Sask. farm takes holistic approach to raising food

Grassfed, antibiotic free | Mixed farm markets their meat products through the internet

ENDEAVOUR, Sask. — A tiny blur of flesh and boots streaks across a farmyard in eastern Saskatchewan teeming with webbed, clawed and hoofed feet.

Thin young turkeys take their first tentative steps outside the barn as white geese scatter into a thicket of trees.

Three-year-old Beau returns, now only bare from the chest up, to help his sister, Kate, 7, and mother, Janeen Covlin, 32, tend to an ailing goose. From there, the group, which now includes the family’s patient Border Collie, moves to barns housing chickens, pigs and calves before reaching horse, cattle and chicken pens at the edge of the yard site.

If it’s reminiscent of earlier times on mixed farms, it’s deliberate, Covlin said.

“It’s a diversified farm raising food you could really believe in,” she said. “We are very reassured we are on the right path.”

The 1,920 acre Cool Springs Ranch near Endeavour is bucking the trend of large corporate farming by operating a mixed, multi-generation livestock and poultry farm.

Janeen, with her husband, Sam, and her parents, Lyle and Grace Olson, have adopted simpler and more sustainable production routines that hearken back to days when geese and pigs could be found grazing outside and cattle ate grass instead of grain.

The chickens are their main driver, Covlin said.

The family chooses hardy, fast growing breeds such as Redbro.

“Their legs don’t go on them,” she said.

Electric fences keep the chickens safe from predators and deep litter beds minimize pathogens, control odour, reduce flies and minimize clean up.

“Managing bedding goes a long way to keep them from getting coccidiosis,” she said.

A free range hoop house is being prepared for the next batch of chickens to go to the pasture. It will provide relief from this summer’s unrelenting sunshine and house a nipple watering system.

These enclosures are moved every day or two to prevent the ground from compacting, spread manure and provide fresh pickings.

The result is darker coloured eggs, full of flavour and omega 3, said Covlin.

Pine tar, which is smeared on birds subjected to pecking by the flock, serves as a pungent deterrent.

“We’re not very fancy,” Covlin said.

Both couples took a holistic management course, with the Olsons leaving a nearby farm to help create the direct market business, which includes an on site meat processing plant that sells $25,000 worth of beef each month and does custom work.

“I thought it was a good way to do value added,” said Lyle Olson, who took a meat-cutting course at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology.

“It commands a higher price, but it’s still lower than it would be at Superstore.”

Olson and Covlin said it doesn’t make much sense to them to produce benefits from raising animals naturally and then sell them into conventional markets.

“You lose every stitch of it as soon as you put it in the feedlot,” Covlin said.

The family, which maintains 500 head of cattle, also custom grazed 1,000 head last year. The four children, all younger than eight, pitch in, often helping gather eggs.

Kate, a member of the Pipestone Valley 4-H Light Horse Club, mirrors Sam’s interests in cattle and horses. He was a rider in a community pasture, while Janeen worked at a commercial hog barn.

“Kate is our farm girl. If anyone is going to farm, it’ll be her,” said Covlin. “Kate can butcher 35 chickens herself.”

Olson said the animals are shot in the field to reduce stress before being processed inside the farm plant just metres from the Covlins’ and Olsons’ family homes and barns.

“That’s the nice part of it. You get to be with the grandchildren all the time,” Olson said of the family business.

They market from an internet store at www.coolsprings-ranch.ca and deliver pre-ordered items monthly to customers gathered at urban drop off spots.

“I don’t have to sit at the farmers’ market all day and not know if I’ll come home with stuff,” said Covlin.

Customers range from young mothers to empty nesters to restaurants.

“Families who are concerned about where their food comes from,” added Olson.

Covlin shuns the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, expressing concern about their overuse in livestock production and resulting antibiotic resistance in humans.

She also avoids vaccinations and antibiotics in raising her children.

Covlin expressed concern that the non-food uses of grain and escalating input costs could one day make modern cattle production costly.

Cool Springs Ranch will offer its customers a chance to see alternative farming practices first-hand at a barbecue later this week.

“So much of agriculture is hidden from everybody,” she said. “If you have something to hide from the way food is produced, it’s not a good thing.”

They receive help from a disabled worker who lives with the family and have also been assisted in the past by organic farm workers who exchange room and board for their labour.

The Covlins would welcome another couple into their operation to share the workload, particularly as the Olsons approach retirement.

“Marketing is not the problem. Producing enough is,” said Covlin.

“You’ve got to match the market as you grow. If you add another family, you have to ramp up production,” she said.

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