Black Angus cattle farm a century in the making

GRANDORA, Sask. — Tom Blacklock comes by his love of Black Angus cattle honestly.

His great-grandfather, Thomas Henderson, began raising purebred Black Angus more than a century ago on Heatherbrook Farms, an operation at Lacombe, Alta.

Blacklock’s grandfather, Sam Henderson, was also well known in the breed. He helped his father build the farm and showed Heatherbrook’s best animals throughout Canada and the United States.

Blacklock’s mother, Alberta Mae Henderson, carried on the family tradition and began showing championship animals in the 1930s, when championship cattle were transported in train boxcars.

Blacklock’s father, Ben Blacklock, got involved in the breed after he met and married Alberta Mae.

In the 1960s, Ben and Alberta Mae moved to Saskatchewan and started their own herd on a piece of land near Grandora, Sask.

Today, Tom is carrying on the tradition in the same area.

Tom Blacklock checks his Black Angus cows. | Shawnda Heise photo

He and his son, Riley, run Benlock Farms, a purebred Black Angus operation, along with Tom’s partner, Shawnda Heise and her three children, Madison, 17, Morgan, 15, and Maxton 10.

The past year has been a busy time for the family, renovating the century-old farmhouse that they live in.

The couple also operates a retail beef business based at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.

They supply some Saskatoon restaurants that value Benlock beef, produced naturally on a family-run farm. Shawnda also operates a hot dog cart at the market.

“If you’re part of the market, you have to produce what you sell so you can’t go and buy wieners, you have to make them,” she says.

“I source all of my toppings from within the market. One of the vendors makes the buns, someone else makes the different relishes … so it’s been lots of fun.”

Tom and Shawnda are doubling their herd and hope to have about 400 bred heifers and cows on pasture.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the better prices that we’ve been seeing lately,” Tom says.

In the early 2000s, Tom ran a grain and cattle farm and his time and resources were stretched thin.

He realized that he needed to focus exclusively on either grain or beef.

When the BSE crisis hit in 2003, Tom went against the grain and stayed in the cattle business.

To help weather the storm, he focused on developing local retail markets and began selling beef at the farmers’ market.

Alberta Mae was instrumental in establishing the farm’s retail sales. She continues to make beef patties, which sell out every week.

“It’s helped us out financially but even more important than that has been the social aspect of it,” said Tom, a former director with the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market board.

“We’ve met some really great people there and it’s been very rewarding that way.

“We’re all kind of the same. We’re all doing something that we’re very passionate about and we’re all trying to figure out a way to make a living at it.”

Today, retail customers buy roughly two carcasses per week or 100 slaughter animals per year, says Tom.

The remaining animals are sold in the farm’s annual spring bull sale or kept as replacement heifers.

Some bulls are also sold privately to producers. Cull cows are sent to auction.

Shawnda had limited exposure to cattle before she met Tom.

“I grew up on a grain farm, but it was pretty small scale and there were no animals. We had cats but that was about it.”

She admits that her first few attempts at handling and sorting cattle were nerve-wracking.

Today, she and Madison take care of retail sales, selling beef at the market, filling retail orders and maintaining relationships with restaurants and other buyers.

Shawnda Heise cares for orphaned calf. | Brian Cross photo

Shawnda also cares for orphaned calves and pitches in where needed during the busy seasons.

“I have two babies (calves) in the dog run right now that I’m bottle feeding,” she said. “One is a twin and the other one is orphaned.”

Tom and Riley, 24, concentrate on calving, managing cattle and putting up hay.

The decision to get out of grain farming allowed Tom to sell equipment and upgrade his haying machinery.

Running newer machines makes haying a pleasure and takes pressure off the family during busy periods, he says.

Tom also hires custom operators to harvest and silage for winter feed.

The farm’s website, benlockfarms.com, offers an overview of the operation.

“That’s one of the neatest things about the story of this farm is the history that’s behind it and how long it (the breed) has been a part of our family,” says Tom.

“Way back in the pitchfork days, Grandpa Sam had 400 purebred Black Angus cows, which is pretty amazing. And a lot of the original cattle families in Western Canada have animals that can be traced back to Heatherbrook Farms.”

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