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Innovation fuels GBT Angus

Sask. seedstock operation raises Angus cattle on its sixth-generation family farm

The Branvold family of GBT Angus.

Trevor and Cheryl Branvold raise registered Angus cattle on their farm near Wawota, Sask., a farm that has been in Cheryl’s family since it was settled in 1888.

“Our kids are the sixth generation of our family to be on our farm. We have two boys, Brett (13) and Carter (10). They are a lot of help on the farm and enjoy working with the cattle,” she says.

“My great uncles were on this farm before us, and my mom and dad have a different place nearby,” Cheryl says. Her great uncles had purebred polled Herefords and were very involved in the Hereford industry.

“My great uncles were ready to retire from farming, and after Trevor and I got married in 2003 we moved here to take over their farm. Trevor already had a herd of cattle so we brought his cows and some of the cattle we were leasing from his mom and stepfather,” she says.

Trevor grew up at Kisbey, Sask., where his mom and stepfather had a farm with grain and cattle. After he finished school he stayed at the farm at Kisbey during the winter to calve the cows. He also worked at a grain farm near Wawota, and that’s how he met Cheryl. Her parents’ place was just a mile down the road from the grain farm. Trevor continued to calve cows at the Kisbey farm for a few winters, then he and Cheryl rented another place for a year. In 2003 they married and moved to her family’s farm.

They immediately started to try to improve the soil and pastures with bale grazing. “We adopted that practice because we’d bought an old tractor and loader that would do the job to get the cattle fed, but it became a daunting task in tough winters with a lot of snow — trying to feed cattle every day. So we jumped on the chance to start bale grazing instead of hauling feed out to the cows,” says Trevor.

They soon started seeing the other benefits with added fertility of the soil. “There was also some savings in equipment costs and diesel fuel. So now we’ve been trying to find ways to bale graze in all our pastures, with not only our cow-calf pairs but also the cows in the fall after we weaned the calves. We’d have bales set out in the fall for them, and also for our sale bulls,” he says.

Not having to feed the hay frees up more time to spend with their two boys, going to their hockey games in the winter. It also frees up more time in the summer because they are not out there making hay all day in the tractor. “We purchase most of our feed now because we realized that our hayland was depleting and we had to add fertility to it,” Trevor says.

Now they are trying to transition into raising more of their own feed again, but in a system where it stays in the field as a summer crop, or grazing a cover crop. That way the nutrients stay there and are not taken somewhere else when a crop is harvested and hauled away. “We want to do whatever we can do to keep the fertility and not mine it off our land,” he says.

The cattle

Trevor and Cheryl have been raising purebred Aberdeen Angus ever since they were married. Trevor’s family had commercial cattle when he was growing up, but he became interested in Angus at an early age. This year, 2018, marks the 25th anniversary of the purebreds. He and his mom and stepfather established the herd together and Trevor calved the first bunch of purebred Angus cows in 1993 when he was 16 years old. “It wasn’t until we got the purebreds that I really got involved in the cattle side of things on my parents’ farm,” he says.

2018 marks the 25th anniversary for the purebred herd at GBT Angus. photo: Supplied

When his family started the purebred program they named it GBT Angus. The G stands for Gerry (Trevor’s stepfather, who passed away last year), the B for Betty (Trevor’s mother who remains interested in the cattle and often helps with branding and moving cattle), and T for Trevor.

“Currently we run about 150 pair and market two-year-old bulls; we calve in May and June so we hold those bull calves over and sell them in March just before they turn two. Our winters are cold and at first we battled early calving, 25 years ago, but holistic management showed us that we don’t have to do it that way,” says Trevor.

“We switched to May-June calving and this year weaned our calves in February. We are still trying to figure out what the best timing would be for weaning, because it’s still extremely cold weather, and the cows are still nursing calves when it’s cold.”

One of the things they had to get away from was winter calving, since it’s hard on newborns in this weather. The older calves, however, do very well wintering with their mothers. “This year we tried a new thing for us, providing a creep area for those calves. It’s not for feeding grain, but an area where they can get away from the cows and eat higher-quality hay. Often for the cows we utilize a straw-based ration and grain pellets, and the calves do better with higher-quality protein,” he says.

“We can also bed them in the creep area during severe weather if we have to, but we have enough bush around that they generally have adequate shelter. It’s clean out there and they can go off with their mothers into the bush,” he says.

The creep area they used this year was the home corral that the cattle come into for water, hay and pellets. “We just put a creep gate in the gateway into one of our pens — a pen that is about 200 feet by about 350 feet in size. We put the hay bales and bedding in there for the calves and it worked very well. The calves can come and go as they wish. The other benefit was that when we wanted to wean them, we just closed the gate when we fed the hay to the calves, and they were all in there. The calves didn’t know anything different until they wanted to go back to their mothers and the gate was closed,” he says.

This was very stress-free weaning; the calves were in a familiar place with familiar feed, and hadn’t been stressed by being sorted. The cows were nearby, right through the fence. This was just a different way of fenceline weaning and it worked very well.

Bull sale

The 22-month-old bulls are sold in March. “We used to have a live auction sale, but now we sell them online, and this will be our sixth year doing that. We utilize an online bidding site to host the bidding, and this is where we place all the bull lots for people to view ahead of time. On this site we have our introduction and description of every bull. We keep updating all the information on weights, scrotal measurements, and any other pertinent information. The sale is always the third Friday in March so this year it was the 14th, 15th and 16th of March,” says Trevor.

