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Sized To Fit The Family

Louis and Karen Hebert would have to say the driving force behind their commitment to agriculture has been their desire to build a farming operation that would be viable to pass to the next generation. Cattle — sometimes more and sometimes less — have always been part of the vision for their farm near Fairlight, Sask. that now encompasses 6,000 acres of wheat, barley and canola, 2,000 acres of native pasture, a 330- head cow herd, and a 1,200-head feedlot.

The Heberts have close ties to the Fairlight community where Louis was raised on a mixed farm. He began farming with his dad in 1978 and in 1985 he and Karen moved to the yard they have built into a home base for their family and farming operation.

The farm has now been organized into two distinct enterprises to formally bring in their sons. Kyle and his wife Crystal, are partners with them in the cattle venture, and Kristjan and his wife Theresa, are partners in the grain venture. Their daughter, Lisa, who teaches full time, helps out when needed and she and her partner, Curtis, are involved through his family’s business, Taylor Trucking. Their nephew, Chad Hebert, works with them during the growing season and they consider Richard Beutler part of the farm family, too. He has been with them part time for 15 years and more regularly since retiring from his career as a mechanic.

“Looking back we think we have achieved our goal,” Louis says. “The farm is big enough and strong enough to make them interested. They understand the financing, numbers and profit — they are here because they like what they do.”

Fairlight is situated near the Manitoba border and about an hour north of the U. S. border in the southern part of the Parkland belt. The region has traditionally been a mixed farming area, Karen says. About 10 years ago, former provincial agriculture specialist Jim Pollock organized information meetings to encourage retaining ownership of calves to build up herds and the feedlot sector in the area. There used to be quite a few family-run feedlots in the area, but, like the cow herds, there are now fewer and larger operations.

The year 1999 stands out in her mind as a turning point for their feedlot operation. At the time, they had a small lot that could handle about 500 head and used a mix mill to feed a straw and grain ration in self-feeders. The old pens were removed and a new layout complete with wide alleys and cement feed bunks was built to accommodate 1,200 head and feeding a silage-based ration.

Their breeding program targets either a 75 per cent Red Angus- Simmental female, or a 75 per cent Simmental-Red Angus female crossed back with Red Angus or Simmental bulls to produce a uniform crossbred calf crop, Kyle explains.

All of the summer pasture is within a four-mile radius of the yard and they custom graze 100 head with a neighbour. The bred heifers get the best fall grazing on the silage barley regrowth. The cows go onto the cereal stubble from after weaning in mid-October until about Christmastime when they move them home. Calving starts with the heifers on January 15 and the cows on February 10.

Winter calving has always been a good fit with the grain operation and they haven’t identified a benefit for their farm in going with the trend to later calving. A remote camera system in the calving barn, and Kyle and Crystal’s move to the home yardsite have helped a lot to reduce the workload of earlier years, Karen adds. They still try to get part-time help with chores during this time, but with the labour situation in this oil-producing area of the province, that’s not always possible.

FEEDLOT

The Heberts usually start buying in feeder calves around the first of November, after their own calves have been weaned and settled. They qualify that with “usually” because there have been three years in the recent past when they haven’t purchased additional feeder cattle. Karen says their feedlot management software program has been a valuable tool to keep track of production costs, run the numbers and come up with projected close-outs to help in the decision-making process.

Louis admits that he really struggled with the decision not to fill the pens even when the odds were against making a profit. It happened that Alberta was dried out one of those years and they did OK taking in about 700 cows to custom feed through the winter. “Now we’re disciplined enough not to put in calves if the risk is too high,” he comments. “There has to be flexibility to take opportunities when they arise.”

Karen agrees that flexibility is a big advantage for a small family feedlot within a larger farming operation. Whereas large, single-enterprise feedlots have overhead, equipment and employee expenses to take into consideration if they decide not to fill the pens, those resources can easily be switched over to any number of other operations on a mixed farm. The feeding equipment and pens are still used for their own feeder calves and cow-calf operation, while the field equipment is necessary for both ventures.

BUYING LOCAL CALVES

Kyle is encouraged by the success they’ve had purchasing feeder calves directly from local cow-calf producers. There was enough interest last year that they were able to purchase all of their calves from neighbours within a 30-mile radius of the farm.

