Breeders learn the ropes | Ranchers improve management techniques, finding ways to cut costs while reducing footprint
FLATBUSH, Alta. — The Hunt family knew it was time to look for land with fewer neighbours when the acreages started crowding their farm near Bentley, Alta.
It took Phil Hunt 10 years of looking to find just the right farm with a single connected block of land and good soil.
Checking out farms became an art, said Phil, whose checklist included the soil, grass and shape of the cattle on the land.
“Sometimes it was my spring holiday,” said Phil, who was 50 and had a son wanting to join the farm.
The family needed to move and get more land, or quit.
Fifteen years ago they found their Sara Lake Ranch in the Athabina district between the Athabasca and Pembina rivers near Flatbush.
“We saw lots of possibilities,” said Phil.
The following year they unrolled 100 balls of wire to switch the grain farm to cattle.
Today, the ranch includes 25 quarters of deeded, leased and rented land, on which the Hunts grow grass, hay and silage for their 480 Red Angus cross cows.
Phil and Bev and their son, Geoff, and his wife, Diane, have their own cattle, but share equipment, land and labour.
The farm, about 45 minutes north of Westlock, Alta., was close to feedlots, cattle auctions and a booming agricultural centre, ideal for a growing cattle operation.
This year, the Alberta Angus Association named the ranch commercial breeder of the year during a ceremony at Edmonton’s Farmfair.
The family switched to Angus from Hereford and Simmental in 1985 and have expanded and improved the herd through good bull genetics. Two-thirds of the bulls are Red Angus and one-third are Simmental.
Phil and Bev had little cattle experience before they started in the business. With a city job and a steady paycheque, Phil began buying cull cows at auction markets and learned about calving the hard way.
“We bought a lot of junk back then. I did get an education in calving. I’ve just about seen everything,” said Phil, who rarely requires a veterinarian during calving.
Herd health is an important part of the operation, said Bev, who looks after planning and ensuring a consistent program.
The Hunts pushed back calving at the new farm until April and set a strict schedule to help ease the workload. In Bentley, they had checked cattle every three hours during calving, but in Flatbush the cattle are on their own between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“That’s what our Angus breeding is for — so we don’t have to get up at night,” said Geoff.
The farm’s calving percentage has improved despite the relaxed calving watch.
The cattle also stay at home longer since the family moved to Flatbush. The weaned calves are usually sold at the end of February, 10 months after calving.
The family had sold their calves to the same feedlot for 16 years when they lived in Bentley. Now they are sold either through auction markets or to feedlots, depending on prices.
Older cows graze on swaths from mid-November to mid-December, which is one more way to keep them healthy, reduce feed costs and keep manure on the land.
It takes the family 45 minutes to move the electric wire so that their 200 cows can get fresh swaths daily. They have tried grazing swaths longer in the field, but the cattle are reluctant to leave the shelter of the trees for the open field as the temperature drops.
The calves and first and second calf heifers are fed a mixture of silage and hay in fields closer to the yards.
Having wide open spaces for a large cattle operation comes at the ex-pense of having to live far enough away from large communities.
Flatbush, Jarvie and Dapp, which were once active farm communities, are slowly getting smaller. Flatbush has an active legion and a good senior centre. Skating and recreational hockey are available, and Geoff and Diane’s son, Corb, will attend school in Dapp when he is older.
Despite the small communities, there is a “good sense of community,” said Diane.
A group of neighbours gets together to process cattle, which often turns into a social occasion. In the summer, Diane and Geoff play ball and golf at a couple of local courses.
“It’s more cussing than golfing,” said Diane.