Ontario rancher bucks the cash crop trend

Environmental stewardship | Rancher and veterinarian Peter Kotzeff uses intensive grazing on some of his 1,800 acres

CHESLEY, Ont. — Peter Kotzeff had never heard of Beef Farmers of Ontario’s environmental stewardship award until he was encouraged to apply.

Much to his surprise, he won, even though he believes many beef producers are trying to follow a similar path to protect the land and water to grow food.

“I think it should be a more important award,” Kotzeff said as he drove the back roads of Bruce County, inspecting cattle, pastures and water lines.

“Environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture is something we have to think about.”

This region south of Owen Sound was once major cattle grazing country, but more farmers are switching to cash crops such as soybeans, wheat and corn.

Kotzeff operates 1,800 acres with 700 acres in forage and the rest in cash crops.

He pastures 500 to 1,000 head a year from May until mid-October under an intensive grazing system with paddocks from 50 to 300 acres.

Fields are enclosed with electric fences, and pastures are strip grazed for three to five days before the cattle move on.

He also bought 70 bred cows from Saskatchewan and calved them out in March in a small forested area. As a result, he wanted self sufficient cows.

“I want a cow that calves by herself, knows what she is doing and rebreeds,” he said.

He is also the local bovine veterinarian based in Chesley. His daughter is one of his associates and looks after a small animal practice in Owen Sound.

Kotzeff originally came from Toronto 30 years ago as a large animal veterinarian and started buying properties that needed work.

“I keep buying farms, fence off the rivers, fence off the bush for woodlots, and then I replant,” he said.

All the farm work is done by local operators, who use minimum till to plant crops.

His next plan is to establish cover crops on all cropland to prevent erosion, build soil structure and sequester nutrients.

He hires a student from the University of Guelph to work as farm manager every summer.

Many of his properties include rivers, woodlots and wetlands, which were settled more than 100 years ago.

Some were neglected over the years so he has introduced crop rotations and added more organic matter to restore the property.

Kotzeff also planted legume seed to improve pasture quality.

He did so by frost seeding with an all-terrain vehicle mounted spreader and by adding it to the fertilizer and in the mineral supplement so the cattle can spread seeds in their manure.

His environmental farm plan helped cover the costs of fencing and delivering water to the cattle.

He installed an aeration windmill on one of his properties and another one to pump water from a nearby pond he built to catch runoff. The water goes to a large storage tank and flows by gravity in pipelines to the troughs.

Keeping animals of the streams avoids contaminating them with manure and mud. A steady supply of fresh water also improves cattle health.

Mineral feeders are close to the watering sites. They offer a high selenium trace mineral salt in loose form for animal health.

The mix includes an ionophore to control coccidiosis as well as trefoil and clover seed to spread. The trace mineral includes only the amount of phosphorus the cattle need, to prevent them from spreading it into the environment.

Kotzeff advocates common sense and better husbandry rather than treating every problem with medication.

He usually buys lighter weight cattle from auctions and starts them on hay in sheltered pasture areas to familiarize them to the feed and the new group.

Offering animals good feed in a clean environment keeps their health issues to a minimum.

All animals are weighed when they are bought and when they come off grass.

Their individual performance is tracked by attaching information to their Canadian Cattle Identification Agency radio frequency identification tags.

At the end of the grazing season, the cattle are moved to PKW Feedyard, a 2,000 head feedlot Kotzeff owns with two partners.

The cattle are confined in pens of 50 on slatted floors in a covered building. They are on feed for 120 to 180 days.

The region can get about 900 millimetres of precipitation a year, so mud is a major problem. Enclosing the cattle indoors helps control the mud problem as opposed to having them live in the open like a prairie style feedlot.

Another innovation was taking advantage of a local fixture: old stone fences.

They were built by the first settlers, who cleared the land of bush and trees and then moved the large rocks left over from the last ice age into fence lines.

Kotzeff has fenced these off for wildlife corridors.

The national winner of the environmental stewardship award will be selected this summer at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s annual convention in Prince Edward Island.

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