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It takes a neighbourhood to grow beef

As a former high school athletic director, Myron Pearman knows how far enthusiasm and motivation can take a person. He knows, too, that there have to be a few wins along the way to keep spirits riding high. Wins aren’t always measured by numbers on a scoreboard or trophies in a showcase; they can be personal achievements, sometimes big, sometimes small, oftentimes life changing.

Like many beef producers, Pearman’s accomplishments are weighted heavily on the personal-achievement side. Drive and determination keep him in the game, not simply waiting for wins on the numbers side, but strategizing for them.

“2012 should have been the home run. It was good, but it should have been better,” Pearman says. “This time it was drought in the U.S. and high feed-grain prices and the calves sold for $200 a head less than anticipated. I was so, so disappointed. At what point does all of the enthusiasm and motivation turn to frustration? Now is the time to make money.”

Like many, he clearly remembers the long balls racked up against the industry — drought, BSE, early frost, high feed grain prices, a world financial crisis, high fuel prices, the labour crunch — one by one, year after year during the past decade.

That string of events, coupled with his brother and partner leaving for work in the oilfields, led to 2007, when he rented the former Pohl Farms Feedlot, a 3,000-head facility just north of Ponoka, Alta.

Fall calf prices had dipped to discouraging lows in the midst of the world recession, so the plan was to value add by finishing the calves, he explains. All of the 2008 calf crop was retained to go to grass and finish out along with the 2009 calves. Finishing calves turned out to be easier said than done, and easier done than making a profit on 80-cent fats that year.

He found a workable balance in backgrounding the calves, generally through to February or March, when he phones several buyers to get price quotes and markets them directly from the farm. All of the heifers are retained, with the better heifers selected for the breeding program and the smaller ones marketed off grass in October.

The yearly rental agreement includes Pohl’s half section of cropland to grow a barley-oat combo for silage, so between having the feed supply close by and the family’s residence in Ponoka, it made sense to winter the cows at the feedlot, too.

The owner, Ken Pohl and his wife, Verna, now run The Hitching Pohl, a busy harness repair and tack shop, on the farm. Pohl says his dad always had a few beef cattle and a bit of a dairy as part of the small mixed farm, but it wasn’t until after he took over that the farm got into cattle in a big way during the ’60s because of the opportunity to add value to barley by finishing cattle. He ran at full capacity of 6,000 head for many years and devised handling systems in the processing barn that Pearman finds efficient to this day.

Only two of the seven feedlots in a radius around the east-west strip of grid north of Ponoka remain in operation as feedlots. Pearman says we head west through fertile cropland that gives way to rolling tame pastures toward his home ranch, Monte Vista Farms, near Rimbey.

Census numbers show the area was at one time home to more cow-calf operations than anywhere else in the province, the major north-south Highway 2 corridor running by the town, key players like VJV Auction, and prolific feed production were some advantages that influenced development of what was once the feedlot alley of Alberta’s Parkland belt.

Pearman bought the half-section mixed farm from his parents in 1979, starting with 10 commercial cows purchased from a neighbour and added a custom silage business in 1982 that now covers approximately 7,000 acres a year. The herd grew to upwards of 300 cows during his 25-year teaching career and he and his brother had upped it to 1,100 cows by 2009.

Today’s numbers stand at 800 cows running on some 35 quarters of rented pasture. Pearman doesn’t hesitate to talk about further downsizing to 500, mainly due to labour and time challenges.

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He suffered a major loss three years ago, when his longtime friend and mechanic passed away. His brother still helps some when he’s home from the oilfields, while his nephew and daughter have become an integral part of the calving team once college lets out. He contracts a cowboy with a horse and trailer to help from calving through fall roundup and a feed man for the winter months.

Calving season gets underway with trucking the cows from the feedlot out to the Rimbey ranch in March ahead of the April 15 start, which he is considering pushing to the end of April to lessen the risk of having to deal with spring storms.

The calving meadow has access to outdoor pens leading to a small barn with a maternity pen and space for a few bedded pens — nothing fancy, but well organized for the purpose it serves, he says.

“I start at 4 a.m. with a level one inspection to get the lay of the land and have a plan ready for 8 a.m. when the calving crew shows up. We’ll have a coffee, debriefing and decide on priorities for the day,” he explains, adding that effective communication is pivotal. He tries to delegate responsibility, then stay out of the way to let people do their work.

Each person takes responsibility for a group of cows and calls on the others when help is needed. “It’s a hectic pace from sun-up to sundown, so whatever happens during the short nighttime hours happens,” Pearman says. “It does get onerous as time goes on, so I watch the people and try to give them a little time away.”

The breeding herd and calves are vaccinated with the Express 5 program and the calves receive an additional eight-way vaccine before turnout in June.

The farthest start to grazing season is a pasture 60 miles away from the yard. Having his own liner lets him move the pairs to pasture about 40 at a time at his own pace. This year, there were three pasture groups of approximately 265 pairs each and the replacement heifer group.

He appreciates his good-doing older cows and doesn’t cull too hard, but tries to keep the herd young by retaining 150 to 175 heifers each year depending on overall market prospects. Any cows that haven’t calved by mid-July are preg.-checked and the opens go down the road.

Pearman says intensifying the grazing rotation to encourage uniform forage utilization on large blocks of pasture has done wonders for conception rates because the bulls are in close proximity to all of the cows all the time. Some of the moves are as short as 24 hours when the grass is at peak production.

He has been using Limousin bulls for the past seven years, with all bulls coming out of a joint venture in 50 purebred cows with his neighbours, Neil and Sherry Christianson of Diamond C Limousins, who run another 150 purebreds themselves.

Pearman works the summer grazing rotation so that by mid-October the herds end up on three quarters of pasture adjoining the home yard. The strategy behind renting this piece was to save it for fall grazing because a lot of the area is too rough to hay or silage. It’s enough pasture to hold them while he works at moving pairs back to the feedlot for weaning and wintering.

Just as the old proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” It could be said that it takes a neighbourhood to raise beef.

“This is my neighbourhood and these are well-established families so it’s important to me to treat people right and help out in times of need,” Pearman says. “Honesty and integrity are as important as paying fair rent and wages to grow beef as economically as reasonable for consumers.”

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