Tyler Fewings is a busy man, juggling family, work and farm responsibilities. He also juggles time zones half the year, after Saskatchewan and Manitoba fall out of sync in the spring. For the last year he’s also had another ball in the air, as he’s focused on improving his financial and business management skills.
Fewings and his wife Amy farm and raise their children in the southwest corner of Manitoba. He also works as the watershed co-ordinator for the Lower Souris Watershed Committee just across the border in Redvers, in southeastern Saskatchewan. On top of that, he’s been working with a mentor to improve his business management chops.
Fewings grew up on the family farm in the Pierson, Man. area and went to the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bio-resources. After completing undergraduate studies in animal science and rangeland resources, he worked at various jobs in the agriculture industry in Western Canada and Queensland, Australia. Amy worked as a registered social worker.
Fewings had bought some cattle, which were under his family’s care. He would go back occasionally to help. After 10 years away from the farm, he and Amy decided to come back.
“After our first daughter was born, Amy had maternity leave from her work and I was transitioning from a job, so we thought we’d give farming a try and come home. I’d always felt more at home on the farm,” says Fewings.
So five years ago they returned to his mother’s parents’ farm, only 10 miles away from where his dad and brother farm.
“We work closely with my family and farm together. We each have our own cattle but they are intermingled, and we share equipment for farming,” he says. While they work as a family unit, their businesses are separate.
They grow some grains and oilseeds as a cash crop and for feed, and commercial cattle that are predominantly Black Angus. The current drought in Western Canada has not affected their farm too severely at this point.
“We haven’t had much moisture but we got a rain in late May. Last year was fairly dry, but we are far enough east that we are not as dry as areas south and west of us. We generally don’t deal with quite as much drought as they do,” says Fewings.
Fewings says their plan is to line up plenty of winter feed to deal with this year’s drier conditions.
“Last year many folks in our area were challenged for winter feed production and we were a little shorter than past years, but we grow some feed grains, so that helps,” he says.
Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program
Fewings is currently enrolled in the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) Mentorship Program, which is run by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. Applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 35. Applicants describe what they’re looking for and can request a specific mentor. During last year’s selection process, 25 potential mentees gathered at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference to go through an interview process and group exercises. From there, 15 youth were selected for the program and matched with a mentor. They then worked with their mentors in their areas of interest over the next year.
“You might choose anything from government policy to grazing practices to genetics,” says Fewings.
With his university degree in animal science and involvement in production practices, Fewings was already comfortable with the production aspects of agriculture. Between family members, agronomists and veterinarians, he also felt there were many people he could draw on for production information.
“I felt I was missing something on the business management end and thought I could improve on that.”
He had been considering applying to the CYL program for a couple of years but didn’t commit to it until this past year. “I realized this might help fill that gap in my abilities,” Fewings says.
Fewings was paired with Scott Dickson, who works with MNP, a large accounting and business consulting firm in Canada. Dickson knows the agriculture industry well and has a strong background in accounting. It’s been a tremendous learning opportunity for Fewings.
“Scott has committed to working with me for this fiscal year, going through all the steps and being there to answer any questions, and gives advice, especially if we’re working on something I may not have done before,” says Fewings.
The CYL program also offers many networking opportunities. Each candidate gets a $2,000 allowance to spend on education or mentoring.
“If I wanted to go to a conference on farm business management I could use some of that money to cover registration or travel expenses. I could also use it to cover some of the cost if I wanted to go meet with my mentor somewhere,” he says.
Fewings traveled to the Alberta Beef Industry Conference, which worked well because his mentor was involved in the conference. It allowed him to attend part of the conference as well as meet with Dickson and look at financial statements and industry benchmarking.
“He has managed to come out to my place as well. He puts a lot of time and effort into helping me, and I really appreciate that,” says Fewings.
Fewings notes that at 35 years old, he’s in the top age window for the program. He thinks some people view it as a young person’s program, thinking they should have done it at age 25 rather than 35.
“However, I feel that when you are a bit older, you have more maturity and experience to get more benefit. I am really getting a lot from this program, and recommend that anyone who has hesitance should just go ahead to try to do it,” he says.
