Jay Fox is looking forward to his first term as president of the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association with the same enthusiasm he has for ranching and for the same reason he and his wife, Angie, do what they do. At the end of the day, they hope that their contributions will in some way make a difference for their industry, community and family.
Having been a director for four years leading up to his election as president at the December annual general meeting, he’s well aware of twhat it will take to juggle time between association, farm and family matters. “We’re pretty good at long-distance problem solving already,” Jay says. As for chores, all he has to do is make sure the cows have enough feed set out to last the three or four days he’s away, then Angie takes care of the rest. At age 12, their son, Devon, is already an integral part of the day-to-day operations. Charlee is three, Porter is two and Major is six months.
He and Angie are equally proud of their family’s lifestyle and rural roots as they are of their Steadfast Ranch near Eddystone, in the heart of Manitoba’s cattle country. Angie was raised on a mixed farm near Edam, Sask., and Jay is a fourth-generation rancher. His grandparents and parents founded the Justamere ranch at Lloydminster. His brother has operated the ranch since his parents moved to Manitoba in the late 1990s to expand the land base so that each of the children would have an opportunity to farm if they chose to do so. “Mom and dad did pretty good — out of the six kids, four of us have our own places and the other two maintain interests in cattle,” he says.
Jay and Angie took over managing the Manitoba ranch in 2001 and have since purchased it. Currently, they run 400 Angus and Hereford commercial cows on a land base of 12,000 acres all in one block, which they figure will support three times as many cows once they have their rotational grazing system and fencing in place.
The couple was selected as Manitoba’s 2008 Outstanding Young Farmer. Most recently, they were part of the “doing the right things right” producer panel at the Manitoba Grazing School. Their method of operation has been to run their ranch with as little additional help as possible, Angie explains. This is part of the broader goal to manage expenses in a way that will allow them to improve and expand their operation without financial burden.
They review actual expenses
monthly and adjust their projections and budget accordingly. The annual routine involves going through the financials of the previous year, discussing their future goals, prioritizing their expansion plans and evaluating their quality of life.
Fortunately, they both really do love working the numbers — especially calculating rations. Jay rates the calculator on his cell phone right up there with the best inventions of all time.
“You have to know the numbers to bounce back if something doesn’t work or to know if it’s working in the first place — then you have to understand why it is working and continue to work to improve it,” he says. “You’ll save a lot by knowing numbers, for example, just knowing the weight of your animals can make a huge difference. From that, you can calculate the amount of feed you will need to get through the winter, or the summer.”
The rotational grazing system is in the beginning stages. Due to the scope and cost of the project, they want to make sure they get it right the first time so they’re not fencing, then having to re-fence. Grazing mentor Hugh Blair and Manitoba Agriculture farm production advisor Larry Fischer have been instrumental in helping them to get started on the right foot. Their ultimate goal is to graze the entire 12,000 acres and purchase whatever hay they require.
Selecting hardy, high-performance bulls with femininity and strong maternal traits has been a priority during the expansion phase. They have been carrying over as many of their own females as possible to build the herd with the type of hardy, productive females that have proven themselves on their ranch. Angus bulls go with the Hereford cows and vice-versa to produce black baldy calves that wean off in the five-to six-weight range. Calving gets underway the first week of April and weaning begins in late November.
They have two large calving paddocks with handling facilities built into the centre fence line. It has worked well, but ties them to calving on the same ground every year and the area will get crowded as the herd expands. Knowing from first-hand experience that the more space the better for the health of the calves, they recently purchased a quarter section of bush land across the road from the home quarter. The plan is to clear it in strips, leaving enough bush for shelter, but not so much that they won’t be able to see the cows. They’d use the new calving grounds for the mature herd and the original calving paddocks for the heifers. The calving area is left to rest for a full year so that there is a good growth of stockpiled forage to start each calving season.
An orderly system of tagging and numbering makes record-keeping a lot easier and effective. Green tags are for the female calves and blue tags are for the male calves. They are numbered according to a thousand system beginning with the year of birth. The mother’s number goes on the tag as well. They freeze brand the number on the side of each replacement heifer after they decide on the keepers each spring. This prevents mixups when animals lose their dangle tags and makes it easy to identify the age of any cow at a glance.
Turnout is after processing toward the end of June. Each cow’s breeding group and pasture is recorded for monitoring purposes. Culls are retained in a holding paddock until they can be shipped.
They do their own veterinary work, including C-sections and pro-lapses. During the summer, they have found that treating animals right out on pasture using a tranquilizer gun is the least stressful method for the animal and the herd.
A good part of the summer is taken up with fencing and baling. Most of the hay is wild hay from the far end of the ranch that’s not yet fenced for grazing. The land is quite rocky with lots of low areas, so mowing and raking works best. To minimize soil compaction, they run three small units versus one big one.
The summer of 2009 brought an eight-inch dump of rainfall overnight right in the middle of haying season. They were able to bale some hay on the higher ground nearer to the home quarter, but it meant having to purchase hay and straw for the second year in a row. The upside was the great regrowth and the cows had plenty of grass to carry them through the long, open fall.
The cows move into bale grazing as weaning progresses. Putting out three or four days worth of bales at a time has drastically cut down the amount of time they spend doing chores and lets them move around to areas they want to improve by bale grazing. They started out this way because of the lack of good fencing on some of the land. Seeing grass production triple on some of the bale-grazed areas has been an incentive to cover as much ground as possible each bale grazing season.
It helps that the ranch is in a high rainfall area, but they can be short some years. “I’ve always said we’re in God’s country — on a wet year, we get good production on the high land and on a dry year, we get good production on the low land,” Fox adds.
That said, they have seen some extreme weather, too. A tornado that touched down in 2006 actually helped to get a new project underway by taking out an old sheep barn. With assistance from skilled family members, they constructed a heated shop, which has turned out to be a great investment. It’s significantly cut down their repair bills because the equipment used for chores during the winter can be kept inside. Jay, who is a heavy-duty mechanic by trade, now has a convenient place to work year round and will be able to take on custom repair jobs to provide a second revenue stream for the ranch.
He also attributes some of their success to their ability to remain flexible. It’s one part natural instinct from the earliest days growing up on the farm, and one part learned on the basketball court. When the ball’s in your hands, you have three choices — dribble, pass or shoot — the triple-threat, he explains. Their triple-threat marketing plan gives them options to sell calves in the fall, spring or summer.
Last year, they sent the calves to Spring Creek Ranch, at Vegreville, Alta. where they were finished for a premium natural beef program. It worked out well with the advantage of getting back carcass data and an incentive for triple A. This year, they have chosen to background the calves at home.
They agree that most of the trials and tribulations have been good learning experiences — when something doesn’t work, they figure out a new way.