The Artz family has tried several ways to reduce cow costs and bump up margins

When the push was on to convert marginal grain land to permanent cover, Becky and Ted Artz gave up the ghost that was grain farming to concentrate on their beef operation. The ranch is located south of Pierson, Man., near Lyleton — the last stop before crossing into North Dakota to the south and Saskatchewan to the west.

Today, their 17 quarters of land have been sown to forages, all cross-fenced into 40-acre paddocks and they rent another 11 quarters. They’ve upped their breeding herd from 70 cows during their mixed farming days to 425 and normally carry 50 to 80 replacement heifers, along with back-grounding their calves to sell off grass as long yearlings.

Between then and now, the beef industry has had every hex in the book thrown its way. Looking back, they hope they made the right choice for their type of land. Looking forward, there’s uncertainty as slim margins continue to force producers to increase their scale of production and their son, Matt, who ranches with them, hopes to be able to continue on.

“Sometimes we wonder if we should be in the cow-calf business or whether we should be running yearlings or custom grazing to give us more flexibility,” says Ted. He minces no words when he says that hard times really make you think about what you do and how you do it.

The family’s willingness to try new ways and their success in adapting their beef production system to the state of the industry was recently recognized when the Artzes were chosen as one of Manitoba’s three graziers of the year for 2009.

They credit a host of people for sharing their experiences and ideas about later calving, rotational grazing, pasture pipelines and ways to extend the grazing season, all of which they have incorporated into their own operation.

Two highlights of the most recent years have been sowing crop cocktails for silage and striking an arrangement with a neighbouring grain farmer to graze crop residue.

Cocktails

In 1973, Ted and Becky moved to Manitoba from North Dakota, where seven of Ted’s brothers are still farming. One of them picked up the crop cocktail idea from Gabe Brown, who has been successfully using blends of annual forages in combination with zero till to improve soil health and crop production on the family’s ranch near Bismarck, N.D.

The first year they tried a simple barley-pea blend on 300 acres that was baled as greenfeed. Timely rain afterward produced about five weeks of grazing for the bred heifers and first-calf heifers on the barley regrowth.

Last year, they added turnip and radish to the barley-pea mix with the intention of baling it or putting it up as silage, then grazing the regrowth. Silage was the best option due to weed pressure. A burnoff with glyphosate suppressed early-season weed growth, however, there was a lot of second-growth weed pressure they couldn’t touch with an in-crop spray because of the cereal-broadleaf mix in the cocktail.

A four-inch rain helped to produce a 10.5-tonne-per-acre yield. They were more than pleased with that, but somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t the regrowth they had seen the first year, though it was interesting to watch how the cattle went after the turnip roots.

“This year, we’re thinking of trying something we can spray to control the broadleaf weeds because we want to get weeds in check before they get away on us,” Ted explains. They’re considering millet for swath grazing. Bale grazing doesn’t work out so great because of the deer problem, but they don’t seem to bother swaths as much. For the same reason, they’ve also laid corn into swaths for grazing, which was an idea tried by a neighbouring bison producer. They cut the corn when the kernels were almost dry after the frost about mid-October.

Bunch grazing deal

Grazing crop residue to extend the grazing season seemed like a great idea until it came to finding a grain farmer who was willing to co-operate. “It’s too bad because there’s a lot of good feed going out the back end of the combines,” Matt comments.

Both he and his dad approached a number of farmers and most didn’t even want to hear about it, let alone consider it. This was particularly true of the younger generation of grain farmers, most of whom have never had anything to do with cattle. Others weren’t interested because they thought it

would be more of a bother than a benefit, or they may have had a bad experience in the past.

Eddie Arndt took a different view of the matter. He had a 150-head herd and a bred heifer program going prior to BSE, so he has a lot of empathy with what cattlemen are up against. He also had 500 acres of barley and wheat stubble in a field that was partially fenced with electric wire.

“The way I look at it, it’s not a hindrance or inconvenience. It’s another source of income,” Eddie says. “Once the grain is off, we’re done with the land until April anyway. It’s like a backward custom grazing arrangement — instead of renting out pasture during the summer, we’re renting stubble land in the winter.”

Ted purchased a straw buncher that Eddie modified for the combine so that all of the straw and chaff go through the chopper onto the buncher. With bunch grazing, nobody has to do any baling or move bales, there are no strings to clean up and no bedding packs to deal with the following spring.

Come early December, the Artzes arrange a cattle drive to move about 300 mature cows 10 miles down the road to Eddie’s field where they stay until the middle or end of March, depending on when the feed runs out. The agreement is for 30 cents per day per cow for the straw. The Artzes supply all of the supplemental feed and pay Eddie a flat rate to put out the feed as required and monitor the cattle.

