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Grassers hit the spot

The Kowal family of Burnt Out Creek Ranch in Crooked River, Sask.

Jordan and Janelle Kowal have gained experience beyond their years dealing with some of the worst of times and the best of times in the beef and grain sectors right from the get-go.

Cattle and grain markets bounce around so much they can’t be sure which way will be the right way for long, so they are going with their hearts. Right now that means structuring their operation to allow time with their young family of three and zeroing in on cattle.

Cows had been part of this fourth-generation farm since Jordan’s parents moved home in 1993 to farm with his grandparents, Ernie and Sharon Wicks at Crooked River, Sask. The glory years in beef were numbered by the time he graduated high school and took over from his parents to farm with his grandparents in 2000. By 2004, when he completed his diploma in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, beef markets were in post-BSE turmoil and the herd went down the road two years later.

“It was tough to earn a living from cows. We tried to adopt some of the practices we heard about at meetings, like swath grazing, to reduce costs but between the cold and snow here it just didn’t work,” says Jordan, who followed in his grandpa’s footsteps to become involved with the Saskatchewan Cattle Feeders Association and is the current president.

When his grandparents eased out of the day-to-day operations in 2010, the Kowals formed Burnt Out Creek Ranch, now a backgrounding and grasser operation, with his cousin, Cody, who has stepped back somewhat this year to take over a family business in the nearby town of Tisdale, Sask.

Finishing calves was an experience, but definitely not one to be repeated. The family had done some backgrounding and finishing when they ran cows, but ramping up to 2,000 head was a different ball game. They soon found out that northeastern Saskatche­wan isn’t the place to finish cattle because the harsh winters cut into gains and transportation costs to ship fats to the packing plants in Alberta slash the bottom line.

“We did well for a couple of years backgrounding here and sending them to a feedlot near a packer in Colorado to finish, but then with the dollar at par it didn’t work out,” he says.

All told, backgrounding has become their specialty and adding the grasser operation makes it a year-round venture. It works freight-wise because they can ship nearly twice as many calves at 850 pounds as fats on each liner, they’re not out as much as a half-pound a day on gains when weather gets ornery during the finishing period, and not many areas on the Prairies can consistently compare to the northeast when it comes to growing roughage and feed grains.

They did get caught short on barley grain the year prices happened to tip $5.50 a bushel. “That really stung us on cost of gain and we vowed we’d never be in that position again,” Janelle says.

Consequently, they’ve been shifting their land base away from cash crops to more feed grains (oats for grain and barley for grain and silage) and forages.

The cropping side had increased from 1,500 acres to 4,000 acres during the years of decent grain prices. This year, they cropped 3,000 acres as they continue with their plan to convert a quarter each year to pasture and two to three quarters a year to hay.

The older pastures are meadow bromegrass with a trace of alfalfa remaining. The newest stands include some sainfoin and cicer milkvetch with alfalfa as legumes in a mix with hybrid bromegrass. New pastures are hayed for the first couple of years while they establish. They count on two cuts of hay from established hayfields and never mind having some carry-over in case it’s needed for grazing.

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Their target is to build the pasture-hayland system to carry 2,000 head, allowing 1.5 acres of open tame forage per animal with bush and slough areas being a bonus. They could run 1,300 head now, but all things considered, including the cost of buying in stock this year and the dry start to the growing season, they have 870 head on home pastures and sent a group of 300 to a nearby provincial community pasture.

Nearly 10 inches of rain from mid-July through mid-August turned the pasture situation around in a hurry, although it did make tricky conditions for silaging.

Facilities to match

Some of the original pasture still has cross-fencing, however, the land being converted to pasture is fenced in quarter-section paddocks with a dugout at the centre of each section.

This year, they invested in a portable solar-powered water trough to make the most of the water supply in the dugouts because of the low water levels in other natural watering sources. Even though the summer rains remedied the water situation, they say the off-site watering system is definitely the route they will go because it saves wear and tear on the dugout banks and the incidence of foot rot was down overall.

The cattle oiler for fly control and the molasses/mineral licks are centrally located at the watering stations. The molasses licks, promoted to aid the digestion of roughages, are a new addition in the last two years and they do like the shine the product puts on the cattle.

