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She’s the boss now

Management: Andrea Stroeve-Sawa is the manager of Shipwheel Cattle Feeders

Andrea Stroeve-Sawa is the manager of Shipwheel Cattle Feeders near Taber, Alta.

She can’t say she’s surprised when people walk over and ask if the boss is around. After all the feedlot sector is dominated by male operators, but Andrea Stroeve-Sawa couldn’t be prouder as the fourth generation to carry on the Shipwheel brand to say, “you’re talking to her.”

She admits that it was a little unnerving receiving her first load of calves to be custom fed for the natural beef market in fall 2015, shortly after taking over management of the feedlot at Shipwheel Cattle Feeders near Taber, Alta.

“I remember thinking I’m entirely responsible for these cattle and they aren’t even mine,” she says.

It’s not that she was unfamiliar with the care of cattle and the land.

She was her dad’s sidekick growing up. Blake Holtman established the 5,500-head feedlot after purchasing Shipwheel Ranching from his father, Billy Holtman, in 1973, but it was her dad’s planned grazing system for yearling cattle that intrigued her the most. He started setting up three cells with 65, 10-acre paddocks in all after making a trip to Texas in 1980 to take the first Holistic Resource Management course put on by Allan Savory.

She went on to earn her diploma in agriculture from Lethbridge College and her interest in the feedlot side grew as she worked with her late husband, Eddy Stroeve, at his family’s feedlot near Picture Butte, Alta. The passion for what they had been working toward together dwindled after his accidental death as she tried to pull her life together caring for their two small children.

Her future started to become more clear the more intent her dad became on retiring. He had already leased out the feedlot and was looking to sell or lease the land as well.

“I was worried what would happen to everything he had worked so hard for — the productive grassland and riparian areas, the habitat for wildlife — and the memories — the row of trees I had walked though every day from the house to the feedlot, my treehouse. It would probably all be plowed under for crops. I decided to go back to my roots and begin a new journey at Shipwheel. I didn’t want to get 20 years down my path in life and regret not taking this opportunity,” Stroeve-Sawa told her audience at the 2017 Holistic Management Conference.

The pens and feed mill underwent a major overhaul, topped off by a new processing barn that offered plenty of natural light and a Bud-box handlng system when Andrea took over the feedlot im 2015. photo: Debbie Furber

With a transition plan in place, she took on management of the grazing program in 2013 and continues to manage 400 to 600 yearlings with daily moves, breaking the 10-acre paddocks into thirds to get a more even graze during times of fast forage growth. The goal is to leave one-third of the plants after the final graze to build the organic layer over the sandy soil base.

The Holistic Management planned grazing strategy has underpinned the success of the grazing program and that year she set out to quantify it. Digging into her dad’s grazing records dating back to 1982, she was amazed to discover that they were successfully stocking cattle at six times the ecologically suggested stocking rate for their land in their area on their soil type.

The records show that stock days per acre on dryland cell 2, for example, have steadily increased from 2.36 in 1982, to 23.7 in 1985, to 45.1 in 1995, and 93.5 in 2015. The trend is similar on irrigated cell 4, added in 1986 by converting a corn silage field to a multi-species forage pasture, where stock days per acre have increased from 6.9 in 1987, to 16.9 in 1990, to 90.8 in 2003, to 105 in 2013.

Composting is a relatively new venture her dad established after taking a course from Neil Kinsey in Missouri. It is proving to be a good fit for Shipwheel because there are lots of high-value crops grown in the local area and fewer feedlots than in some areas where feedlots can make use of the manure for growing their own field crops.

The composting process begins with pen cleanout at the end of May when the manure and bedding is piled in windrows on a clay pad designed for this purpose near the feedlot. The key to creating a valuable product is controlling the conditions (optimum combination of organic feedstocks, aeration, turning frequency, temperatures and time) to enhance the natural decomposition that converts organic material into a humus-like end product. By August, the 6,700 tons of fresh manure have been reduced to 3,400 tons ready for sale, mostly to repeat customers.

In a holistic context, her decision to return to Shipwheel offered the quality of life she wants, and she can describe how she would like the resource base to look in her time and to support that quality of life for generations to follow. What she struggled with was the forms of production, namely what to do with the feedlot as the end of the five-year lease drew closer.

It did have its place because she knew that removing it from the landbase would have consequences for the sustainability of the farm as a whole. It filled a need for a winter enterprise and fit with her quality-of-life goal to not work off the farm.

As fate or fortune would have it, a customer who wanted to feed cattle without added hormones or antibiotics approached her.

“It seemed like a challenge that would require skills and creativity. That really appealed to me. I knew with our focus on individual animal care, stockmanship and high-quality feed we could do this,” says Stroeve-Sawa.

