After Tim Hoven and his wife Lori took over the management of his family farm at Eckville, Alta., in 1998 they made the decision to go certified organic.
It seemed like a natural next step to him.
His parents had become involved with holistic management in the late 1980s after taking a course with Don Campbell and Noel McNaughton. By 1990 they were out of grain farming altogether and strictly into grass farming.
That too was a natural evolution for this farm. There have been cattle on the Hoven farm since 1910 when it was homesteaded by his great-great-grandfather.
“We live on the western edge of civilization. If you go 30 miles to the west you hit mountains and bush all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We have good land, but it’s not great for grain. There is a lot of lowland, and muskeg in certain areas. Out of our 2,000 acres, there may be only about 400 to 500 acres that might be considered good for grain production. Grazing is the best use for most of our place,” says Hoven.
So, why go organic? “We had started direct marketing our beef and people were asking us if we were organic. We investigated to find out what was involved and discovered that we were already organic, except for the paperwork. It wasn’t any difference to become certified. After that we focused even more on direct marketing our beef.”
At one point the family had a butcher shop in Calgary, with three full-time and four part-time employees. “After 15 years of driving back and forth to Calgary, I was burned out. I was burning the candle on both ends. So we sold that side of the business and I was able to focus on the farm again,” he says.
“This allowed me to recharge my emotional batteries. Now we are getting back into direct marketing, utilizing what I learned and experienced, trying to incorporate that knowledge into a better model not only for me but also for my customers,” he says.
“I don’t know what kind of cattle my great-grandfather and grandfather had, but our herd now is primarily Angus-cross cows, with Hereford and some Black Welsh. I had a couple of Black Welsh bulls for a few years and now I am trying Galloway bulls — to get some hardier genetics into the mix. We want to keep a smaller-framed animal, and I prefer black just for the simple reason that black cattle stay warm easier in cold weather than lighter coloured cattle.” The black hair and hide absorb more of the sun’s warmth on a cold winter day.
“We are trying to improve our genetics. I recently read Johann Zietsman’s book, Man, Cattle and Veld, and it was very helpful. I knew from the earlier courses I’ve taken, and having seen what my parents had done in the past, why a smaller-framed animal makes more sense than a large one, but the way Johann walks the reader through it in his book and explains it, and shows the math and science behind it. I found that very inspiring.”
The cattle are moved daily. They run the cows and calves separately from the fattening herd — the animals that are finishing on grass for their direct marketing customers. “We also sell some of those animals to other farmers in the province who direct market organic grass-fed beef, so we actually have two markets now,” he says.
The cattle usually finish in 24 to 28 months. The biggest challenge for grass finishing is the same on their farm in central Alberta as for most western Canadian farmers — the cold winters. It’s hard to put much gain and fat on them during winter on nothing but grass and harvested forages.
“We have tried using good second-cutting alfalfa, but if we get a stretch of -20 C weather for a week or two, it’s like the animals’ metabolism changes and they just can’t put on more weight,” says Hoven. They needed something besides alfalfa to generate body heat and gain weight during cold weather.
Since it’s impossible to change the climate they chose to alter their management and finish the cattle a bit later on good spring grass. “During winter they might not be putting on any fat but their frame is growing. Once they hit the green grass they just boom and bloom,” he explains.
With his second move into direct marketing, Hoven began looking for an easier way too get the product to his customers.
“After doing direct marketing for 20 years, I can see how customer perception of organic food and organic beef has changed. When I started selling organic beef I was laughed at because people could not believe anyone would want to grow or eat organic beef.”
Now that more people are seeking this product, his challenge is to market the beef in such a way that is quick and convenient for the customer. The obvious answer was the Internet. “People today are used to buying through Amazon where they simply click a button on line — it charges your credit card and the product miraculously shows up on your doorstep two days later,” he says.
“The way we used to do it, selling wholes and halves of beef, people placed an order and then had to wait three weeks to two months to get their meat. I don’t think that’s acceptable anymore in the 21st century. We are trying to work with our processor using Internet tools so people can order online — and then very quickly, within a couple days, the meat shows up on their doorstep.”
Many people in the city have a choice of time or money, and generally think they have more money than time. They don’t want to wait for something they want.
“Ease of purchase is also important,” notes Hoven. It only takes one barrier to have someone void the sale.
“If I can eliminate that wait, it puts my farm in a class by itself in terms of marketing and distribution,” he says.
“We are also selling chickens this year, and a few pigs. Another project is an organic vegetable garden. Our son is home from college so this is his project. We’re attending two markets, focusing on selling the vegetables, but also connecting with people to sell the beef — since primarily we are a grass ranch,” he explains. Interest in one product opens doors for the others.
Several of his older children are excited about being involved with the marketing and being at the market.
“We try to maximize the regrowth period in our pastures. We have a nasty little weed called tall buttercup and if recovery period is too short, this weed comes in to take over the field. But if you provide enough recovery time, the grass will outcompete and tall buttercup won’t become a problem.”
All the creek beds were fenced off years ago but they still grazed fairly close to the creek banks until they ran into this problem with tall buttercup. So they moved the fences farther away from the creek, moved the animals out, and within a couple years the weed disappeared. The grass choked it out. “Now we graze those creek areas, but only occasionally,” he explains. We keep them as reserve pastures so they might get grazed only once every two or three years.” They need to be grazed, but they also need some protection.
They don’t use any chemical weed control on the farm. Instead they manage the weeds through grazing, by increasing the stock density and recovery periods to improve grass growth and choke out the weeds. Hoven claims it is as effective as spraying.
“It takes a leap of faith, and it’s a totally new way of thinking for many people. They can’t get out of their existing paradigm.”
The same thinking applies to animal health products. “We are certified organic, so we don’t use antibiotics very often in our cattle. If we have a sick one, we treat that animal, but we have very few sick animals. One problem is having to spend $100 on a bottle of antibiotics that we’ll only use once. We may not need any of it again for a year or two and by then it may have expired!” he says.
Tim and Lori have been married 23 years and have eight children: Aiden (21), Liam (19), Therese (17), Joseph (15), Francis (13), Dominic (9), Monica (7), and Mathias (5). “They enjoy working with the farm and livestock. It’s interesting to observe their different skills and talents,” says Hoven.
“We feel strongly about the importance of family. We feel it is important for our children to live in a situation where they can work with their parents, and also get to live and work with their grandparents. There is another generation of wisdom that they can learn from, and form adult relationships with. Many young people today are isolated from anyone other than their own age group, which gives them a very limited world view.” Many opportunities are missed for learning things that adults can teach them.
They home school their kids and put extra effort into educating them in the belief that this strengthens the family bond while enabling them to build on their natural gifts and talents and become experts in those fields.