Eddie says the Artzes have quiet cows that respect the electric wire, so there were no problems from that angle. He was quite amazed at how well the cows did on the bunches supplemented with a molasses lick tank. It contains minerals, vitamins and the protein to aid digestion of the crop residue.

The first year, he started to regularly put out hay bales toward the end of January and supplemented with some light oats as well. The total feed cost for the bunches, bales,

oats and molasses supplement worked out to about $1 per day per cow.

This year, the Artzes rented 140 acres of cropland from Eddie to sow corn to supplement the bunches through the cold of winter. Ted purchased the inputs and paid Eddie to custom seed and spray the crop. The corn is in two separate plots next to, but fenced off from the 500 acres of straw so the cows will be able to graze corn and continue on the straw bunches. The measure of success will be whether the total cost of grazing bunches and standing corn will be comparable with that of grazing bunches and feeding bales.

The stubble field was prepared as usual for the new crop, with one heavy-harrow pass before direct seeding. An extra hour or so was spent spreading residue near the bush where he had put out bales when it was cold and windy.

“In my own mind I believe there’s been a benefit to the land, but I don’t have the numbers to prove it,” Eddie says. “We fertilized as usual and had a real nice stand right across the field.”

“The key to making it work is that it has to be fair for the grain farmer and the cattle guy has to get something out of it, too,” Ted says.

One step leads to another

Moving calving from March into April and May has been an easy adjustment because it saves on labour and feed. The biggest hurdle for Matt was keeping his dad from turning the bulls out with the cows on the traditional June 1 date that first year!

Their strategy for trouble-free calving on pasture is to sell their problems. Fertility is still No. 1 with them, but they won’t tolerate poor udders, bad disposition, or mis-mothering either.

They had to reconsider their marketing program for the yearlings when they switched to later calving. They used to background their calves through to hit decent markets in the first quarter of the new year. By April and May, prices were usually on the slide, so they’ve been grassing them through to 850 to 900 pounds, aiming for the mid-August to mid-September market. That’s not to say they can’t be sold earlier in dry years to save pasture for the pairs.

The calves are vaccinated about a month prior to weaning in November. They stay in the corrals for a week or two before being turned onto a section of stockpiled forage, where they spend the winter with bales rolled out for feed.

All of the changes they have made have been geared toward minimizing losses as much as possible, Ted explains. None have been made on a whim. The Artzes participate in learning events, such as the annual grazing school and holistic management classes, where they have met many producers and professionals who are willing sounding boards for new ideas.

oats and molasses supplement worked out to about $1 per day per cow.

This year, the Artzes rented 140 acres of cropland from Eddie to sow corn to supplement the bunches through the cold of winter. Ted purchased the inputs and paid Eddie to custom seed and spray the crop. The corn is in two separate plots next to, but fenced off from the 500 acres of straw so the cows will be able to graze corn and continue on the straw bunches. The measure of success will be whether the total cost of grazing bunches and standing corn will be comparable with that of grazing bunches and feeding bales.

The stubble field was prepared as usual for the new crop, with one heavy-harrow pass before direct seeding. An extra hour or so was spent spreading residue near the bush where he had put out bales when it was cold and windy.

“In my own mind I believe there’s been a benefit to the land, but I don’t have the numbers to prove it,” Eddie says. “We fertilized as usual and had a real nice stand right across the field.”

“The key to making it work is that it has to be fair for the grain farmer and the cattle guy has to get something out of it, too,” Ted says.

One step leads to another

Moving calving from March into April and May has been an easy adjustment because it saves on labour and feed. The biggest hurdle for Matt was keeping his dad from turning the bulls out with the cows on the traditional June 1 date that first year!

Their strategy for trouble-free calving on pasture is to sell their problems. Fertility is still No. 1 with them, but they won’t tolerate poor udders, bad disposition, or mis-mothering either.

They had to reconsider their marketing program for the yearlings when they switched to later calving. They used to background their calves through to hit decent markets in the first quarter of the new year. By April and May, prices were usually on the slide, so they’ve been grassing them through to 850 to 900 pounds, aiming for the mid-August to mid-September market. That’s not to say they can’t be sold earlier in dry years to save pasture for the pairs.

The calves are vaccinated about a month prior to weaning in November. They stay in the corrals for a week or two before being turned onto a section of stockpiled forage, where they spend the winter with bales rolled out for feed.

All of the changes they have made have been geared toward minimizing losses as much as possible, Ted explains. None have been made on a whim. The Artzes participate in learning events, such as the annual grazing school and holistic management classes, where they have met many producers and professionals who are willing sounding boards for new ideas.

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