I had the opportunity to slip back to Ontario for a week-end in September. It is always great to visit family and the farm, and September is a wonderful time of year to do so. At Dora Lee, harvest finishes in August (when the barley and second cut hay finish up), and with the drought, weaning was also completed early, so there was a lot of time to both visit and spend with the cattle; evaluating and reflecting on the current calf crop and how the bred replacements are developing. While the farm and cattle have changed a little around the edges, the core of the operation remains essentially the same since I left for university 20 years ago.
I am very fortunate to share my passion for cattle with my father. We often act as a sounding board for each other to discuss the merits of new ideas that can generate a lot of great discussion. While we don’t necessarily agree on everything, I have learned an tremendous amount from Dad over the years, the majority of which I am trying to incorporate into our operation here at Applecross. We also both really enjoy spending time with the cows – just out among them, checking and evaluating, planning and appraising, debating the merits of what the next step in the evolution of the herd should be. In hind-sight, I guess it was no surprise that late Friday night, when we got in from the airport, we checked the cows before bed – despite it being full dark. This must be the reason that Gators have lights!
Dora Lee is ideally situated for cattle. The spine of the farm is a meandering creek that runs the length of the property, complete with river flats, rolling hills, and predominantly cedar bush. The grain and hay ground surround the pastures, and together make a nice balance for a cow calf operation. Similar to most of the American mid-west, Ontario suffered through a serious drought this summer. With no moisture for almost 2 months, both the hay and pasture land suffered significantly. While they had some rain in August (and it rained 2+ inches the day I was there), I was surprised at how ‘green’ the pastures were. I think the big gain was in the rotational grazing program. As I discussed previously, Dad has been a long term proponent of rotational grazing. With the drought this year, he took his program a step further, dividing all of his existing pastures in half again, which effectively shortened the grazing period and increased the rest time. As rotational grazing takes years to improve the pasture conditions, the hard work in improving the grass stand had already been completed, but the even shorter grazing was essential for stretching grass in this drought year, and will continue to pay dividends in the future.
One of the other neat tools that Dad utilizes to improve the pasture is to add grass seed to the mineral. The rolling hills and river flats are not conducive to a seeder, so by adding birdsfoot trefoil seed to mineral, the cows ingest the seeds and then excrete them in the manure all over the pastures. Dad has always joked that cows had a forage harvest on the front and a manure spreader on the back, so I guess this step just hooks on an air-seeder as well. I do think digging deeper into that concept has a lot of merit. The cow-calf sector has always been a low margin business, with feed being the number one expense, and with equipment requirements traditionally a major capital cost. Any opportunity to maximize the natural grazing ability of cows, and reduce the amount of confined feeding that requires intensive management – whether it be ‘prepared’ hay/feed or manure removal – should be seriously considered. This is also a great trait in Fleckvieh cattle – their natural ability to perform on a forage based diet, provides a significant advantage compared to other breeds.
That combination of an extensive natural habitat combined with great childhood memories has always made Dora Lee a very peaceful place; and something we have tried to emulate here at Applecross (It should be no surprise that Applecross derives from the Gaelic word ‘ A’chomraich’, which means ‘Sanctuary’). As a result, the visit back to Ontario provided the perfect opportunity for stepping back and reflecting; not only on the goals Mom & Dad are still trying to achieve at Dora Lee, but also on the things we wish to accomplish here at Applecross. I think the strength of Dora Lee has always been in the cow herd – Dad has always focused on maternal lines, and has consistently stacked strong cow families to make sure the walking herd formed the backbone of the operation. Now that our numbers have grown closer to where we want them to be, I think it is important to follow this example and focus on making the core herd stronger from top to bottom. To accomplish this, we will need to retain all of our top bred heifers and not sell any females this fall as was originally intended. In the short term cash flow will certainly be tighter but, down the road, a stronger herd will result in a more uniform bull calf group, and more consistent females.
From a longer term perspective, one of my goals as a purebred breeder is to get the Applecross/APLX prefix on the bulk of our walking herd. When I look at bull and female sales for some of the top programs I admire – whether it is here in Alberta with Virginia Ranch or Anchor D – or my parents Dora Lee in Ontario – their own breeding prefix is very prominent in their program; often going back deep into extended pedigrees. Obviously an operation always needs to acquire new and different genetics to their herd in order to add some diversity, but I would like to think that if our herd is progressing, then generally our own replacements should be just as good as ones I could buy. I think it also can showcase your own breeding philosophy as it develops, hopefully, into a nice uniform group of cattle. This process obviously takes some time, but I also think that it creates a roadmap that showcases how a program evolves to create their current genetic offerings. Spending time in Ontario just enforced the importance of this goal, and provided yet another reason as to why our bred heifers should stay home this fall.
Lest you think I spent all my time thinking and talking cattle in Ontario, I did also enjoy some great time with family – not to mention several pieces of mom’s legendary pie (about the only advantage of visiting Ontario by myself – I got my favourite (Raspberry) – we usually get Jeanne’s favourite when we are both there). Living 4,000 odd kilometers from family can be tough, but we are blessed to live in a time when they are only a phone call/email/Skype away. We are fortunate to have both the opportunity and ability to visit, and we both look forward to an extended trip east next Summer. While the focus is always to visit family, I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity to see the cattle, and take that important opportunity to step back and reflect on where our own operation is headed.
Labour Day week-end has always meant weaning time here at Applecross. I am not sure whether it is the sudden change in weather (it seemingly goes from warm evenings to a hint of frost overnight), to Jeanne’s annual return to the front of the classroom, but it is always the last ‘must do’ on the summer’s job list, and is always scheduled for Labour Day Monday.