In the bigger picture, it was about choice — her choice to differentiate her smaller-sized feedlot and step away from competing for cattle with the bigger feedlots, and her desire to provide one group of consumers with their beef of choice.

x photo: Debbie Furber

“We need to connect with consumers on a personal level. Let’s tell them about the good beef we raise. It doesn’t matter if it’s natural, grass-fed or conventional. Let’s work together as an industry to do our very best to raise the very best beef in the world. We know that we can,” she urges.

Many pieces to the puzzle

After she took back the feedlot in the summer of 2015, the pens and feed mill underwent a major overhaul, a new processing barn with lots of natural light and a Bud-box handling system was put up and employees were hired all before the first set of calves arrived at the beginning of October.

Her first, and greatest, challenge in those first few months was finding the right people after the initial crew left her in the lurch more than once.

Fortunately, she attended an Alberta Cattle Feeders Association’s workshop led by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council that winter where she learned about refining the interview process to get a better grasp on whether the person would be a good match for the job and her vision and values.

It didn’t take long to realize that she was looking for people with a work ethic like her husband, Trevor Sawa, whose career was in the construction trades. With next to no background in cattle, he agreed to join the Shipwheel team and soon became passionate about stockmanship.

She adds, Shipwheel will always be thankful for the weeks the late Bud Williams spent at their place in the early 1990s teaching people about proper stockmanship and low-stress handling of cattle, making the job low-stress for people, too. That training continues to this day with, for example, a workshop by Dylan Biggs this past summer.

“What we do is challenging, raising cattle with no antibiotics, but there are many people in my fold helping make us successful in what we are doing,” she says.

Aside from Trevor and her crew, Andrea’s dad, remains on standby as her No. 1 mentor.

Then there’s their veterinarian and nutritionist. Both are trusted long-time friends who’ve been invaluable in helping them achieve their goal of focusing on the immune system of the cattle. The veterinarian provided alternative treatment protocols relying on vitamins, probiotics and other immune-boosting products instead of going to antibiotics on the first treatment. Their nutritionist ensures they use quality ingredients and incorporate unique supplements to ease the transitions through the feeding period.

Along the way colleagues in the grazing and feeding sectors, as well as their customers, have offered practical advice based on their experience feeding cattle for the natural or conventional market.

Shipwheel’s conventional cattle are managed very similarly to the cattle in the natural beef program, she adds.

One of the keys to the success of their natural beef program are pre-vaccinated ranch-direct calves that are drawn from nearby ranches, and co-ordinated delivery schedules that limit new arrivals to 700 per week during the fall run.

This gives the incoming calves time to acclimate to their new surroundings. The process is described well in a video she uses as a resource that is part of the Creating Connections training modules by Merck Animal Health (

“Acclimating applies to the whole herd because cattle prefer to move as a herd. It’s our job to gain the herd’s trust by our proper posture, position and distance. People relieve stress by going for a walk and cattle do, too, but they need to move as a herd. When cattle have gained confidence in us as caregivers we are able to actually take them for a walk through the pen to relieve stress and place them at the bunk and at the water bowl,” Stroeve-Sawa explains.

“We have found that acclimating new animals to the yard is the most important job we have in that first seven to 10 days after arrival to break the negative cycle of stress,” she says. The cycle starts with whatever stresses cattle enough to cause the blood cortisol level to rise — weaning or transport being two prime examples. The increase in cortisol depresses the immune system giving pathogens the upper hand, in turn causing sickness and weight loss that adds more stress to perpetuate the cycle.

Records from the past two years for the natural beef program show the importance of this acclimation period.

The first winter, about 38 per cent of the fall calves fell out of the program because of conditions that required treatment with antibiotics for animal welfare reasons, but the death loss was only 0.5 per cent.

That first experience gave them some insights that led to changes in their feeding program and treatment protocols for the second year. In addition to having a great team in place by then, they spent about 20 minutes at a time for a total of about 24 hours in each pen during the first week until the calves grew comfortable with their new environment.

x photo: Debbie Furber

Even though the second winter was harder weather-wise, the dropout rate from the natural program slipped to 6.2 per cent. Alternative treatments saved an additional 4.0 per cent from having to move to the conventional pens.

These results were even more significant when she discounted one pen of 500 calves that were highly stressed at arrival. They walked the fencelines like zombies, eventually broke down with IBR and the crew had to intervene with intranasal vaccines and finally an antibiotic for about 20 per cent of them.

When she removed those 500 head from the calculation, the overall dropout rate fell to 2.6 per cent, and the death loss dropped from 1.2 to 0.7 per cent.

“Acclimating takes time and commitment. It all comes back to the people. They are so important in this. Everyone has to be on board working toward the same goal because one person can walk into a pen and undo everything,” Stroeve-Sawa says.

For more information on their operation, visit the Shipwheel Cattle Feeders website, follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or call 403-223-4333.

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