Tim Lehrbass was just like any other Ontario farm kid, taking farm cues from his family and doing things the way things needed to be done and, in many ways, the way things had always been done.
“I started out cash cropping,” he told a crowd at the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association annual conference in Guelph. “I started sharecropping my grandfather’s field when I was about 15. I then went to Ridgetown College, bought the home farm, got married, had two boys.”
Day by day though, he admits, he was getting bogged down around his family’s Brooke-Alvinston, Ont. farm. Strapped by long, frustrating nights fixing machinery on the farm and his full-time job as a construction manager, Lehrbass came to think his family deserved something more profitable with far fewer headaches. And that’s when he started to shift his attention to grazing his fields with cattle instead of harvesting them for cash crops.
Initially, this change raised some eyebrows locally. “In my area, you can drive down the road and see corn on one side and beans on the other. The next year, it’s corn on the other side and beans over on that side. They might switch up with wheat every three years or four years if they feel like it.”
At the time, Lehrbass had 200 acres of beans and corn. By the time he put $10,000 into the combine and $20,000 into the tractor and all other house and farm payments he didn’t have much left.
“I could have great yields and decent price but if I had to put money into the equipment I couldn’t break even,” he explained.
Lehrbass couldn’t buy more land at $10,000-$12,000 per acre, and started looking at the cost of owning equipment or wondering if he should maybe just hire custom operators. “Then I thought I’m not really farming then, I’m just paying someone to do it for me.”
Since he made the decision to switch to grazing instead of harvesting, life on Lehrbass Farm has turned full circle from what he refers to the backwards way he had been doing things.
“The cost of grazing corn is where I really get excited,” he says. “Grazing corn and feeding haylage all fall and winter to keep a pair for 180 days is only $309. If I was grazing dry cows and I don’t need the haylage, I could do it for $150. I think that’s dirt cheap for a pair for 180 days.”
Part of the solution involved dialing down the fertilizer and taking advantage of existing programs to help make the most meaningful shift.
“In 2014, we planted a fence and seeded down 90 acres to high percentage legume. People wondered what I was doing,” he says. “We had a little help — putting in fence is costly. Putting pasture in is costly. We made use of species at risk funding for fencing tree lines and dividing fences and the Growing Forward program helped to buy water lines so I could rotationally graze. We saw immediate results. I can’t drive too fast through a field without worrying about hitting a bird. They’re flying up everywhere.”
The Lehrbass grazing plan
April – September
- In mid April I’ll send replacement heifers or stocker steers out and start rotating them to a new piece of alfalfa pasture every day.
- When the ground firms up, usually first week of May, the cows go out to start following the steers or heifers around the pasture.
- One paddock space between them. They get something new every day.
September – March
- I’ll feed corn silage on the pasture for a week to help transition the pairs to the standing corn.
- Interseeding the corn rows in June with kale, turnip, cow peas, ryegrass crimson clover for more protein.
- All fall and winter they get a new measured piece of standing corn daily. They go in and knock everything down and then eat it off the ground.
- One thing I don’t skimp on is the mineral. It’s always full.
- The haylage gets fed every other day all winter to keep protein levels up.