If Kevin Woods had a million dollars in the bank, he d probably try to leave it there for one basic reason it would make it easier to get more money to make more money farming.
I have always loved farming. That s why I m here, but it all boils down to the money, says Woods who was raised on the family s mixed grain and cattle farm Westwood Land and Cattle Co. near Moosomin, Sask. That s what it has to be for me because that s my job. At the end of the day, I have to answer to the bank and a lot of people if things don t go right.
The number of people directly involved in the Westwood farming operation keeps growing right along with the number of acres, cows and calves, not to mention all of the people with whom the farm conducts business. From 1990, when Kevin graduated from high school up to the present day, the family farm has grown from 3,500 acres and 500 cows, to 10,000 acres, 3,700 pairs and 1,300-plus bred heifers, some 200 bulls and a 10,000-head backgrounding feedlot. That requires a full-time staff of 12 to 15 employees and another six seasonal employees.
As Woods starts talking about how he manages all of this, he first acknowledges his dad, Ken, for his expert coaching through the years, and the employees, some of whom have been with Westwood for as long as 15 years.
Our employees are everything to us because that s what allows us to do what we do, Woods says. The Woods family has made a conscientious effort to create an employee-friendly work environment, with a staff lounge area built into the office, a benefits package and regular time off. There are enough jobs that most of the time people can work at what they best like to do, and everyone is understanding about not booking holidays during peak times in their area of interest.
He and his dad make the decisions together, while he concentrates on the business end of the operation and his dad looks after organizing the day-today operations.
It s like a big factory. We manage what needs to be done each day, so the work gets done, but it never ends. There s really no quiet time anymore, Woods comments. I really believe that, managed properly, there is strength in numbers, whether it s cows or crops, because the margins are so tight nowadays that you have to have lots to make it work.
Sometimes he regrets not being able to be as hands on as when the farm was smaller, but he still gets in on a fair share of the trucking because it s something he can handle while keeping on top of business with what has become his most important tool his cellphone. It s how he manages to get time away from the farm with their four active kids, attend Saskatchewan Cattle Feeder Association (SCFA) meetings as a director for the past six years, and even take a holiday now and then.
Buy low; sell high
When it comes to the cow side of the cattle business, Woods is a firm believer in investment icon Warren Buffet s dogma: We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful. In other words, stay out of the buying market when everyone wants the commodity and prices are high, and buy all you can when interest in the commodity and prices are low. On the flip side, that opens opportunities for sellers to sell into high markets.
They have successfully expanded the cow-calf operation through some tough times post-BSE. Never imagining that the effect would be so long lasting, he says they stuck to the expansion plan and, with the drop in breeding stock prices, began culling hard to build their herd with the best cows. Now, prices for bred stock have improved and they ve just reached their target of 5,000 top-quality females.
We ve held out and hoped for eight years for the market to recover and I hope there s more to go in the recovery, but it might be getting near the right time to sell and then start rebuilding when cow prices are lower, Woods explains. Farming is farming, but business is business. Our goal is to do as much as we can do and manage what we can until the point when the market tells us it s the right time to sell.
Selling all or a good part of the breeding herd would give Westwood its multimillion-dollar nest egg, which is important because there s nothing like cash in the bank for security when you go to borrow money, Woods adds.
Integrated farming operations
The expansion actually started back in 1998 with the addition of the backgrounding feedlot to diversify even further and add value to the grain and cow-calf operations. It was permitted for 4,000 head with the idea of expanding the cow herd to produce the majority of the calves to fill it. He well remembers the sweat equity that went into building that original section.
The extension was added in 2006 to boost the capacity to 10,000 head and there s pen space to feed another 2,500 head at his parents yard. That was the year the bottom fell out of calf prices as feed prices skyrocketed.
With calf prices expected to be on the high side, along with all of the other operating expenses steadily cutting into margins, it remained to be seen whether or not they fill the lot to capacity this fall. They ll definitely background their own calves, which typically account for 35 per cent of the inventory. Custom cattle make up another 15 per cent and they purchase the remaining 50 per cent.
It really depends on the feed supply and market conditions, he says. The cows get priority on the feed. Of the 10,000 seeded acres, 10 per cent is corn for silage, 10 per cent is barley and alfalfa silage and 80 per cent is sown to cash crops, mainly canola and wheat. Though the heavy clay soil in the area is highly productive, lots of it is marginal for crop production because of the potholes and has been converted to grass through the years. Consequently, they prefer to lease grassland and put their money into owning cropland.
Despite 18 inches of rain in May and June, the land was a little on the dry side by early August, but with just one more inch of timely rainfall, he figured they d be set for feed, though they only managed to get seven per cent of their cash crops sown. Hay is plentiful, so they will be able to purchase hay bales this year if needed, however, finding straw for the feedlot is going to be a real problem.
