Extended family shares duties on cattle farm

ROSSBURN, Man. — Jeremy Pilkey stops suddenly and says softly, “there’s a nice little fox.”

About 10 metres away, a reddish fox with a fluffy tail has come out of the trees and is sniffing along a line of brush on the edge of the Pilkey farmyard on this rolling and rugged land less than a kilometre from the edge of Riding Mountain National Park.

Jeremy watches the fox move along and disappear back among the trees and then heads up to the house.

This is an idyllic location to raise cattle. It’s so picturesque here that a lot of the land is being bought up by wealthy Winnipeggers for weekend homes and cottages, even though Winnipeg is a four-hour drive away.

A few minutes later, Jeremy thinks about the good fortune that is allowing him and his wife, Kerry, to farm in the area.

“I said to Kerry, the first time she brought me home to meet her folks, ‘we’re going to live in the Birdtail Valley some day.’ ”

For Kerry, it’s a satisfying life of raising cattle, riding horses, and working closely with her parents, Ray and Susan Armbruster, who live in the next farmyard along the road.

“The whole family’s here,” she said with a smile.

But even though the Pilkeys feel fortunate to farm where they do, there’s always a spectre haunting their minds, and it’s not an unreasonable fear.

The rough and beautiful land they love, and the wildlife they appreciate, harbours tuberculosis, and raising cattle beside Riding Mountain means living with the ever-present danger that an infected elk, deer or maybe even a wolf will infect their cattle.

The disease is endemic in the elk of Riding Mountain, and in the winter the elk often come calling for baled hay and feed.

The Armbrusters have already experienced the brutality of a tuberculosis outbreak. Their herd was exterminated in 1997 after an animal was found to have the disease. They returned to the cattle business but have moved their feed yard further away from the park boundary.

As well, their hay is stacked behind 3.5 metre high game fences and their cattle spend the fall, winter and early spring behind game fences in a closely watched wintering area. Great Pyrenees dogs live with the cattle to ward off unwanted wild visitors.

Unlike farmers elsewhere, this family can’t swath graze or bale graze.

“We leave nothing on the fields to tempt the elk,” said Kerry.

The Pilkeys have built up a cow herd of 70 in the years they have been on this farm site, and the combined herd of the Pilkeys, the Armbrusters and Kerry’s brother, Philip, is more than 200 cows.

It’s been gradual growth, and Jeremy hopes TB doesn’t intrude again.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency tests their cattle every two years, and each time screening tests show false positives.

“You always get a few reactions (to the screening test),” said Jeremy.

“They’ll draw blood on those cows, then you sit for a week and wait for the results. It’s not an easy week.”

The Pilkeys met in Alberta when Jeremy left work as a welder and feedlot worker to work in a pregnant mares’ urine barn, where Kerry worked.

“I wanted to work more with horses and less with welding,” said Jeremy.

After another job on a farm working together, Kerry and Jeremy moved to Russell, Man., to work in another PMU operation. The PMU industry began to shrink around that time, but fortunately Kerry’s grandparents decided to move to town at the same time.

“Grandpa called us and said: ‘do you guys want the farm? We’re moving to town.’ And that was it,” said Jeremy.

Kerry and Jeremy often work off-farm as they build their commercial cow and Black Angus purebred herd. Kerry trained horses while Jeremy worked for five years during winters for a nearby feedlot.

This summer Jeremy worked for a federal community pasture in Spy Hill, Sask., living a few days per week in Spy Hill and spending his weekends and occasional week nights home at the farm.

Kerry has her hands full running the farm day-to-day, and both she and Jeremy look forward to the day when they can work on the farm full-time.

That’s tough in the area these days because land is hard to get for herd expansion.

Urban people are buying quarters for country homes and aren’t always interested in renting the farmland portions for haying. Wildlife organizations are also buying land at high prices.

A quarter section recently sold for $125,000, which is a lot for hay and pasture land.

“Young farmers like us can’t put enough cows on a quarter to make $125,000 pay,” said Jeremy.

However, all members of the Pilkey-Armbruster family can make the most of the limited land base by working closely with each other. All the cows are wintered together and the extended family shares chore duty.

“Everyone’s out there cutting strings or whatever needs to be done,” said Jeremy.

As well, they’re able to share night checking duties during calving season, which is a relief to everyone.

Kerry and Jeremy aren’t attracted to cattle farming because it’s an easy way to make money. It isn’t. Instead, they love working with animals.

As they take a visitor on a tour of their farm and out into a verdant pasture where a herd is resting through a warm September afternoon, the cows, heifers and calves are relaxed and repeatedly approach Jeremy for a head scratch.

“Some people would say we spend too much time with our cattle, but at the same time they’re quiet, they’re easy to handle,” said Jeremy.

Kerry still has time to do horse jumping and Jeremy does a lot of ranch rodeo when he can. It’s a combination of work, hobby and life that the couple hopes can continue for the rest of their lives.

“It’s a livelihood. We enjoy doing it. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it,” said Jeremy.

As long as the cattle aren’t hit by TB, it’s a life and business Jeremy and Kerry can keep building.

If TB strikes, however, all bets are off.

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