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Maxed Out At 315 Cows

Gerald and Jeannie Bos combined efficient grazing and direct marketing to transform their mixed farm into a 315-cow beef operation in the past five years.

The family’s story really begins back when Gerald’s parents left a dairy farm in Holland and immigrated to Canada to take up grain farming near Rapid City, Man. He was just a kid at the time. Later, in 1990, after he joined his parents in the farming operation, he convinced them to mix things up a bit by adding a beef herd. Then about five years ago, after Gerald and his wife Jeannie were managing the operation they took the decision to zero in on beef. It was a bold move when you consider the challenges that the beef industry was facing back then.

“I took the Ranching for Profit course at a time when we were sitting on the fence as to which way to go,” Gerald explains. With the mixed farm, we weren’t big enough to be efficient in either grain or beef. We also needed to start replacing equipment and I knew we couldn’t afford to replace both the grain and haying equipment.”

Having a bigger cattle herd has certainly made their operation more attractive to cattle buyers. Enough so that for the past four years he’s been able to direct market their yearling steers right from the farm. He accepts tenders for a week then gives the successful buyer a week to pick up the cattle. Once buyers find out you have a large group on offer he says they want to come out to take a look. Getting them to buy proved more difficult the first year because they hadn’t bothered to sort the cattle beforehand and the weight spread discouraged bidding.

Meanwhile, their pasture plan has moved along nicely. Some 1,500 acres of grain land has been sown down to a mix of forages including tall fescue, Russian wild ryegrass, timothy, smooth brome, alfalfa, clover and cicer milkvetch for pasture and hay. They now have 2,400 acres fenced for grazing and 1,060 reserved for hay.

Each grazing quarter is divided into four paddocks of about 40 acres depending on the lay of the land that can be further divided as needed with a single electric wire. Bos says the people at Ag Canada’s agri-environmental services branch and Manitoba’s water services board were of great assistance taking the land elevations and designing the pasture pipeline.

Their forage mixture has worked well in that it allows them to graze any paddock any time of the year. The variance in growth pattern of each forage species means every paddock has at least one type of forage in its most productive growth stage from spring through fall. Starting with a different paddock each year at the start of the grazing season changes the time when each paddock is grazed as well as the length of the rest period, which varies from 25 days to 60 days depending on the season. All of the forages have been retained in the mix, although the clover has been somewhat disappointing. Alfalfa has been a particularly strong performer on their land.

They put up their own hay and purchase straw windrows from neighbouring farms that Gerald bales and hauls off the field. They also operate a custom straw baling and hauling service — mostly flax straw for the fibre plant at Carman. When it is available Gerald will purchase hailed-out or frosted crops for greenfeed. He rents a wrapping machine to make silage bales when there is danger of a damaged crop drying down too quickly.

A large local deer population has discouraged their use of swath grazing, although Gerald says they may give it another try in a different location away from the river. They’ve had better luck grazing hay bales placed every second day in paddocks targeted for improvement by the manure and residue.

The herd is divided into three groups for the winter. The mature cows graze hay and straw bales. The bred heifers and heifer calves are in a separate bale grazing system and the steers in another. In recent years, they have purchased as many as 800 four-to five-weight steers each October to background with their own calves.

The calves are backgrounded on hay and screening pellets to gain 1.6 to 1.8 pounds per day, which also meets the nutritional needs of the bred heifers. Hay bales are placed out every other day but the pellets are fed once a day from a feeder made from a tractor tire mounted on the front-end loader so that it rolls along the ground. The feeder holds 1,750 pounds of pellets that drop through a single eight-inch-square hole leaving 30-pound piles every 15 feet. That works out to about four to five pounds of pellets per head.

The steers are pastured together until mid-August when they are sold by tender directly off the grass.

With a high percentage of alfalfa in his pastures Gerald has successfully managed to avoid bloat by moving the cattle to a fresh paddock every afternoon. That way he never turns hungry cattle into a lush stand. Early in the growing season a 40-acre paddock is needed to meet daily requirements. Later, once forage growth accelerates he splits the paddocks into cells to provide a day’s grazing.

Bred heifers are pastured together and the others graze with the cows until they are divided into breeding groups prior to the June 25 start of the breeding season. Heifers that make the cut go into a separate grazing rotation. Those that don’t are sold at the market since there aren’t enough of them to tender as a group.

Cows and bred heifers are rotated every second or third day. They calve on grass in May and June with the heifers coming in three weeks later than the heifers. Gerald finds this gives the heifers a bit more time to flesh up on grass prior to calving and reduces the length of time they have to carry the calf. They wean in early December. Cows without a calf at foot are culled before the breeding season and open females are culled after preg-checking in December.

The genetic makeup of the herd is gradually changing from a Simmental- Angus cross cow to a smaller-framed cow with the use of Pinebank North America bulls on the top 100 cows to generate replacement heifers. The bulls are offspring from Angus Wai Group lines bred in New Zealand for efficiency on a forage-based system and are raised at Spirit View Ranch, near Rycroft, Alta. Simmental bulls are used on the remaining cows and Red Angus bulls on the heifers as terminal crosses.

Labour will be the key determinant of the future direction for the farm. Jeannie has her own interior decorating business and even with help from Gerald’s parents during haying season, the herd is almost too much for them to handle as it stands. Their son, Justin, helped them this winter but their oldest, Jordan, is currently taking agribusiness at Lakeland College in Vermilion and their daughters Jessica and Julia are still in school. So while they are stretched a bit right now there is still hope that the Bos Family Farm will someday pass to a third generation.

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