The arrangement makes sense for both parties because it saves on trucking and commission fees, he explains. A bonus the sellers appreciate is that they are welcome to drop by the feedlot anytime to see the calves. It has been the first time that many of them have had the opportunity to see how their calves perform in a feedlot and compare them with others. Sometimes it confirms that their breeding and management programs are on track; other times they might recognize things they’d like to improve.

Being honest and up front with cow-calf producers is the most important aspect in maintaining good business relationships, Kyle says. If the calves they look at won’t work in their feeding program, they explain why and the producers understand they’d do better selling them elsewhere.

From the feedlot perspective, the numerous advantages of purchasing local calves override the one disadvantage, that being variable weights. The short haul from the home pasture to the feedlot and the fact that they are acclimatized to the environment eliminate a lot of the stress on the calves. They settle in nicely and are quick to go onto feed. Purchasing all local calves last year brought their pull rate down from around 30 per cent to less than 10 per cent.

FEEDING

They start the calves on a diet of barley silage and hay, then slowly reduce the hay component while introducing rolled barley grain and chaff into the ration. Including chaff in the ration has been a switch since they purchased the mix wagon when the feedlot was revamped. Before then, they treated the pile of chaff with anhydrous to add protein and ran an electric wire around it to feed the cows.

Chaff is a valuable and low-cost feed, however, letting the cows into the field to graze chaff piles isn’t an option because of the headaches it creates further down the line in the grain operation. When the cows have at it free choice, they rummage through the piles and leave about a quarter of the chaff behind. That spreads weed seeds and means extra pre-seeding harrowing operations. Though it costs some time and money to haul the chaff to the yard, Louis says it’s more efficient in the long run because they can pick up all but about 10 per cent of each chaff pile. The cows vacuum up that last bit when they graze the stubble.

An automatic system for rolling barley has been a great time-saving addition. Sensors in the 1,000-bushel steel hopper-bottom bin that holds the rolled barley trigger the roller mill to fire up and shut down. When the roller mill kicks in, it starts the auger running between it and the 10,000-bushel bin that holds the unprocessed barley.

When everything works as it should — which is most of the time, Kyle says — all they have to do is make sure there is barley in the big bin and there will be about two days’ worth of barley rolled and waiting for them when they pull up with the mix wagon. They go through 500 to 600 bushels a day at peak times when the feedlot is full and the cows are in the yard. A second metal bin holds a dry mineral supplement. It and a liquid protein and energy supplement are added by weight.

They agree that hiring the services of a nutritionist has been one of the best investments to improve overall efficiency in the beef operation. He formulates the rations to maximize use of the feedstuffs they produce on the farm and project what they need to purchase so they can plan ahead and price out options. Last year they incorporated some dried distillers grain for the first time.

The nutritionist has also been able to help ward off health problems, Kyle adds. For example, they no longer see milk fever since adding their calcium supplement into the straw-grain ration so the cows have to consume it. It was a simple and manageable change (because they already had the equipment to do it) that saves a lot of labour and losses in the long run.

Selling

Through the years they’ve always been comfortable selling the finished calves south of the border. Most have gone to plants at Dakota City and Greeley. Dakota City isn’t a lot farther from Fairlight than the major plants in Canada, but it’s a 900-mile trip to Greeley in Colorado. Even with the extra miles, time and time again their numbers show that there is more profit selling their kind of calves in the U. S. than they have made when they have sold them in Canada. That’s the only reason they go south, Louis says. If there are opportunities there, they’re going to go after them.

“If you’re nervous about going south, don’t be,” he adds. “Just having the opportunity to go south makes the Canadian competition stronger.” There’s some extra paperwork and bureaucracy involved, but once you’ve gone through the hoops once you’ll know what needs to be done. Their veterinary clinic in Moosomin has provided excellent help making sure the paperwork is in order, he adds.

The Heberts don’t have immediate plans to expand the farm, though there is some room to grow within the existing operation if the right opportunities come along. Significant changes or an expansion in one venture would have implications for the other and right now, all of their resources are sized to fit the family.

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