The basics of farm sustainability

Three farm families from Saskatchewan offer their approach to sustainable farming

(l-r) Sue and Richard DeBruijn, Sam and Janeen Covlin, Arlette Seib.

The heart of sustainability for three Saskatchewan ranch families is the deep desire to make a living from the land. While many have chosen to move on to other careers with a steady income, these families have found ways to stay in farming.

For Arlette and Allen Seib of Watrous, the journey toward sustainability meant trading the family’s capital-intense grain-growing business for the natural rhythm of ranching with sheep.

Sue and Richard DeBruijn of Stump Lake found the courage to sell prime farmland in Alberta and make a fresh start custom grazing cattle on an affordable land base in Saskatchewan.

Janeen and Sam Covlin established a butcher shop on their farm near Endeavour to sell their grass-fed beef, pork and poultry products to consumers.

Arlette Seib set the tone for a panel discussion on this topic at the Western Holistic Management conference earlier this year at Manitou Beach, Sask. “Sustainable farming or ranching is not one definable way to operate and this is precisely what makes it appealing for shaping an agricultural revolution.”

The Seibs

Arlette recalls how angry they felt after only a couple of years of hard work and amassing debt to start grain farming. When things fell apart, they had to dig deep to envision a future in agriculture. Extensive reading directed their interest to ranching and her love of dogs led them to sheep.

They sowed their cropland to grass, pared equipment down to a small 1970s tractor and an off-road side by side, and with the purchase of five sheep, Dog Tale Ranch was up and running.

As their flock grew, they selected for hardy ewes that thrive in a year-round grazing system with the aim of making the ranch work for them rather than the other way round.

“We are in a good position today because we followed some of these principles,” says Arlette. “What’s been fascinating about the journey is that it is not just a matter of the cost of everything or if we save money or make money — there has to be a sense of purpose behind what you are doing. All the choices on our farm have to boil down to that. We enjoy what we are doing today land-wise, management-wise and relationship wise. If you like the way things are going you are going to find a way to keep doing it.”

Their greatest challenge was blocking out what farmers with the traditional farming mentality thought of their new strategy.

An unexpected bonus was the development of a website Ranching with Sheep, and newsletter to share what they have learned after she realized that there wasn’t much information available on managing sheep on grass year round.

The DeBruijns

Richard and Sue DeBruijn are thankful for the opportunity to raise their three boys as the third generation in his family to ranch using holistic management. Richard was introduced to HM as a kid following his mom, Ulla, around the farm and on tours in the early years of holistic management in Alberta. Later on it was on one of those tours that he met Sue.

Economic viability was the greatest threat to their Ponoka operation after they took over from his mom. Both held down full-time off-farm jobs, which wasn’t an option after their first child came along. Expanding sufficiently to generate a full-time income wasn’t feasible with four dairies nearby competing for any land that came up for sale.

They did have some advantages as a custom grazing operation, however. For one they had their seasonal grazing routine down pat and a steady customer only five miles away so one truck could deliver all of the cattle in three hours.

Using a leader-follower grazing system they ran 240 yearlings followed by 68 pairs through 70 pastures of two to 13 acres on three quarter sections. They also had a wealth of records on every aspect of the operation accumulated by Ulla over the years and they were centrally located along the Hwy. 2 corridor for easy access to any and all supplies and cattle.

“It was easy,” recalls Richard. “We didn’t realize how easy and how lucky we were.”

Not until they started setting up their new 1,000-head custom grazing operation in Saskatchewan, 25 miles off pavement and 45 miles from anywhere along the boreal forest fringe near Prince Albert National Park.

They had to build infrastructure from scratch, find new customers, and learn the agronomics of northern moist dark-grey soils to develop a seasonal routine to suit their new situation.

On the plus side the Saskatchewan location has the size combined with the opportunity to rent nearby pasture from Sue’s parents, making it possible to run enough cattle to earn a living from ranching.

The move would have been much more difficult without the support of Ulla, Sue’s parents who moved to the area seven years earlier, and fellow members of the local holistic management group. As members of the Ponoka holistic management group, Richard and Sue had learned about goal setting and five-year planning, which ultimately enabled them to recognize the opportunity and quickly move on it when it came their way.

“Holistic management also created a way we can have a professional discussion to solve problems instead of just arguing about two opinions to make decisions,” adds Sue.

The first year was heads-down work, building a house, 25 miles of electric fence, and setting up two complete off-site watering systems. The three-inch-diameter lines rolled out on top of the ground gradually disappeared under grass residue. Investing in two auto-start generators triggered by pressure switches has been a huge time saver when it comes to keeping cattle watered on hot summer days.

They made do with barbed wire to build their first corral. Their concern about building a permanent handling system off the bat was that they’d get it wrong and cattle wouldn’t move through freely. Now they use portable free-standing panels so adjustments can be made as needed.

The “Bud box” works well and they can weigh 250 head in an hour to meet their goal of having trucks in and out in 15 minutes.

