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Hobby morphs into niche breed of grass-fed cattle

BRANDON —­ Of all the possible activities in the world from skeet shooting to fly fishing, few people would rank digging as their favourite pastime.

Brian Harper seems genuinely happy with a shovel in hand. He’s even happier when he’s digging a hole and inspecting a sample of soil on his ranch north of Brandon.

On a smoky day in September, Harper grabbed a big chunk of freshly dug soil and began talking about it.

He pointed to wormholes, talked about its texture and softness and then brought it to his nose for a sniff. For the sake of comedy, he then pretended to take a bite from a nugget of soil.

It’s obvious soil is a big part of his life.

However, Harper’s keen interest in soil is a relatively new passion.

He was raised on a dairy farm near Boissevain, Man., but at an early age he realized that waking up at 5 a.m. to milk cows was not his thing.

“When I grew up, I knew I didn’t want to have a dairy farm,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table as semi-trailer trucks rolled down the Trans-Canada Highway.

Instead, in the 1980s, Harper moved to Brandon and took a job in construction, working on roads, sewers and water infrastructure.

In 1990, Harper and his wife, Sonja, bought land and started a hobby farm with a small number of beef cattle.

He continued to work in construction and with the local municipality for about a decade but found running the expanding farm while also working a full-time job was unmanageable.

Harper decided to focus on raising cattle full time.

Seventeen years later, Brian and Sonja now operate Circle H Farms, where they raise about 90 cows and specialize in grass-fed beef on 800 acres of forage land.

Sonja has an off-farm job in health care, but when not at work, she’s involved in the farm. She has a flock of laying hens and keeps pasture-raised poultry for meat.

The Harpers have two children, who are now young adults, Thomas and Kristelle. Thomas isn’t passionate about farming but he does help out when needed. He has a teaching degree and works at a medical clinic.

Kristelle expresses more enthusiasm about agriculture. She is employed at the Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives, a research farm in the Brandon area.

In addition to cattle and chickens, the Harpers also sell cattle genetics.

They raise mostly Shaver Beef Blend cattle, a composite beef breed developed from nine purebred lines. Shaver Beef Blend was developed in Ontario about 50 years ago and the Harpers may be the only ranchers in North America who still raise the composite breed.

Leaning against his pickup, Harper said they bought their first Shaver Beef Blend cattle in 1994. They chose the breed because their farm is smaller and they wanted to stand out in the market.

Their decision to raise grass-fed beef was more about the bottom line.

After 2003, when BSE appeared in Western Canada, the Harpers and hundreds of other cattle producers had to adapt.

“In 2005, we quit feeding grain,” Harper said. “It was a decision to cut costs.”

To maintain the cattle’s rate of gain and overall performance, without grain, Harper initially looked for energy-rich forages.

That strategy didn’t work out, but he found an answer in Bismarck, North Dakota.

He attended soil health conferences in Bismarck and was inspired by the experiences of Gabe Brown and other innovators, who were promoting the benefits of cover crops and soil health.

It became clear to Harper that soil, not energy rich forage species, is the foundation for raising cattle on grass.

“(It’s) the health of the soil where the energy (is) coming from.”

With the goal of improving soil health and overall productivity, the Harpers have adopted high density, rotational grazing, where a relatively large number of cattle are kept on a small patch of pasture for a short period of time.

“By using rotational grazing, we feed the soil by cycling the nutrients through the cows back to feed the microbiology of the soil, which in turn grows the grass we harvest,” states the Harpers’ website for their farm.

Harper includes a diverse mixture of forage species, like red clover, sunflowers and hairy vetch, as part of the effort to boost soil health.

Out in the pasture and working his bent shovel, Harper dug yet another hole beneath some of those forage species to get a closer look at the soil.

He began talking about micro-organisms and other forms in life in the soil, such as earthworms, which are signs of improved soil health.

“(When) the soil life comes back, it produces even more (forage).”

Sonja has also embraced the goal of healthier soil.

She especially likes the idea that sustainable practices can improve the quality of food produced on their farm.

“I’ve always loved when I can come in and make supper and every bit of the meal that I’ve made, has been grown by us,” she said.

“I would like to produce food that I would like to eat. The healthier it can be… is what my goal is.”

The Harpers sell some of their grass-fed beef directly to consumers but most of their cattle are marketed into the conventional system.

Harper is considering building their brand and selling more beef to consumers in Brandon. In the meantime, he’s concentrating on doing more with less, producing the maximum amount of quality beef at the lowest possible cost.

“My slogan now is there’s more money to be made cutting costs than there is in increasing production.”

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