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Controlling costs a key part of profitability

Part 1 of 3

Editor’s note: If you put three cattle producers in a room and ask what they consider is important to the future viability of their ranch you will probably get three different stories. That’s what farmers heard as a three-producer panel at the Manitoba Rancher’s Forum shared details of how they had made their ranches more profitable and sustainable.

Gordon Beddome, who operates Waggle Springs Ranch near Douglas, Manitoba, says reducing costs wherever possible is key to the sustainability of his ranch. He runs 300 cow-calf pairs, 50 yearlings and 150 Boer meat-goats on 5,000 acres of grazing land and uses every available resource he can to keep production costs down.

For starters, he uses creative ways to keep land costs down. Beddome only owns about 75 per cent of his grazing land. He also has access to another 13 quarter sections, seven of which are owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and six are provincial Crown land, which is leased back to NCC on the condition it continues to be grazed. Beddome manages the land as part of a co-operative grazing program with NCC and Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI).

The NCC/Crown land is as good as owning land, says Beddome. Under the arrangement he has a 100-year lease with no capital investment in land ownership. He also rents additional pasture from retirees in the area who no longer farm and he sometimes can run cattle on free corn stover available from a neighbour.

(THE PRICE IS RIGHT

Also by placing cattle on relatively small parcels of land that otherwise might not be used, he is able to make use of the feed and also use cattle to control weeds. For example, the grassed perimeters around nearby gravel pits provide additional no-cost grazing space and the gravel company is only too happy to have Beddome’s animals keep the weeds in check. In another case, a neighbour’s pivot irrigation system doesn’t quite reach the corners, leaving small areas of about five acres each, which are hard to access with spray equipment. The owner of the land allows Beddome to use those areas as spring pasture. In return the cows take care of the grasses and weeds the irrigation farmer might otherwise have to manage.

Beddome has developed his grazing strategy as part of a steering committee that includes Jane Thornton, MAFRI’s pasture and rangeland specialist and representatives from NCC and Crown Lands. Together they have come up with some innovative ways to make use of every acre — even low-productivity areas.

The co-operative grazing program has helped him gain a better understanding of native grass management. By adopting a holistic management system he says he has increased the profitability of his operation. He uses tools such as prescribed burning of treed and brush areas, high stock density for brush control, and goats to control weeds. It all works to control costs and optimize production.

FIRE AS A TOOL

About 200 acres of the Crown land pasture was not suitable for grazing because it was largely overgrown with aspen. Beddome experimented with controlled burning of the aspen and found he can now carry 90 cow-calf pairs on those 200 acres for a month in early summer. “If you kill a poplar tree with fire it sends up about 10 suckers,” says Beddome. (These suckers are) “very nutritious for the cattle and once you remove the tree canopy you get vetch (and other native plants) appearing.” Most are well suited for grazing.

He also burned another area infested with ground junipers, which was only providing about 500 lbs./acre of useful forage. The resulting re-growth meant that forage production doubled in the second year after the burn and by the third year was up to 1,598 lbs./acre.

Beddome says the biggest cost saving has been achieved by extending his grazing season. He now gets around 200 days of grazing from his land, which has a wide range of habitats from sand hills to marshes. He manages the different types of native vegetation to obtain maximum productivity.

He cross-fences the prairie bush pasture land and aims for 50 per cent utilization of forages to get maximum plant regrowth. The native pastures are divided into paddocks and cattle are rotated through as quickly as possible. They clip only the top 10 per cent of the grass before being moved to the next paddock. “By August we have been through all the pastures once, but we can go back through pastures again into the fall because the grass has recovered quickly by not grazing it down too much during the first pass,” he says.

BIOLOGICAL WEED CONTROL

Even the once “unproductive” leafy spurge areas on his property have been converted from a nuisance into a resource. After spraying the leafy spurge for 20 years and not really getting anywhere, Beddome started grazing goats on it. Goat grazing hasn’t eradicated the weed, but has certainly kept it under control and the weed provides nutritious feed for the goats. “Goats love the leafy spurge,” says Beddome. “It’s superior to alfalfa for goats and it comes early in the spring. There is less regrowth from grazing it and it’s now co-inhabiting with my other grazing plants, so it’s become more of an asset than a cost now.”

Multi-species grazing has helped Beddome get the most from all the varied native forages, weeds and shrubs. “It works well because the cows always eat the grass and the goats prefer bushes so they don’t compete,” says Beddome.

Beddome has seen economic ups and downs over his farming career, having run both PMU and hatchery operations in the past. But now, even though beef production has its market cycles, he feels working with Mother Nature, being open to innovative ideas and focusing on controlling costs has helped increase production and will help him ride future market waves. †

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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