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Putting the business out to pasture

ANOLA, Man. —The Bouws have been hit by all the crises and challenges of modern farming, but they’ve managed to stumble through each one and emerge with a better farm.

It’s been a never-ending process of figuring out what works for them as a growing family, what works on their land and what they like doing.

“As a longtime beef man, I feel like I’ve missed the boat,” said Herman, the family patriarch, about the farm’s ongoing beef cattle evolution.

His sons, Jonathan and Stefan, have recently led the farm into a pasture and grass-fed focus along with a purebred Angus herd that produces cows that do well on pasture.

“It’s odd for me, because you’d think ‘Father knows best,’ ” he said.

The Bouw family is bubbling over with new ideas, and that has helped them shift the nature of their farm a few times, but each time it has been toward a more stable economic base.

The Bouw farm, on the furthest eastern reach of the Prairies, was founded by Herman’s parents when they emigrated from Holland in 1957. They had produced milk and raised hogs in Europe in addition to buying and finishing feeder cattle.

In Canada, they stuck with hog farming and also operated a cattle feedlot, as well as producing some grain. The hog barn paid the bills in the early days.

The family now raises grass-fed beef cattle and purebred Angus. It liquidated its 300 ewe sheep herd this summer and no longer operates the cattle feedlot that was the core of the Bouw operation.

“It provides interest,” said Marilyn of why Jonathan and Stefan have relished getting into a specialized purebred herd.

Since regular cows designed to be fed grain and produce calves that end up in feedlots don’t do well on pasture- and hay-only diets and did not do well on the Bouw farm, the sons had to seek and incorporate genetics.

“These guys have enquiring minds, so it keeps them thinking about how to improve the genetics and what are their goals,” said Marilyn.

The Bouw herd is now a customized set of cows that thrive on pasture and their calves on grass diets.

The Bouw farm is supporting a lot of human beings, so business decisions are taken seriously and analytically. Both Jonathan and Stefan have four children each, all under 10 years old, so farming needs to provide a stable and secure source of revenue to support the multi-generational family.

That’s why they got out of sheep this year.

“It’s a commodity business,” said Stefan, who relishes analyzing the farm’s cash flow and profitability.

“We had years where we made good money, and years where we broke even or lost money.”

That didn’t make sense for the Bouws, who have been trying to find parts of agriculture that are profitable and have low financial risk, even if that requires embracing higher management forms of production.

Their transition out of winter calving occurred after the brutal 2013-14 winter, when calves lost ears and tails.

“This doesn’t work,” Jonathan said.

They switched to April-May calving, while converting their entire operation into pasture-raised.

They are active in the local grass-fed beef market while selling their purebred bulls coast-to-coast. Their cows are designed to work well for commercial operations that want a good mother that thrives on pasture.

Almost all their production changes have come from a challenge.

Herman recalls well the awful feelings around 2003, when BSE devastated the Canadian cattle business and when Herman’s father died.

“I was in such a flap,” he said.

“You just kind of keep doing what you’ve been doing because you don’t know any better.”

Herman, who had bought the farm from his father five years before, had already decided to transition into organic production, so the 2003 crisis made that happen much more easily.

Jonathan took on the onerous paperwork required for organic production, while in these years, Stefan grew his 4-H experiment in purebred cattle into a small herd that just kept growing.

Jonathan became a fan of grazing schools, where he learned about holistic management, and the whole family became obsessed with grass.

“The passion of all we do is turning to forages,” said Jonathan.

Marilyn has enjoyed seeing the farm morph and shift over the years, and she’s particularly happy with the holistic nature of the farm today. She’s an urbanite who married into farm living, but she’s got a keen feel for what the farm does to make a buck.

She’s even managed to use her skills as a one-time French immersion teacher when selling a bull to a farmer in Quebec.

“That was nerve-wracking because it’s a pretty important decision,” she said about the French conversation on technical cattle matters.

The Bouws seem to like getting educated. Herman got both an agriculture diploma and an agriculture degree, Jonathan got a non-agricultural degree and then an agriculture diploma and Stefan has an agriculture diploma.

They are continually analyzing their farming operations to understand what works and what doesn’t, what makes money and what loses money.

In the end, it all comes down to everyone in the family loving living on the land and managing grass and cattle and adapting to change to keep the farm viable.

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