Mike Buis says that his approach to his vertically integrated beef business is to make “one new mistake every year” — the keys being “one” and “new.”
“If we’re not making at least one mistake a year, we’re not trying hard enough to do different things,” he said.
Buis has a fourth-generation farm with 300 head of cattle and 750 acres of cash crops deep in southwestern Ontario near Chatham. He produces about 225 spring calves and 75 fall calves and does all his own finishing. He also has an on-farm retail outlet where he sells the meat of about 100 head of his cattle a year.
Buis gave a presentation on how he has adopted alternative feed methods at the Grey-Bruce Farmers’ Week in Elmwood in January. He challenged the capacity crowd of central Ontario beef producers to “just take one or two ideas” and see if they work on their farms.
Until 2004, Buis ran a feedlot. Then he decided to raise cows, and started with 100 head.
“We had a retail outlet, a big cow herd and very expensive land,” he said, adding that current prices in his area run from $22,000 to $25,000 an acre.
Before he started experimenting with different methods of feeding, Buis farmed in a more traditional way, with 100 to 150 days of grazing on permanent pasture at two acres per animal, supplemented with 200 days of stored feed and the cows calved indoors.
But he figured there must be a better way, especially in terms of getting the cows to calve outside, on the land. But he couldn’t afford to put more ground into pasture.
He started experimenting with oats planted into wheat stubble, but that didn’t last long enough to satisfy the cattle. Then, he hit on the idea of running the cattle on sweet and commercial corn stubble in the fields after harvest.
“The rule of thumb is that one acre of corn stalks will feed one cow for one month,” he said. “That’s nice free feed just sitting there.”
He showed how he seeds cover crops like oats after the sweet corn harvest so the cattle can graze into the fall, but cautioned that the “girls will find every single ear you missed with the combine, and every single bit of spilled corn,” which sometimes results in grain overload.
Buis spent a lot of time experimenting with different crops and cover crops — including peas, oats, spinach, snap beans, radishes, sweet corn, ryegrass and red clover.
At the end of the day, the cattle would eat anything. The key was to determine timing and type of crop, especially since he wanted to keep his herd out on pasture through the winter.
“We needed to know what’s available, what could be grown when and what we could use as pasture,” he said.
In an example of a grazing plan, cover crops included rye into sweet corn stubble, leaving alfafa on the ground after the third cut, rye and oats in corn silage ground, and oats and rye in wheat stubble.
In terms of winter pasturing yield, Buis said that he put 160 bred cows on 145 acres of this crop residue and cover crops for 82 days from January to March. They were eating 14,000 pounds per day of silage before January 8, which means they would have consumed 574 tons if they were kept in.
He figured he realized $99 an acre in savings by letting them graze. In that year, he didn’t have to provide any additional feed, although he says this method depends on the temperature, and that extra feed might be needed during a really cold winter.
Besides the obvious cost savings, cover crops gave him the extra bonus of feeding nutrients to the soil, and protecting it from wind and water erosion, with a strong, stable root mass below the surface.
Buis is a big fan of using sorghum as feed in terms of how quickly it grows, its ability to build soil structure and the return on investment. Seed costs are $16.50 an acre, yield is six bales an acre and cost at feeding is $14 a bale. The sorghum bales are put into the field to supplement corn stalk grazing.
Among the lessons Buis has learned through his experimentation are the need to pay attention to seed costs and availability. While it’s tempting to go for cheaper seeds, cutting corners and getting seed that’s mixed with, say, gypsum weed can be deadly to the cows. Ordering seed early also means not getting caught short when planting time comes.
He’s also stopped rotational grazing on his farm. With the kinds of crops he grows, the cattle cause too much damage to the soil if they’re confined to too small an area. Instead, he turns them out on 100- to 200-acre fields.
Having lots of options for feeding is crucial, and because of where the farm is situated, Buis has lots of alternative feed sources, including leftover vegetables from grocery stores and vegetable processing plants, as well as byproducts from ethanol production. The drawback from these sources is that they sometimes have pollutants in the feed like plastic and sharp metal objects.
Buis keeps meticulous records on all his cows, and selects them for easy outdoor calving, since there’s only him and his daughter do all the work for 225 spring calves. He also finds that both the cows and calves are healthier when they’re outside.
Finally, he talked about how he’s worked out an arrangement with his neighbour to graze his cows on 100 acres of corn stalks. Next year, he’ll supply seed and, if necessary, plant cover crops in the field. That way, he knows what his cows will be eating. Since no one with cash crops in Chatham-Kent has fences, he’s installing them for the neighbour, too.
In the end, and by trial and a few errors, Buis has built a profitable beef business and will continue making “mistakes” to make it even better.