The beef industry has undergone cycles of great change since Lewis Farms introduced Simmental cattle into the herd more than 40 years ago. The farm’s mantra — built on a foundation of family working together — is one aspect that hasn’t changed through four generations.
Ernie and Ellis Lewis founded the farm in the Winterburn area west of Edmonton in 1932. Their son Jack and wife Laverne took over in the 1950s. Today, all three of their children — Ken and wife Corrie, Sandy, and Roy with his wife Carol, along with their seven children, are involved in the farm operation in one way or another.
The farm now includes 900 purebred and fullblood Simmental and Angus mother cows, 800 acres of seed potatoes, and 3,000 acres of crops at the home place near Spruce Grove and a second farm near Sangudo. Jack began using imported Simmental semen on their commercial herd in the late 1960s. The first registered cows were purchased in the mid 1970s and 1979 saw the first fullblood heifers added to the breeding herd. They had 37 traditional Simmental bulls and five females on offer at their first annual bull sale in 1985.
This year marks the 25th annual bull sale, traditionally held on the last Saturday in February at the Spruce Grove farm. They’ll have upwards of 250 bulls on offer, most of which are Red, Black and fullblood Simmental bulls, as well as a number of Red Angus and Black Angus sires.
“The infusion of Angus genetics to produce solid red, black and polled Simmentals has been a major long-term change within the breed itself,” Ken says. “Breeders have also aimed for cattle that mature much more quickly than they used to, and lower birth weights while still maintaining performance. Lowmaintenance cattle, with calving ease, good feet and good udders, are a much higher priority today with less labour and less salvage value in the cows.”
Commercial cow herds are getting larger and they are very much crossbred herds, so producers need more bulls of various types. For example, customer demand led the farm to run Angus as well as Simmental cattle so they could look after customers needing both.
They strive to meet the needs of their commercial and purebred customers by using technology such as homozygous testing for polled and colour genetics, embryo transplants and artificial insemination to produce leading-edge genetics in the ever-changing and competitive beef industry.
Commercial customers today buy more bulls than they did 25 years ago when ranches had smaller numbers. Gone are the days when everyone pulled into the yard with their trailers to take home a bull or two, he says. Due to the growing number of volume buyers, the customer service end of the
purebred business has become more of a focus in recent years. Most now offer support services such as delivery and housing after the sale for their clients’ purchases.
While the Internet has brought about big changes in the business world in general, Ken finds that their customers still prefer the personal touch of an on-farm sale. Compared with consignment sales, it’s an easier draw to get people to the farm because they want to see more than the animals, he explains. They want to see where the bulls come from — the cow herd and the farm operation in general.
Prospective buyers are welcome to drop by the farm anytime to view the bulls, though none are sold before sale day. They provide assistance for absentee buyers and have offered on-line bidding through a webcast of the sale for the past two years. The Lewis jury is still out on whether the Internet auction is an effective format for marketing purebred stock because it’s tough for customers to make important buying decisions based on images on a small computer screen.
An added draw for the Lewis bull sale is a commercial show and sale of pens of five Simmental-cross females consigned by some of their bull customers. The show is held the night before and they sell at the end of the bull sale.
Lewis Farms doesn’t sell its own females at the bull sale. Most of the sales on the female side are private treaty or through consignment sales in the area, such as the Checkers sale at Red Deer.
Cattle shows have always been an important part of the operation. Edmonton’s FarmFair, the Camrose Bull Congress, and Canadian Western Agribition at Regina are regular stops on the show trail. They usually have a string of six to 10 animals that are representative of the stock at home on the farm.
Of course, winning a grand championship, premier breeder or premier exhibitor award is always the ultimate goal and Lewis Farms has collected its fair share of banners and ribbons through the years. But there are many reasons why they and other breeders make a point of getting out and about with their stock. “The shows are a way to promote the annual bull sale and make new contacts. They provide customer service opportunities and are a barometer on where we are going with our cattle compared with others,” Ken says. “And the kids love it!”
In fact, there’s no way they could get away with not going to Agribition. “The kids really form a strong network of friends and look forward to seeing them there — there’s a lot more interaction among youth from all breeds today than there used to be,” he says. It’s definitely a change for the better that he credits to the strength of the junior shows over the past 20 years.
The family has always been active with the kids in 4-H and the Young Canadian Simmental Association with the hope that the next generation would grow along with the farm. The oldest, Jordan and Kyle, have finished college and both have already chosen to make ranching their career — and that’s worth more than a roomful of ribbons to the family farm.