GBT sells their two-year-old forage-efficient bulls online to lessen the stress on the bulls and themselves. photo: Supplied

The bidding opened on the 14th and closed at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 16. “We just call it a private treaty sale, but the online bidding makes it more fair for everyone to have a chance at a bull they want. We post videos on each bull and a link people can click on to see what the bull looks like as he moves. This is better than just a photo,” he says. These sales have been very successful.

“We had a very strong sale this year, selling 21 forage-efficient two-year-old bulls for an average of $4,785, and 95 per cent of the bulls sold to repeat customers,” Trevor says.

It’s easier for buyers to bid on the bulls at home and not have to travel to a sale at that time of year with possible bad weather and bad roads. “We’ve had really good luck selling our bulls this way and it’s a low-stress way of doing it — for us and the bulls. We don’t pen the bulls; they are just out in their paddock with a bale of hay, and we don’t have the added expense of preparing a sale facility or hiring an auctioneer or ring men, or paying someone to haul our bulls to an auction site,” says Trevor.

“This type of sale is cost-saving and we can pass that saving along to our customers. We don’t necessarily need to get as much for a bull as someone does who conducts a live sale. This was our sixth year doing it this way and it seems to be well-received by our customers,” he says.

This change was a bit daunting at first for some of the ranchers who are not computer literate but the online sale has proved to be a good option for them. If they are interested they can always find a friend or family member who can help them with the computer aspect or do the bidding at a neighbour’s place who has a computer.

“It’s been interesting, because some of our customers who don’t use computers (and despise computers) are still following with us because they’ve bought our bulls in the past. They often comment how interesting or fun it was, doing it this way, and it was easier than they thought it would be.”

Grazing practices

The other enterprise the Branvolds started three years ago is custom grazing. “We needed to do something with all the extra grass we have, now that we’ve been implementing a different grazing strategy. We custom graze about 400 yearlings from May until October, but they are generally in different pastures than our purebred cows and calves,” Trevor says.

“We move our cattle daily if we can, but we have some pastures with a lot of bush. About 60 per cent of our land is tame pasture and the rest is native, with a lot of bush. We have some areas that we can’t have high stocking densities without doing a lot of clearing for fencelines or developing new water sites in those locations,” he says. These pastures are part of the rotation, however, as the cattle are moved around.

“We do try to keep our numbers high in each pasture, even in those larger areas, so we can have a better impact on the land with a bunch of cattle on those sites. Often these are big enough paddocks, however, that the cattle have to be on them for a week or two at a time. The grazing there is not as controlled as the other areas of tame grass where we can move the cattle every day or every two days,” says Trevor.

“We try to leave more residue than we graze. In our country it seems like it’s better to leave more residue behind. Our goal is to leave at least 50 per cent residue after grazing, on the daily moves. The fences are all high tensile and poly wire, just single strand, and it works very well,” he says.

“The custom-grazed yearlings are kept separate in their own rotations, but we run our own yearlings with our cow herd. The only cattle that have their own pasture are the sale bulls. The rest of our yearlings —the steers that didn’t make bulls, and any feeder heifers or replacement heifers that we own — are run with the cow herd. We try to keep them grouped up as much as possible for more impact, with fewer groups to look after and move,” he says.

Cheryl says that all the cows are bred together in multi-sire groups. “We rarely AI, and if we do, it’s usually to our own bulls. We use them for breeding our cows and heifers, but we also draw semen on all of our herd sires so that we can AI with them as well — in the event that there are too many females for that bull to physically breed. This also ensures a planned mating if we specifically want one cow bred to a specific bull. We have had disappointment in the past with AI sires that don’t meet our standards — especially with feet and leg structure. It’s much better for us to see them in person in order to put the trust in them to add their genetics to our herd, and we generally just AI to our own herdsires,” she says.

The biggest reason that the custom-graze cattle are kept separate from their own cattle is for biosecurity and disease prevention. “This is especially important because we are selling purebreds and want to be sure they are healthy,” Trevor says. “You don’t always know the health history of the custom-graze animals. Last year we brought in some cattle that were just another rancher’s herd, but usually they are purchased cattle from an auction market, and there’s risk for sickness. We try to keep that risk away from our herd,” he says.

During the past two years many improvements have been made in the pastures, installing a lot of shallow pipelines for summer grazing. “I bought a couple of 300 gallon poly tanks and welded skids on them for ease of moving them around. We just have riser pipes along the pipeline, every 200 metres, so that any of our cattle on the tame pastures that we’ve developed don’t have to walk more than about 300 metres to fresh water. As we move them along into new pasture, we move the water trough as well,” he says.

It can all be done at once, moving the cattle and moving the troughs. “It’s not a daunting task that way and seems to work very well. By the time we take our poly wire down and let the cattle into the next paddock we can move the water trough and put up the next day’s poly wire, and it takes minimal extra time to do it,” he says.

“Hopefully we’ll see better gains or even just healthier cattle. They are eating more rather than walking to water. The water system may also be a way to drought-proof the pasture and have adequate water. Last summer was very dry, the driest on record since people started taking records, and this winter hasn’t given us very much moisture.”

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