For as long as he can remember, Wian Prinsloo has wanted to farm and graze livestock.
“I started with chickens in the city, while we were still in South Africa. When we left Pretoria to come to Canada, I was 15 years old and had 300 layer hens, supplying eggs to a school, and an old folks’ home,” he says.
Moving to Winnipeg, Man., didn’t stifle Prinsloo’s farming ambitions. While still in high school, he was doing landscaping for a couple who had five acres outside the city. He rented an old barn on their little farm and used it to brood chicks. After high school, he studied during winter and farmed on rented land during summer.
“My enterprises had to be portable, working on various farms,” says Prinsloo. Over the next few years he raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, sheep, goats and cattle.
Prinsloo’s partner, Lydia Carpenter, grew up in Winnipeg as well, but was also interested in food systems and rural living. In 2012 they purchased their first cattle. Together, they lived in a trailer on 80 acres of rented land near Brandon, Man., building their livestock numbers.
“We realized we needed more pasture,” says Carpenter. “The land around us was all crops, so expanding our pasture was not an option. We met a holistic management practitioner who offered us land to rent. We moved our farm venture 20 miles to his place, renting a quarter section. We were also helping him with some of the custom grazing cattle he was doing.”
Carpenter and Prinsloo gained experience working cattle on a larger scale. Moving 200 pairs on horseback was a new experience to the couple.
The arrangement also gave them a three-year rolling lease, living in a house on that ranch. But they were still looking for a place of their own.
Another holistic manager, Iain Aitken, moved from Alberta to Manitoba and purchased a ranch that consisted of two homesteads on separate quarter sections. He and his family lived in one and he sold Prinsloo and Carpenter the other.
Today Prinsloo and Carpenter are following their farming dream, raising pastured poultry, lamb, pork and beef for a growing customer base on their farm near Belmont, Man.
Inspired by their livestock guardian dog, Luna, they named their place Luna Field Farm. In addition to the quarter section, they secured a lease on 1,000 acres nearby. It is mostly grazing land, with some wetlands, only seven miles from their farm.
“We run some of our cows together with Iain and he needed more grazing land, so we work together,” Carpenter says. This gives them a chance to build their own cow herd.
Prinsloo and Carpenter selected cattle that would grow efficiently and finish on grass.
“We started with a mix of breeds. Then we bought some Belted Galloway cows that were bred to Simmental and Angus bulls. Now, however, our cows are mostly Luing crosses,” Prinsloo says.
“We use purebred Luing bulls, raised by Iain. He has the largest herd of purebred Luing cattle in Canada,” says Prinsloo. Luing is a Scottish breed that is very hardy and well adapted to finishing on grass.
“We sell a fair amount of grass-fed beef,” says Carpenter. “Before Iain moved here he was selling grass-fed beef to the Alberta market. This breed finishes very nicely on grass and we needed something that would reliably finish on grass but still have a heavier carcass than some of the other grass-based cattle breeds. The Luing cattle are hardy and do well in our climate, so this is the direction we are going with our herd.”
The calves they raise are all finished on grass and direct marketed as beef to their meat customers.
“Our retail market currently is about 40 animals per year, with room for growth,” Prinsloo says.
The beef is a seasonal harvest because these animals are finished on grass during July, August and into the fall. Some of the meat is kept for inventory, but most of it is sold during those months.
“We don’t butcher during winter when they are eating stored feed,” says Carpenter. “They finish better on green pasture. To finish them in winter we might have to compromise on quality or spend a lot of money on supplemental feed. So our goal is to just keep them gaining a little until there is green grass again.”
The cattle are out on pasture through winter but in different groups. One group is designated the finishing group. Prinsloo and Carpenter stockpile forage, allowing cattle to graze late into November and December. Depending on the year, they’ll also feed dry hay or greenfeed silage.
“Ideally we use just dry hay for the finishing group but we’ve used a variety of forages in winter. Since we are not butchering in the winter we don’t have to worry so much about needing to have really high-quality feed,” Carpenter says.
Some people try to finish at 18 months, but Carpenter says it would be really hard to do with their winters.
“Finishing at 24 months is more forgiving since we rely on summer forage for the finishing stage. The key is planned grazing. This is very important in the finishing program; we are focused on properly finishing these animals on the best quality forage. We are trying to use good grazing management to get a good finish on the right animals,” she says.
Carpenter says they generally butcher from July through October, although sometimes they’ll butcher as late as December. They try to spread out butcher dates to manage inventory. They also send order forms to customers in March so people can pre-order. This also helps Carpenter and Prinsloo manage their inventory.
“Most of the orders are filled August through October. As we do the last butchering in December we are inventorying maybe a dozen animals to try to get us through the remaining orders until spring. There may be a short part of the year that we don’t have any beef available if we run out of the previous season’s inventory before we start butchering the next animals,” she says.
Together Carpenter and Prinsloo have a lot of experience direct marketing.
“We are big on customer service, and relationship marketing,” says Prinsloo. “We try to provide a high standard of customer service. It’s difficult, when you start, to commit to the regular scheduled pickup, but this also propelled us forward toward our goal because people could rely on us being there every two weeks, and were able to access the products they wanted.”
Carpenter and Prinsloo work with restaurants a little bit, but they sell most of their meat through a buying club model.
“We take orders and deliver into Brandon, Winnipeg and our surrounding rural area. We deliver meat every two weeks and this includes eggs and other poultry products as well as pork and lamb,” says Carpenter, adding that they switch to weekly meat deliveries during September and October.
“Many customers order bulk packages but some might order a few pounds of hamburger one time and a 50-pound mix of cuts the next. We don’t have any minimum limits because of our large volume of customers, but it’s a balancing act to have it all work out,” Carpenter says.
With just the two of them working on the farm, they don’t have time to sell through farmers’ markets, Carpenter says. “We have some seasonal help, and also work with Iain, but it would be hard for us to stand all day at a farmers’ market stall.”
Instead, customers meet them at one or two specific locations, says Carpenter. “This is very efficient because we don’t have to run around the city delivering,” she says.
The meat is butchered and processed at a provincially inspected facility about 30 minutes from the farm at Killarney. They take in three to five animals every two weeks, and provide butchering instructions to accommodate the inventory they think they’ll move. Carpenter says it’s taken years to figure out what people are buying.
“Sometimes it changes, but some things are guaranteed — like ground and stew, steaks and roasts. Most of the roasts go with our larger packages like the quarters and halves, but some people will order just a roast package,” she says.
Carpenter says their business is doing well and their customer base is growing. Most new customers find them through word of mouth. Prinsloo says they serve 150 to 200 families regularly, plus some who buy occasionally.
“Many people come to us because they want to support local farms, but the management of the farm is also important in the customers’ minds. We have a good following on social media and talk about how we manage our farm — not just focused on grass and cattle, but also the importance of planned grazing and this type of agriculture,” Carpenter adds.
One rewarding aspect of their business is interacting with people who may not be aware of what’s happening on the landscape, but do care, Prinsloo says. He adds that many people are starting to realize the important role agriculture plays.
“This is the one thing that humans do that has the largest impact on the biggest areas of land. Grasslands are diminishing, however. Humans have settled and farmed nearly every grassland in the world. The biggest threat to grasslands here is the plow,” he says.