Fixing Up or Falling Down
As the head-gate swung open for the final bred heifer, it was a great feeling to be done processing all of the cattle for another year. Jeanne and I looked at each other in relief that another lengthy (and warm – 30 degrees!) day was complete, with minimal stress on both us and our cattle. Each August, we combine annual herd vaccinations with the first part of our quiet-wean process (that also includes weighing, tattooing, pulling hair for DNA testing) on all of the calves. This sets the calves up to be weaned in full / separated from their dams 10-days later on Labour day. As I’ve blogged before, the quiet wean process works well for us (as long as the calves don’t figure out how to remove their ‘bling’), as it helps ease the stress of weaning on both the cow and the calf. After the cow-calf groups have been worked, we finish off the day with the bred heifer pen, and get a close up view of just how well they are developing. It is great to see all the cattle – but also rewarding to be ‘done’ for another year.
Our ‘Processing Day,’ and the countdown to weaning that it starts, really brings into focus how little time there is left in the summer, and the clock ticks a little louder as all of our projects need to be done so the pens are ready for weaning. When I was growing up, one of my dad’s favourite sayings was that with cattle ‘you are either fixing things up, or they are falling down’. The combination of cattle and climate is tough on stuff! Cattle have to find their favourite spot to rub that itch – or try to test their theory that the grass really is greener (or the heifers prettier) on the other side of the fence. Fences get busted, boards fall off corrals, high traffic areas get worn, and the combination of wind and a 70-degree swing in temperature over 12 months, wreaks havoc on everything. Each year, there are always things that need fixing, just to maintain the farm in good working order.
On top of taking care of maintenance are the improvements we like to make. Every year we try to make our farm ‘better’ – which is a vague enough descriptor to cover plenty of different items. ‘Better’ can mean easier (re-hanging a gate so it swings instead of drags), simpler (adding more bunk space so the cows can be fed less frequently), addressing OCD issues (re-boarding a fence so that gaps between the boards are identical instead of varied – and it stops bothering us every time we drive in the lane), or simply making the property more aesthetically pleasing (removing old corrals that are not in use, falling down and look terrible). But the end goal is the same – to complete improvements that increase our enjoyment of our farm. Each spring our ‘wish lists’ get made, and then get divided into the ‘need to do’ and ‘nice to do’ categories – with an estimated time (or cost) to completion attached.
Formally planning things out may seem like overkill (I sometimes think we put ‘get organized’ on our to-do list!), but it really helps us with our time management. With both of us working full-time off site, plus Jeanne’s Highland Dance Studio, we only have a finite number of hours that we can invest in the farm while still maintaining a healthy ‘life’ where rest, relaxation and family togetherness are also in balance. This schedule obviously flexes during different times of the year (Jeanne’s summers off from school / the hectic lead up to sale days, etc.), but we try to be very cognizant of where we spend our time. Our ‘need to do’s’ (the general annual maintenance like corral cleaning) always have to be scheduled first, with the ‘nice to do’s’ then added, dependent on both time and budget. This way, if our maintenance schedule (or budget) doesn’t allow us to get to the improvements, they can be deferred into next year – while still having the ‘necessary’ done. We can live through another year dragging a gate through mud and snow, but the corrals really do need to get cleaned! So being organized really helps us to make sure our priorities are clear when working around the farm.
The other area to consider with the project list is the time/budget balance. Now that we have the base of our cow herd (mostly) established, they (theoretically) should be (relatively) cash flow positive (I am not sure anyone in the cattle business would be comfortable making that statement without a few qualifications!). We have purposely built our herd slowly, without debt attached to the cows, so that (in theory) there is a little more cash left over once the bills are paid. This decision should allow us to re-allocate some of those funds for hiring in professionals to complete improvements that are either larger jobs, or ones on our list that we simply don’t have time to do.
Since establishing Applecross Cattle in 2006, we were fortunate enough to have a separate source of water for our cows via a secondary dug well. The only drawback for the well was that the pump and electrical were located in a culvert that descended 10 feet below ground. As is usual when combining the words: water, Alberta, old system and winter, we found we were spending a lot of time clambering down a culvert in less than ideal weather conditions to ‘fix’ a variety of problems that showed up. We got an estimate back in April to have it raised up to ground level (which coincided with another improvement – trenching in two more water fountain locations), and the project was completed last week. The two of us then assembled a ‘garden shed in a box’ package around the well-head to create a ‘pump house’, and the entire project is now (less a coat of paint) finished. (As an aside, building a garden shed as a couple certainly provides the opportunity for some interesting conversation. Not that our minds are always in the gutter, but ‘wood’, ‘screw’, and ‘hold this’ were often in the same sentence, leading to numerous looks and raised eyebrows back and forth!). It is a really neat feeling to be able to walk from the house to the shop, and instead of seeing an eyesore culvert sticking out of the ground, there is a nice tidy garden shed in its place – and knowing that all the components for the well are tucked neatly inside. We are almost looking forward to winter!
The phrase ‘fixing up or falling down’ can also relate back to the cow herd itself. While I mentioned earlier that we now have the cow herd ‘mostly’ established, it is that ‘most’ word that is key – the whole goal of a purebred breeder is to produce better cattle, so I don’t think a breeder can ever be ‘done’ and content to rest on what they have. There are always cows that ‘need an upgrade’ or a herd doesn’t move ahead. This time of year, with every cow and every calf walking through the chute and weaning weights fresh in hand, there is a great opportunity to complete a close up visual inspection while also having the numbers to back up the ‘gut feel’. Which of the cows are producing to expectation, which are lagging, and what do the weights tell us once adjusted for age? With our two best ever heifer calf groups back to back in 2016 and 2017, we have a lot of younger genetics vying for a spot in our herd (not to mention that ongoing search for outcross/different genetics!) As much as it would make our cash flow look much stronger if we marketed as many of the bred heifers as possible, retaining some of the top end to make a stronger and more uniform herd for the future has a lot of long term benefits. And it should lead to a nicer walk through the cows – more positives and less negatives – just like that walk past the new pump-house.
So with our countdown to weaning now on, our ‘improvement’ projects have been mostly wrapped up for the year. Time is blocked during evenings this week to spend finishing the corral cleaning. The to-do lists are getting shorter (or maybe evolving with the changing season is more accurate); preparing for fall always precedes the start of preparing for winter – the hay is stacked in the bale yard, but straw is still left to come. But what doesn’t change is the sense of satisfaction that we feel – from gates that now swing, windbreaks that have had their missing panels replaced, and a cow herd that is slowly improving. A process. A journey. Fixing up, so we aren’t falling down.
Until next time,