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This transplanted Alberta couple adapted their grazing practices to a colder Manitoba climate

Being positive about their life in ranching is one of five underlying management principles that Rhonda and Alan Vergouwen have used to establish their ranch near Toutes Aides, Man. Trying new ideas — even if they don’t always work out — is another. It’s definitely part of what keeps their operation interesting and moving forward.

Expansion on high-priced land around Strathmore, Alta., where the Vergouwen home ranch is located, just wasn’t feasible, Alan explains. Water problems on many of the potential locations they looked at in Saskatchewan and Manitoba during the dry year of 2001 made their decision to settle on the shores of Lake Manitoba that much easier.

It took a couple of years for the 230 cows they purchased from Alan’s dad to adapt to the soft grasses and cold winters of northwestern Manitoba. After the first year of cold-weather calving beginning March 1, they began to move their calving season ahead — fairly quickly, adds Rhonda. Now, calving begins on March 25, which is just in time to beat the onslaught of horseflies in mid June.

They’ve also added Hereford and Black Angus genetics to the predominantly Red Angus-Simmental pool to produce the type of moderate crossbred cows and calves that are best suited to their grazing system, climate and market. The soft grasses aren’t as nutrient dense as the hard native species of the prairie grasslands, so the cows need to have the stamina to travel long distances grazing the native bush pastures. The British-cross calves match their winter backgrounding, grassed yearling and finishing program for marketing through Prairie Heritage Beef.

Their ranch includes seven quarters of owned land and 27 quarters of leased land, 24 of which is Crown land. Most of it is native bush pasture along with some old tame-hay fields, which are predominantly smooth brome, timothy and Kentucky bluegrass, and a few cultivated fields. They describe the land as stoney, without a lot of natural fertility. The area is as flat as the plains, so drainage is poor at times of the year when there is excess water and some salinity spots had developed. Brush encroachment onto the tame-hay pastures is another concern.

While improving the productive capacity of their land base is a long-term goal, understanding its limitations has enabled them to set realistic beef production goals. With an eye on net income (versus gross income), their focus has been on developing a low-input system with a sustainable grazing rotation that matches their land base. This includes extending the grazing season both spring and fall whenever possible.

Grazing stretched out

The cows calve on stockpiled grass on the home quarter. They ride the pasture regularly to keep an eye on things, Alan says, but have found there are fewer problems all around now that they just let the cows be cows out on pasture versus when they calved in confined paddocks and barns.

They give each pair about three days to mother up before moving them down the road to a spring transition pasture. They have a holding pen near where they feed bales every morning to make smooth work of cutting out and gathering pairs that are ready to go.

The transition pasture is one of the old tame-hay fields that hasn’t been grazed since the previous July. The bush and stockpiled growth provides great protection for the young calves wherever they decide to hunker down, and the combination of old grass with new spring growth in the bottom helps the cows adjust from winter feed to green pasture.

Alan says the switch to the spring transition pasture system after he quit putting up his own hay has worked out really well. It has extended the grazing season by a month, though they do feed-test the stockpiled grass and continue to supplement with enough high-quality forage to promote proper rumen activity and digestion of the old grass. The new spring growth is also a source of protein.

Fall rye sown the previous fall on 40 acres adjacent to the transition pasture is generally ready to be grazed

during the last two weeks of May and into early June.

Branding, castrating, dehorning and vaccinating happens the first weekend in June. It’s not the big deal it once was before they built their circular handling corral in 2007. They were looking for a design that would allow one or two people to handle animals with a minimum of stress for all concerned and found just the plan in a booklet they ordered from New Zealand. They agree it has been well worth the investment.

During processing the cows are split into two breeding groups, with Hereford bulls on the straight Angus cows and Black Angus bulls on the crossbred cows. Each group is trailed two to five miles to summer pasture, beginning in small hay fields to make sure they’re all paired up after the move before starting the rotation.

The groups move to native bush pastures after they complete one pass through the old tame hay fields, which usually takes them to about mid July. The bush and swamp pastures have been fenced off from the tame pastures, however, establishing a rotational system on the bush pastures has been more of a challenge because not all of the land is connected. It will take time and money to run fences through this type of terrain.

The summer finishes with a rotation back through the old tame-hay fields that will be bale grazed that winter. The second pass over the remaining hay fields carries them through the fall. Bale grazing begins in late November.

Bale grazing, which they began three winters ago, has worked wonders to rejuvenate the old hay fields. Before and after soil tests each year indicate that organic matter has increased from 1.7 per cent to 9.2 per cent (average of beside bale and between bale results) across the bale-grazed area. The real proof of its value is evident in the increased grass production, which Alan estimates has easily doubled. He likes the labour-saving angle, too.

Saving time is also one of the reasons why he quit baling his own hay. There is a fairly abundant and consistent supply of alfalfa-grass hay in the local area, so purchasing hay made more sense than starting to replace the older haying equipment. Most of the hay comes from a 20-mile radius around the ranch. He hauls it himself and places the bales directly onto the field that will be bale grazed that winter. Access to the bales throughout the winter-feeding period is controlled with an electric wire.

Considering that more than 80 per cent of the nutrients a cow consumes pass through the digestive system, purchasing their winter feed supply in combination with bale grazing is a way of importing nutrients onto their land instead of buying and mechanically spreading commercial fertilizer.

Finishing and marketing

The calves are backgrounded through the winter on a field adjacent to the home quarter. Backgrounding the calves out on the pasture is part of their low-input strategy to improve forage production over time. Like bale grazing, it places the nutrients from the manure and urine where they have the most benefit, without the cost and labour of cleaning corrals and hauling manure.

The calves receive the best-quality alfalfa-grass hay, along with about 3.5 pounds per head per day of a grain-mineral-vitamin supplement. Their experience has shown that, due to the cold winters, the calves aren’t able to achieve adequate gains without an energy supplement.

Around the end of March, the calves are trucked to the Vergouwen ranch at Strathmore. There, they are sorted into like groups with Alan’s brother’s calves, then put out to pasture and fed hay as required until the grass is ready for grazing.

The calves are marketed at various times according to weight and the state of the market. Last year, the heaviest steers were forward contracted for July 31 delivery to a feedlot. A couple of weeks later, a group of the middle-run steers and heavier heifers were put into Prairie Heritage Beef’s central feedyard at Swalwell, Alta. The lighter steers and heifers were placed into the Prairie Heritage Beef program later that fall. Yearlings that have been treated with antibiotic, as well as the bottom end of the calves are sold through the auction market.

Prairie Heritage Beef is a group of 17 mid-sized ranches that market “old-fashioned” ranch-raised beef that is free from growth hormones, antibiotics and animal byproducts. The producers have worked together to offer a product with which their customers can identify and create premium markets for their beef.

An advantage of their alliance with Prairie Heritage Beef is that they receive the carcass data on their calves. “It’s given us a good overview of our own program, showing that we are where we need to be,” Alan says. “It’s a nice representation of our cattle and has established a baseline if something pops up in the future.”

The Vergouwen family also farm-gates its own Flying Heart Homestyle Beef brand — backed by three generations of ranching tradition in Alberta, and now, Manitoba.

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