For the last 4 years, we have used ‘Quiet Wean’ nose flaps in a two step weaning process that begins 9 days earlier – often the morning of the Anchor D Female Sale. Dan & Karen always showcase a set of excellent cattle combined with amazing hospitality, so I always take the day off work to attend this great gathering. The Friday morning sales date provides the perfect opportunity to work through the groups and get quiet weans in every nose, prior to enjoying some fun and fellowship later that afternoon. Nine days later, on Labour Day Monday, we removed the Quiet Weans, and formally separate the calves from their dams.
The Quiet Weans themselves are a small, bendable plastic insert that fits into the calves’ nose. The flap allows them to still eat grass and drink water, but prevents them from ‘drinking upwards’ to the teat. This ensures that the calves have nine days to wean themselves off their ‘milk addiction’, and then only have to deal with separation anxiety from their mothers come weaning day.
I first saw the quiet weans at work when touring the D Bar C / Cutler & Sissons herd in 2009. I figured that if it worked for them in their 400 cow operation, we could easily manage the extra step with our much smaller herd. Now, four years later, we are pleased with how both the cows and calves transfer through the stress of weaning. Yes, there is still some noise for a day or two, but the calves adapt a lot more quickly and seem to be back turning grass into meat in no time. We hope to profile some of these calves over the next few months.
Rotational grazing is something we have been working with since the early 1990’s, when Dad purchased the farm next door. The new land had not been worked for a number of years, and everything on it was in a state of disrepair. The old barn was buried, the house cleaned up and refurbished, and new fences went up so that our Fleckvieh cattle could enjoy the extra space. We spent a lot of time together that summer – fencing and, in his words, ‘putting the land to work’.
Thanks to 40 acres of bush at Dora Lee, fencing started the hard way – we cut all of our cedar posts directly from the bush. Most trees had two or three 8ft posts in them, and Dad was always careful to only selectively cut the posts we needed from a number of different areas in order to keep the forest viable for future uses. We would log for a while, and then move the pile of fresh cut posts to the house, where an ‘after supper’ job for us kids would be stripping the bark from the green posts, getting them ready to be ‘planted’. We then moved on to the actual fencing – the perimeter was completed with 4 strand high-tensile electric wire (with cedar posts every 30 ft), while the cross fencing was single strand (and thankfully just plastic posts). Although it has been 20 years, the original electric fencing has remained in place, and dad continues to add additional cross-fences to improve the rotational grazing patterns. This summer alone, an additional 2 miles of interior fences were added.
Partly because of this background, one of our summer projects here at Applecross was to complete the first phase of our rotational grazing program. As I have previously discussed, our home quarter is solely a grass quarter, with three separate walking groups (bred heifers, cows w heifer calves, cows w bull calves). All three groups obviously need to have access to a clean water source, preferably in the yard. While well-water is more expensive than a dug-out or natural water source, I think the cattle just do better with quality water. We also like the fact that our groups then have to come up to the yard to drink. It gets them in a routine of coming up to buildings, and in turn locking them in for treatment, processing or sorting becomes very straightforward. It might mean a little extra fence to add alleys to all the rotations, but the management benefits more than offset the additional cost and time to put them up.
So during my August holidays, we finally finished phase one of our rotational grazing plan. Each of the three groups now have 3 paddocks they can rotate through, and an alley to get to the yard for water. The cows are rotated approximately every 10 days, giving each pasture a 20 day break. We also have 2 smaller ‘overflow’ fields which are not part of the rotation, but can be utilized should any of the groups get ahead of the re-growth. It is always great to have a little flexibility.
Our cross-fencing is simply single strand hot wire, and it does appear to be something that the cows respect. We have quiet cows, and that certainly helps with the hot wire (as they usually walk not run), but obviously if a cow feels cornered or threatened, they will still go through or over the fence. We are predominantly utilizing fiberglass ‘pigtail posts’ that can be easily removed/dropped if you need to drive over the fence with a tractor (or when spreading manure for that matter). We like that the ‘pigtails’ don’t have parts to break off like other posts, but they are a little tall at spring turn out, as the younger calves can still walk under them. We manage this by angling the posts, which drops the wire height slightly. Not only does this keep the calves in, but it also makes it a little easier for us to step over when walking between groups.
Phase 1 is now complete, so we will move on to phase 2 over the next few years. Our final goal is to have 6 paddocks for each group, allowing a 5 day rotation and 25 day rest – we think this will be the optimal balance between maximizing grass while keeping active management to a moderate level. While we are out to ‘visit’ our cows pretty much every day in the summer, moving them every 5 days feels like it will be the right amount that will allow the cattle to keep their routines, while keeping the grass re-growth high.
It may be early yet to see how successful our new fences have been in improving yield, however we have already been able to see visible improvement in the first fields that were cross fenced in 2010 and 2011. While the cows still have their favorite spots in each paddock, re-growth seems to be broader spread and more even. Different species seem to be thriving – as an early graze of quick growing spring grass appears to allow for clover and alfalfa to thrive more through the middle of the season. We look forward to seeing how the grass continues to evolve over the upcoming years.
Our goal is to be able to increase the yield of our pastures by upwards of 20%. Whether we utilize this gain by being able to graze longer into winter, or by pasturing more cattle, a 20% grass gain for a couple of hundred dollars of wire and posts seems like a pretty good investment.
We have been blessed this summer by lots of moisture through June and July, followed by plenty of heat this summer. The grass (as you can see in the picture), has been plentiful, and as a result, it hasn’t been nearly as stressed as a ‘normal’ year would be. Considering the wide-spread drought conditions in the US and Eastern Canada, we are very, very fortunate. With the weather and grass that we have, our efforts to improve our rotational grazing may not seem immediately beneficial, but over the longer term, less stress on each of the pastures should only be a good thing; regardless of the weather.