They are designing the pasture system with all of the quarter sections connected so the cattle flow easily through a rotation of three and sometimes four passes over each quarter. The entire system connects with the processing shop at the feedlot, where they’ve added two large paddocks for the grassers. They are barbed-wire construction with sections of windbreak fence and portable feed bunks along the lane, which works well enough for grassers because they’re only looking for gains of 1.5 pounds per day to take advantage of compensatory gain when they go to pasture.

Portable feed bunks designed by his grandpa are a feature of the feedlot pens that they really appreciate. The bunks can be easily pulled out of the way to open the front of the pens for easy cleanout.

The shop that encloses the cattle working chute and squeeze under a radiant heater has been a huge improvement. It actually started out as a make-work project during a wet harvest a few years ago and grew to cover the entire handling system as well as a length of alley leading into the facility. One of the convenient features of the home-built steel system is the alley with gates to sort cattle five ways coming out of the squeeze.

Janelle, who manages the processing on arrival, says their protocol is pretty much standard with vaccinating, deworming, implanting, antibiotic and dehorning. The key really is to do the processing immediately so that the cattle get into their pens and started on feed without delay.

Coming into the marriage, she had some knowledge of grain farming from her grandparents’ operation, but says it didn’t take long for Jordan to turn her into a cow person and in 2006 she completed her animal sciences diploma at Lakeland College. In addition to managing the processing and teaming up with Sharon to manage the grassers and pastures, she keeps a menagerie of pigs and poultry for their own use, which includes providing noon lunches for their employees and suppers through harvest.

Backgrounding basics

They’ve found that hay and molasses does wonders to get calves on feed right away. They start with five pounds of hay per head mixed with the regular total-mixed-ration (TMR) of silage, ground barley and oats and a molasses-vitamin-mineral premix fed once a day. The grasser ration is largely hay with silage, supplement and oats.

Five years ago, they began working with a nutritionist, Scott Schake, who stops by at least every couple of months. “He has helped a lot with our bunk management and mixing the TMR, picks up on things we might not notice and he’s on top of what’s going on in other places,” Jordan says.

They have also learned a lot through Jordan’s involvement with the SCFA just by keeping in touch with people in the know and taking part in the association’s annual Western Canada Feedlot Management School.

When it gets down to the basics, there are two lessons they take to heart. “You can’t cheap out on feed. It comes back to feed testing and knowing what you are feeding because if you don’t, you are going to be disappointed, and it’s important to know what all of your costs are, especially if you are getting into custom feeding.”

Temporary foreign worker program

Jordan believes the provincial associations and their national group have done a good job of bringing the issue to the forefront, although there isn’t going to be an easy fix.

Feedlots and packers have relied heavily on the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program to fill jobs that Canadians don’t seem to want. Just when program policies seemed to have improved, the federal government introduced changes to crack down on misuse of the program in other business sectors. On the positive side, after much lobbying, the government did create an agricultural stream for primary agriculture, and again after much lobbying, feedlots were recognized as primary agriculture.

A TFW is now allowed to come to Canada for four working years rather than four years regardless of time worked. On their operation a working year is seven months from April 1 to November 1, so the time invested in training an employee is well worth it if the employee is willing and able to return in subsequent years.

This year, they went through the ropes as usual to hire back their TFW, Jerry, and received two-days’ notice that their application had been approved.

“Every year we are sitting on pins and needles waiting to find out if he will be coming,” Jordan says. “He wants to work. We have the work for him, but the government paperwork just doesn’t allow flow. As a business we need to have people in place. We want consistent employees and the program helps fill the void.”

Janelle, who handles the paperwork, says they advertise for Canadian help as required by the program, but find that most people who apply want to work around their own rodeo schedules and some that they have hired only stay a day or two. They count themselves fortunate at the moment to have two local people as full-time, year-round employees, but Jerry’s knowledge of the operation and mechanical skills are a huge asset. Even though he’s a gifted mechanic, he doesn’t have trade papers and, therefore, isn’t eligible to apply for permanent residency under the immigrant nominee program.

He would jump at the chance to become a Canadian citizen. His wife and son in Nicaragua would love to come to Canada, too, but program administrators have said no way, not on a work permit for her and not even for a visit.

“The problem is that there’s no one really to talk with because the administrators don’t understand farming,” adds Janelle. Take for instance, the rule that Jerry has to be employed for a specific job. So he’s not allowed to work in both the cattle and the grain operations. It has to be one or the other.

That’s not the way it is at all for the Kowals, Cody who still helps at busy times, and Ernie and Sharon, who return to the farm each spring and help out in a big way.

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