“Selling cattle is tricky when you work with several people and don’t have full control over decisions. It takes communication and co-operation,” says Fewings. “We’ve been talking about various options for marketing, but in the past we’ve been pretty traditional.”
Most of the Fewings family’s calves arrive a little later than some operations, but it’s becoming more common to calve when there’s green grass and nice weather. Fewings notes that going into fall, their calves aren’t as big as January or February calves. They’ve been weaning in the late fall or early winter, backgrounding their calves and marketing any time between January and May.
“We market a group of the larger steers or heifers first, and then sell other groups through late winter as they are ready, watching the markets.”
Fewings would like to move towards online or direct marketing or trying to develop a relationship with a feeder or buyer. Through Dickson, Fewings asked people in the feeding industry how a cow-calf producer can derive the most benefit. Dickson also connected Fewings with people he could talk to directly.
“Hopefully we can find someone who likes what we are providing, and then we can have some feedback and know there is a demand for our calves. If we can provide some consistency for that buyer/feeder, there should be a financial reward at the end of the day. That’s our goal but we have not yet made the switch,” he says.
For a long time, Fewings has been intrigued by the interaction between agriculture and the environment and interested in land and water resource stewardship. These values carry over to the farming operation where he tries to implement those principles. Environmental stewardship is a primary interest but he also believes that managing all aspects of a farming operation is key to efficiency and profitability.
“The environmental aspects of farming are a big part of why I want to be involved in cattle production. Some stockmen really like cows, or pedigrees or are focused on genetics. Everyone has a slightly different focus on why they enjoy raising cattle. While in university I completed a minor in rangelands, which was somewhat ecology based,” he says. This illustrated the complementary aspects of cattle management and a healthy environment.
Fewings feels that it’s important to manage and conserve soil, water and the biodiversity of everything from plants to microbes. That ties into his job with the watershed stewardship organization in Saskatchewan. There are 11 of these non-profit groups in the province that promote beneficial management practices and work to ensure responsible impact on the water resources and the environment for the benefit of all watershed residents.
“I do this as an off-farm job and find these roles very complementary. Having an off-farm job is challenging when trying to run a farm business, but also keeps you on your toes and introduces you to new concepts and pushes your boundaries. I appreciate that part of it,” he says.
In the five years since he and Amy returned to the farm, they’ve slowly implemented more practices to benefit the environment. That includes rotational grazing either with cross-fencing or by grouping the cattle in larger groups for the rotations.
One component he finds interesting, because of the grain farm, is cover cropping and soil health. Cover crops are a big topic today, and can complement the grain and cropping while providing more feed sources and improving efficiency in the cattle business. It also allows Fewings to improve the soil and better manage natural resources such as water.
“The reason I wanted to delve into the business and financial management side is to make sure that when I make decisions I can sit down and analyze them properly and make sure they make financial sense,” he says.
It all has to fit together. Fewings says he could focus on conservation projects, as he finds them very interesting, but first he has to make sure it makes financial sense. He hopes to learn more about farm business and financial management to create a strong foundation on which to build everything else, and bring those two sides of the operation together.
Challenges and opportunities
Finding time to manage all aspects of the farm business, whether it’s planning grazing or the fiscal year-end, is one of Fewings’ biggest challenges.
“If you can improve in all those little areas, there’s a lot of opportunity to make a big change, through a lot of small changes,” he says. “This is a challenge because every year is a little different, and time is a limitation for me.”
Juggling everything, including the off-farm job, makes it hard to find time to take a big breath. “Yet the off-farm job complements the other interests and gives me more exposure to people outside our industry and community. This pushes personal boundaries and gives me a lot to come back with, which helps keep me going,” he says.
When he steps back to look at the whole picture, Fewings sees a lot of opportunity in the beef industry, perhaps even more than on the crop side. Having been away from the farm for a while allows him and Amy to look at it with fresh eyes. They watch what other people do and gather information. They also challenge themselves to be more open to different ideas, he adds.
“If a person can recognize the things that are out of our control, and focus on the things within our control and what we can do to take care of our business and environment around us, there are opportunities, as long as we are willing to work at it.”