As for market conditions, Woods likes to have sale contracts in hand when he buys calves to background with the target of shipping them as yearlings at a base weight of 900 pounds. He uses the services of cattle buyers at key markets across the Prairies to purchase British-influence crossbred calves to background for the market south of the border. During the past five years, 80 per cent of the calves have gone into U.S. feedlots. The custom-fed cattle go into Quebec and Ontario, and the remaining five per cent are sold to Alberta feedlots.
Their own calves go directly into the feedlot as the cows are brought home from summer pastures between mid-October and mid-November. At weaning, the calves are vaccinated with the Pfizer Gold program, their radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are rescanned, and their weights are recorded and entered onto a spreadsheet for indexing the cows. Indexing is a new management tool started three years ago to assist with culling decisions and already trends are starting to emerge.
The cows are preg checked and the opens are shipped before the herd is turned out on stubble fields for fall grazing. Fall is also when the manure that has been pushed up in the feedlot pens during the summer is recycled onto the stubble fields as fertilizer for the following year s crop. Westwood s land base is large enough that all of the manure can be spread every year.
Woods adds that the assistance for feedlots in this year s federal-provincial excessive moisture program for Saskatchewan, announced in early August, is much appreciated. The SCFA has supported the Saskatchewan Cattlemen s Association s lobby efforts since the summer of 2010 to include feedlots in the program. Feedlot owners are now eligible to apply for a rebate of up to 75 per cent to a maximum of $250,000 for expenses incurred for repair work done last year and this year on pens damaged by excessive moisture.
First thing in January, the cows are sorted into groups of 500-600 head and moved into stubble fields where watering systems have been installed. Bred heifers are wintered separately in two groups.
In March, they are gathered, vaccinated with a scours vaccine, Pfizer Bovi-Shield 5, and treated for parasites, then sorted by due date into groups of 250 to 500 head to move to the calving pastures of native grass closer to home.
The cows have a 60-day breeding period and are bred to Simmental bulls to start calving around the middle of April. The heifers have a 40-day breeding period for a mid-May start to calving. The first and second calvers are bred Angus. They aim to keep the ratio at 20 to 25 cows per bull.
The replacement heifer group is 50-50 from their own herd and purchased from a couple of steady suppliers. A two-person crew is dedicated to handling the artificial insemination (AI) synchronization program and a technician comes out to do the AI. This year, more than 1,300 black heifers (shown on page 18) were in the program, which is on the high side of average for the past three years and double the number of bred heifers they were raising before then, with the exception of 2003, when the grand total was zero.
A 10-person calving crew works full time in the nine calving pastures. The calves are tagged with RFID tags and dangle tags and documented at birth. Branding takes place in the handling areas at each of the calving pastures when the calves are three to six weeks old, at which time they are vaccinated, dehorned, castrated with a knife and branded and each RFID tag is scanned to be downloaded into the computer.
An expansion of this magnitude would not have been possible without moving calving into the spring months, Woods says, though he can see the time ahead when people will get a reward for winter calving and that s always open as an option again in the future.
Everything has gone well with the switch to spring calving, but this year s April 29 to May 1 blizzard hit them hard. Woods says they are no stranger to the Colorado lows that bring the late-spring snowstorms. What was unusual was the intensity and duration of the 2011 storm and to make matters worse, it started out with six hours of freezing rain. It s strange, but lots of times, the cows seem to get disorientated in a blizzard and don t lead their calves directly to shelter, he explains. They turn their butts to the storm and keep walking with it until they hit a barrier. Hopefully, that s a sheltered area, but oftentimes it s just a fenceline and worst of all, water, in which case many just keep walking right into it.
He and his dad braved the storm on the first morning to check the calving pastures, but soon realized it only made matters worse because the cows would come out of the bush with their calves trailing along behind. They were just into their second week of calving out the cows and did suffer a significant loss, but percentage-wise, the hurt wasn t as deep as it was for many other producers.
During the first part of June, the pairs are sorted into their breeding groups, then transported straight from the calving pastures to summer pastures in groups of 40 pairs per liner load. Eighty per cent of the cattle are placed on leased pasture and custom managed 50 to 350 kilometres away from Westwood. Spreading them out serves as an insurance policy of sorts against drought, which Woods says is the biggest fear when you have large numbers of cattle pastured in one locality. Purchasing their own liners has made the job of moving cattle back and forth much more manageable and cost efficient than hiring trucks.
The Woods family firmly believes in the diversity mixed farming brings to agriculture even though the current trend is to specialize in either crops or livestock. The grain farm, feedlot and cow-calf operations function well as a whole to compliment one another in this southern region of the parkland belt.
It s like a big factory. We manage what needs to be done each day, so the work gets done, but it never ends. There s really no quiet time anymore.