Grass finished, rather than grass fed is the goal, says Janeen Covlin. With her husband Sam and her parents Lyle and Grace Olson, Janeen raises grass-fed cattle on their farm, Cool Springs Ranch, near Endeavour, Sask., about 300 km northeast of Saskatoon. They also pasture hogs and poultry. Lyle recently took a meat-cutting course at SIAST and they’ve built a regionally inspected abattoir and meat shop in the Covlins’ farmyard.
Janeen books sales from the farm’s website and the two couples take turns delivering the product to pre-arranged stops in Saskatoon and Regina once or twice a month.
Response has been very encouraging, and on their first marketing trip they sold $7,500 worth of product in a few hours.
A big part of the art of grass finishing is in managing the quality of the grass, Janeen says. The cattle play a major role in this. Very intensive grazing for short periods of time has a distinct effect on the grass — producing a heavy supply of organic matter, trampled grass and manure, which feeds and shades the soil, and makes it more porous. This is known as the mob effect.
“The idea is similar to how buffalo herds moved when they had the opportunity,” she said. “They would be in certain areas, be gone and not be back to it for a while. I guess in a land of fences and quarter sections you have to imitate nature as closely as you can.” In winter the cattle bale graze alfalfa brome hay.
They’ve culled their herd of about 200 mostly Black Angus to about 120 animals and are moving towards a Black Angus line from the original Scottish genetics. It’s a smaller animal; it finishes more quickly and is better suited to a grass-finishing operation.
Nine sows have farrowed at Cool Springs Ranch. Also known as bush hogs the pastured pigs are raised in what Janeen refers to as “big chunks of bush,” areas of otherwise unproductive grazing land. They have access to an oat-pea-wheat screenings mixture in self-feeders and are also fed alfalfa bales in the winter.
Left to their own devices the sows made nests and farrowed successfully but there have been some problems with the lack of enclosures. It was difficult to catch the piglets to give them their iron supplements and difficult to stay out of the way of nervous sows.
“We may have to revisit how we go about farrowing,” Janeen said. “I’ve looked at other free-range operations and they usually have some sort of enclosure at least to shut out the sow while you get the work done.”
Poultry is raised in a five-acre enclosure surrounded by an electrified poultry net fence which is moved regularly to provide fresh grass.
They start the chickens on a commercial starter and switch to a ration of wheat, oats and peas prepared on the farm after about four days. They’re also fed an organic supplement of probiotics, minerals and kelp. Calibrating the correct amount of protein is a challenge, Janeen said. “As they get older they need less protein so it’s easier to make a balanced ration but they need a really high protein at the beginning.
They’ve converted about a third of their farm shop into a brooder house and move the chicks from there to pasture at about three to four weeks.
The summer of 2010 which was extra wet in northeast Saskatchewan provided extra challenges. “Every time we had to move a batch out (of the brooder house) it would get cold and wet and we lost some. Free range ain’t all pretty,” she said.
Ravens were another problem. The poultry net kept coyotes and other four-legged predators out but wily ravens would fly over and in. A guard dog was the answer. Finding one that wasn’t bonded with sheep took some time, but the Pyrenees pup they did obtain is doing a great job.
The family sells from the on-farm shop but most sales are booked through the website. It’s so much more efficient than spending entire days at farmers’ markets and we’re able to serve more customers, Janeen said.
Contact the Covlins at http://www.coolspringsranch.ca/or 306-547-4252.