For 25 years Jan and Marian Slomp have been making a good living harvesting grass with dairy cows at their farm east of Rimbey, Alta. “We run a grass and grain farm and we seldom need to buy any feedstuffs off the farm except a little protein concentrate. Our profit margin is up and we milk less cows than in the past. We use lots of old stored manure on our orchard grass pastures and we grow lots of straw for the dairy cows.”
When Jan and his family moved to Canada from Holland he got involved with the Grey Wooded Forage Association, a group of farmers interested in growing forages, where he learned a lot about pasture management in Alberta. On his farm, he grazes a high density of cows rotating them to fresh forage twice a day. He has low capital investment in his operation as he farms with a minimum of equipment, usually used machinery in good condition.
Jan wanted to retire and was hoping that his son Paul would come back home and take over the farm. Paul, a civil engineer in Ottawa basically said, Pa, your farming and grazing operation is working so well there are no challenges for me. So he rented 100 acres of pasture in the Ottawa area to graze yearling and sell his beef directly to local consumers.
Paul also became involved with Community Supported Agriculture.
Jan has always farmed intensively in Holland and in Rimbey and over the years has paid off lots of debt. However, Paul wanted to farm without a lot of capital debt so he pre-sold his beef to the Ottawa public before he bought his yearlings in the spring. In the first year he spent $3,000 on fencing and scavenged materials for corrals. Then he attended a stockmen’s school and learned how to sort cattle on foot.
Paul now sells his organic grass fed beef for about $9.50 a pound to 180 Ottawa families and keeps in touch with his customers through his website at www.grazingdays.com. His clients are a closely knit group and Paul keeps them involved in the grazing operation by hosting field days and family events on the farm. When Paul was having difficulty making ends meet he held a meeting of his buyers group. They agreed to stay with him and pay a little extra for his beef which he delivers right to their door on a regular schedule.
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With pre-ordering and set delivery dates, Paul is able to run a very efficient operation. He keeps track of everyone’s previous orders and arranges to provide different cuts so each family over time gets a fair distribution of prime cuts. He is in the process of buying a farm about an hour’s distance from Ottawa in Quebec where he feels there is a real opportunity to continue raising grass-fed beef yet still be an easy drive for his Ottawa customers.
“A beef farmer can learn a lot about grazing from a grass-based dairy farmer,” says Jan, “Dairy cows can tell you in 24 hours what they think of your grazing management. It’s all in the pail. If I have quack grass in my pasture and I force the cows to graze it, the cows will let me know if they don’t like it. My pastures are mainly orchard grass, with some blue grass and legumes. I cannot keep it as a monoculture as other grasses keep coming in. I don’t worry about dandelions as they don’t amount to much in my well-manured pastures.”
Jan keeps his pastures in top condition by cutting a crop of grass silage or hay from each paddock every other year. This helps get rid of perennial thistles and other perennial weeds. His forage regrowth provides excellent grazing and he harvests his silage or hay clipping when he sees a stretch of good weather. He finds that this is extremely important for his grazing management. He adjusts his harvesting time so he can meet his future grazing goals or needs. In any particular paddock, he will graze first then take a silage cut followed by grazing the regrowth. It’s a method that really works for Jan. He knows where his cows will be grazing six weeks from now. Well-rotted manure is spread in alternate years on the grazing paddocks after the first graze or second cut for hay or silage. This is key to Jan’s grazing operation.
Dr. Neil Harker, a weed scientist at Lacombe Research Centre, has found that farmers can almost eliminate their wild oat problems by harvesting several consecutive silage crops as compared to harvesting the crop for grain. The effect was especially pronounced when the silage was cut a little earlier than normal to prevent the wild oat from producing viable seed. He sees the advantage of farmers having a mixed-farming operation where silage is involved as a means of lowering production costs and reducing dependency on expensive herbicides as weeds are developing resistance to several popular products. This is a major concern.
Jan feels beef producers can make big gains by grazing high-quality forage regrowth from the middle of August to November. On our visit to Jan’s farm in late September his pastures were lush and green with lots of forage regrowth while other pastures in the region were brown and grazed down to the ground. He thinks beef cattle could gain an extra 100 pounds at this time of year on high-quality forage.
“Calves will suck if the grass isn’t good. Fall gains are very important and the beef producer needs to know where his gains are coming from. Quality is the most important factor to consider at this time of year for grazing beef animals. I move my cows in the paddocks using tumble wheel fences. They look like combine reels but use no fossil fuel. With shorter days the animals are getting ready for winter and the animals are putting on more weight.”
Jim Stone, a grazing mentor involved with Canada’s Grazing Mentorship Program and former teacher at Olds College, stresses that paddocks for grazing yearlings or beef calves should be small enough that you have to move the animals frequently to gain full value from high-quality grass regrowth.
Jan looks at his farm as a natural system. “It’s been a paradigm shift for me. The sun is what I am working with and grass harvested by my cows is the core of my business. Does it still make sense for farmers to be producing more by buying more cows and land? Is producing more still sustainable in these economic times? I want to see what I can do through better management instead of buying more land and increasing debt load. I want to be sustainable with little outside inputs.”
If he was to give any advice to young people hoping to take over the family farm it would be “build on experience.”
“Work with what you have. Find out which grass species gives you the most intake in the fall. Never borrow money to purchase big new machinery. This takes discipline.”
“The biggest concern I have for the future of agriculture in Canada is there is no generation jumping up to take over the family farm.”
Jan and his wife Marian were nominated as Western Canada’s representatives for the 2013 Dairy Farmers of Canada Sustainability Award.
Duane McCartney is a retired forage beef systems research scientist from Lacombe, Alta.
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