When it comes to a well-travelled path, Robert Shwaluk likes to veer off. The Shoal Lake, Man. cow-calf producer goes his own way to discover new ideas and new ways to get things done.
“I’m always looking out for the new,” he says. “I’ll do things differently.”
Shwaluk, 65, began in the cow-calf business in 1982. He had grown up on his parents’ farm close by, along with seven siblings. For a while he farmed together with a brother, sharing roles and machinery.
“That worked well. There are certain machines and farm jobs one person likes and the other one doesn’t,” he says.
In ’82 though, Shwaluk took a big leap, buying up 50 commercial cows through a foreclosure via a local credit union.
“I only paid $450 a piece,” he says. “I later sold some as mature cows and doubled my money.” The bred cows were a mix of breeds.
His other main purchase that year was a weigh scale “and I began to use it,” Shwaluk says.
He pursued the idea of buying the highest-gaining bulls possible at the Douglas Bull Test Station Sale, held just east of Brandon each spring. He worked his way through Simmental bulls in the 1980s, then Charolais, then Black Angus.
“I wanted 90- to 100-lb. birth weight calves,” he says. And that alone has made his work easier at calving time. “The only calves I’ve pulled in recent years are those who came out back feet first.”
Shwaluk likes his cows to calve in February. “Grass is the cheapest of any feed,” he says. And so, by June 1, his calves are big enough to make use of their mothers’ abundant grass-fed milk production and the high-protein grass. When the grass matures and dries in August, the calves are far along enough to make use of that, too.
Manitoba is cold in February, so his calving barn has clear, heavy-duty greenhouse plastic on the south side.“The sun warms through it,” Shwaluk says. It holds 80 to 100 cows.
He also ran a “feed to finish” operation. Shwaluk’s goal was four lbs. per day in his finishing calves. He wanted those calves to weigh 1,350 lbs. at the end of March and he wanted them gone in early May. “But 1,400 lbs. is better,” he adds.
Why finish them in his own yard when most fall-weaned calves are sold to finish elsewhere?
“Barley was cheaper here than Alberta,” he says. “Plus you get to monitor the genetics.”
He cites which bulls’ calves have the best gains as an example of monitoring.
Change came, though. He began selling his weaned calves in fall of 2015. Calf prices were high and so was barley. “It just made sense to switch,” he says.
Shwaluk also keys in on raising quiet calves. “When you have quiet cattle, they gain better, they grade better, there’s less sickness and less death loss,” he says.
He sells through Heartland Livestock Auction at Virden, Man. “Those people always appreciate my calm cattle,” he says.
He became a firm believer in the value of quiet cattle while attending a 2012 Manitoba Rancher’s Forum in Brandon. The speaker lineup included Darrell Busby, an extension beef specialist from Iowa.
“He reinforced my notions,” Shwaluk says. He says that is another reason why he likes to calve in February. “You get to be around them more and handle them more.”
He recalls a few years ago his six-year-old granddaughter would play with the calves, they were so quiet.
“I also learned to handle them quieter in the squeeze chute,” he says. Shwaluk likes to handle the calves right after birth when tagging them.
As for his bulls, he likes to pail-feed them “and rub them with the sorting stick,” Shwaluk says.
“Always take a pail of barley when pen-checking,” he advises. “I’ve had them so quiet, they’ll walk right into the stock trailer.”
Shwaluk also leaves the trailer in the bullpen during winter feeding “so they’ll get used to it.” As for the trailer, “they don’t beat it up,” he says.
While searching for new techniques, Shwaluk has learned to ask questions. For instance, he claims 200-day adjusted weaning weights are “not the best barometer” of growth. “Calves grow faster when they are young,” he says. He wants his calves to have the best and the most feed “when they can most use it,” he adds.
He looks closely at the calf growth when choosing replacement heifers. “Never choose a runt, regardless of genetics,” Shwaluk says. He only wants replacements “whose mothers catch on the first cycle.” Also, he’ll only consider heifers who will wean at 700-plus lbs. for replacements.
Shwaluk says he improved his herd fertility by being strict and sticking to a 30-day heifer breeding period. He got rid of those heifers not in calf.
“It made for a tighter calving period,” he says. For cows, he allows for a 75-day breeding period.
His philosophy on fertility is non-negotiable. “How do you look at a heifer and decide if they’re fertile? Well, let the bull decide that.” And if any heifers come back in the fall open, he culls them. “No second chances.”
Currently, the Shwaluk herd is at about100 cows, including 25 purebred cows, and 10 first-calf purebred heifers. The commercial cows are Black Angus crossbreds. The purebred cows are straight Black Angus.
In late November the cows were still out on the hay meadows and smaller pastures. “It spreads out the feeding and the manure.” Shwaluk adds barley, straw and a protein supplement to that grazing diet.
In spring, he’ll go out with the harrows and break up manure clumps. “It’s cheap fertilizer,” he says.
During winter, he’ll add alfalfa bales to the feed mix. He likes 1,300-lb. bales at 60 per cent moisture. Shwaluk has them wrapped in plastic. He makes about 1,500 annually. He regularly hires an outfit out of Alexander, Man., who charge $18 per bale. Shwaluk pays for the diesel used.
“They move fast and fully wrap the bales,” he says. He’ll bale maybe 100 extra of wild hay.
For feeding, he puts the hay bales through a processor “to break up any clumps,” he says. And he’ll add straw, mainly barley. He’ll also offer them pea straw, if he can get his hands on some.
Shwaluk uses a basic commercial breeding program of Black Angus bulls on the Black Angus females. He’s used many breeds of bulls through the years and has ended up with this.
The occasional Hereford bull makes it also. “I love those white-face cows,” he says, adding “hybrid vigour is free.”
In 2006, following the Canadian BSE crisis, Shwaluk couldn’t sell bred heifers — “nobody phoned, nobody bought” — and so he kept adding to his herd. He calved and tagged 300 calves that year.
“I’ve worked my way downwards from there,” he says. “I am thinking of retirement.”