s job with the county there, into the risky realm of cattle feeding and cropping.
The Cypress Hills surrounding Elkwater, southeast of the city, was perfect for their 150- to 170-head cow herd, with a quarter of land for hay and a few acres of oats and lease land for grazing.
They had ventured into grain farming, buying a quarter of irrigated cropland near Seven Persons, so they jumped at the chance when three quarters in the same vicinity came up for rent in 2002. Their entry into the cattle feeding business was rather coincidental because the land happened to have a feedlot attached and the owner convinced them to give it a try.
They started with 1,200 feeders that fall and despite BSE-related market issues in spring 2003, bumped it up to 1,700 that year. Another opportunity to expand came along the following year when a neighbouring 2,500-head feedlot came up for rent.
It was a sharp learning curve going from cow-calf to feeding and they were fortunate to be able to hire an experienced manager who taught them a lot, Brad says.
The year 2005 brought significant change. By then, they had hired three people to help out, so Brad retired from nearly 20 years driving the grader. They bought out his brother and made the move from Elkwater to their new home base with a 4,000-head lot near Medicine Hat. The landmark cactus statue along Highway 3 marking the former Cactus Feeders operation still points the way to T Bar Cattle Co.
They topped that off by renting another 1,500-head lot and found themselves feeding 8,000 head in total at the four lots within a two-mile radius.
All the while they continued to buy and rent to build their land base to today’s 2,300 acres of irrigated fields and 2,500 acres for dryland farming, growing canola, wheat, silage corn and alfalfa for their operation and export through Green Prairie International at Lethbridge.
They tried running yearlings on the grazing reserve near Elkwater, but found that the gains on the rough fescue grass at that elevation, some 4,500 feet above sea level, weren’t as good as they should be. They were only getting 70 to 90 pounds of gain over the summer when they could get double that on the lower shortgrass prairie. Marketing was a big challenge, too, when it came to riding 40 miles of fence to gather yearlings out of the bush a few at a time, whereas, a couple of hours rounding up pairs and they’d be done.
What goes around comes around and with opportunities on the cow-calf side looking up, they’ve been expanding the herd over the past three years to today’s 450 head. The cows winter on the feedlot quarter, calve starting April 20, move to crested wheatgrass pasture north of the city near Hilda, and spend the summer on pasture at the Elkwater ranch and community pastures running south to the American border.
They agree that diversifying to mitigate risk is one thing, but keeping up with everything is another matter.
They’ve consolidated the feedlot operation at the home place where they’ll usually feed 500 to 600 calves of their own and regular custom clients keep the pens full. After finishing out calves for two years turned out to be a losing proposition, they’ve been concentrating on backgrounding feeders from fall through spring, then letting the lot sit empty during the hectic summer months.
The expansion wouldn’t have been possible without help from their kids, steady employees and support from many of their custom clients who have a lot of experience feeding cattle.
Lisa says they feel fortunate that Tanner, 23, is interested in keeping the farm going and now farms with them full-time. He’s the go-to guy for anything that needs to be done from field operations to riding pastures and pens. Morgan, 20, works in the city and plans on furthering her education, but helps out with whatever she can including banking and public relations.
They are fortunate, too, to have five dedicated employees from the local area who have been with them for three to 10 years. The Betckers offer competitive wages, but feel that their employees also value the opportunity to specialize in their own interests as far as possible, though everyone pulls together to get the jobs done in order.
Tried, tested and true
Computerizing management records has been another great addition, Lisa says. On arrival, each animal’s identification number is scanned into the group with a handheld reader that inputs information directly into the scale head. Whenever an animal is processed or receives a treatment, details are immediately added to its individual record.
Treating all calves with Draxxin on arrival has been a huge time and expense saver because it takes the stress out of pen checking and reduces the cost of treating sick animals and death losses in the long run.
“It’s amazing really, because the calves don’t get sick for 14 days and they go onto feed the first day,” Brad says. “We get a lot in from Manitoba, so it can be a long trip and quite a few days if they go through a market and buying station. Our death loss has dropped to 0.70 per cent overall and our gains have improved.”
Another feature of the computerized system that he appreciates is not having to eye-sort cattle at sale time because the calves are weight-sorted into pens at implanting. The system computes average daily gain, so it’s easy to monitor the rate of gain and adjust the ration or marketing plan accordingly.
They’ve largely switched from alfalfa to corn for silage since first trying corn in 2003 because they get double the tonnage (18 to 22 tons per acre) and have been able to halve the amount of barley grain in the ration with corn silage.
The new BrettYoung variety, Venza, is showing great potential because it stays green for as long as two weeks after the first frost, giving them some wiggle room to get it put up before it dries down too much.
Growing a Roundup Ready corn in rotation with a Liberty Link canola on irrigated land has been a good rotation for keeping fields clean. Fall-applied manure is consistently adding 15 bushels per acre to canola yields when seeded with fertilizer applied at the regular rate in spring.
To introduce a legume into the rotation, they are trying peas for the first time this year and researching possibilities for Roundup Ready soybeans now that a few farms in the area are trying the crop and nearby Paterson Grain is buying it. Sugar beets and potatoes are also grown in the region but have to be sold on contract and those are full.
Another time saver has been switching from round bales to big square bales. The change was initially made to facilitate alfalfa hay sales to Green Prairie for overseas shipments.
They’ve found that the square bales and balers have several advantages over the round bale system. Square bales are easier to handle and they can haul about 10 tons more on each load. The square baler handles short straw lengths from their rotary combine and on a good day they can put up 1,000 more bales than they used to with the round baler because they don’t have to shut down when the straw gets over-dry and there’s no stopping to tie and drop bales.
They also invested in a Haybuster 2800 bale processor that handles squares equally as well as rounds.
The silage trailer on a 34-foot tandem axle is one of several pieces built by an employee who has a talent for mechanical work and fabricating equipment.
As for marketing, custom clients look after their own arrangements. Working with them to ready cattle for shipment to U.S. lots has been an interesting exercise in perfection when it comes to complying with all of the regulatory requirements.
They sell most of their own cattle through local order buyers, but have found TEAM (the electronic auction market) to be a good option. “You can take a stab at it and if you don’t like the price you can always say no. You sell right out of the feedlot FOB and can pick your time,” Brad says.
They will be using the Western Livestock Price Insurance Program (former Cattle Price Insurance Program in Alberta) for the first time this year. It’s a fair program from what they’ve heard from their customers who use it and they like how it works to leave the top end open and have the bottom end covered. This year’s lofty prices make it an opportune time for feeders to buy insurance because if the market drops they’ll have money at the top end and be able to buy in at the lower end.
One opportunity begets another. If opportunities slip by there’s no knowing what might have been in the big picture. The Betckers want that picture to include a future in farming for themselves and their children.