One aspect that hasn’t been as difficult as first anticipated was running big groups of yearlings together to cover big acres. A group of 600 yearlings will unselectively graze through 40 acres quite easily compared to the Ponoka operation where they would sometimes have to push 250 yearlings to clean up five acres. They now adjust their stocking rate by the number of truckloads, not 10, 20 or 30 head.

Gains have been all over the map from 1.0 to 1.8 pounds per day. Their goal is 2.0 pounds per day or better. Approximately 75 per cent of the pastures are old hayfields and they’ve been converting cropland to pasture as they learn how to optimize their resource.

“There have been more challenges than we thought, mainly because the game is bigger with bigger numbers,” Sue says. “There are a lot more variables to work with, so we have more things to consider to get it right. Now we are fine tuning and looking for answers for consistent gains to get better at what we are doing and exploring options, maybe adding another enterprise.”

Future plans call for more fencing and pipelines to add flexibility. Richard would like to do more with ultra-high stock density and has tried it a couple of times, but thinks a piece of the puzzle is missing because the results weren’t what they should have been.

Aspen encroachment is a problem on 500 acres of pasture. They saw better control grazing pairs there last summer than with yearlings in the past.

The work-life balance has been the big reward. Their five-year plan calls for involving the children in everyday ranching activities, and while at this young age the boys delight in being toted along whenever possible, it has been invaluable to have Sue’s parents nearby to keep them safe and sound on busy days.

Five-year planning has proven to be a great way to stay on track. “Even as newlyweds, our goals were almost the same and five years later, even with children and the move, we know for a fact that we are connected in where we want to be,” Sue says. “We did it. We met 90 per cent of our goals just because we wrote them down. So, even if you aren’t as disciplined as you should be, if you write things down you will achieve them.”

The Covlins

Sam and Janeen Covlin’s venture into direct marketing and diversified livestock production arose from Janeen’s interest in farming as Joel Salatin described in his books, topped off by the crash in cattle prices after BSE. At the time, they had just nicely started ranching on a farm they had purchased near her parents and holistic management had given them the understanding and tools to manage their animals, landscape, financials, and people as a whole.

It turned out that not being in close proximity to a large urban population wasn’t the hindrance to direct marketing that her reading indicated it would be. The bigger challenge was getting animals booked into the abattoir an hour away so they could have product on hand as needed.

The takeoff point for Cool Springs Ranch and Butchery was August 2010 with the opening of their small butcher shop in partnership with her parents, Lyle and Grace Olson, followed by the creation of their online store.

After the Olsons sold their farm in 2009, Lyle took a five-month meat-cutting course and became their chief butcher while Grace does the books. Sam’s time is mainly taken up on the production side while Janeen focuses on marketing, and their five young children.

“We struggle with the amount of beef we can keep in stock since the business has grown drastically in the last three years and are looking for others who can supply what we are looking for,” Sam says. “It’s taking up to four years to finish animals, which doesn’t seem viable, but we are getting the quality we want with 750-pound carcasses.”

Alliances with hog and chicken producers are working well for their other product lines. For the most part, they now buy weanling pigs and have an arrangement with another couple to supply 4,000 pastured broilers a year, alongside their own permit from the supply management board to raise another 4,000 a year. Turkey production is still capped at 99 birds a year.

The marketing program continues to roll along with monthly delivery routes to Regina and Saskatoon and stops at a few towns along the way. They skipped the farmers market approach because of the time commitment needed to sell a relatively small amount of product compared to ordering a month’s supply for delivery.

“We can have 278 people in two hours, so it’s a whirlwind, but it works,” Janeen says. “As for branding, we haven’t gone to great lengths to do more than what’s on the website. Customers seem to prefer we stay unbranded. It’s more like we are their farmers and they would rather us be a farm than a big business. It seems more personal.”

People are welcome to drop by the farm any time and they usually host a farm-to-fork dinner and tour day when chefs from Calories restaurant in Saskatoon come out to roast a pig.

“So it feels like success, going from not known to kind of known, but on the inside, it’s not as all together. On the people side we have a lot of work to do,” she says. Management involving two generations has its ups and downs as family dynamic changes through the years and she can see the value of bringing in a consultant to lead them through the process of developing farm business relationships.

External challenges have been mostly aimed at the butcher shop. An occupational health and safety investigation last summer arising from a complaint about children working in the butchery came as a surprise because of their own upbringing working alongside their parents.

They have the same vision for their children so they start learning skills at a young age, rather than waiting until they are 16. In the end, thanks to lots of support from customers and other butchers, their shop was recognized as an extension of the family farm and, as such, the Covlins’ children are allowed to work there. Other children still have to be 16 to be employed at the shop.

Tips for a sustainable start

Richard DeBruijn:
‘Be clear on why you want to farm, find someone who is doing what you want to do to be your mentor, and start as risk free as possible so you can change if you don’t like what you are doing.’

Janeen Covlin:
‘If you are starting with nothing, without any financial backing, don’t buy a farm. Look for deals with people who have land and want to see something amazing happen on it. Shoot for partnerships.’

Arlette Seib:
‘Don’t follow the bandwagon. There are many ways to approach it so put your heads together and do what you feel comfortable taking on.’

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