Family thinks big when expanding feedlot

MOUNT CARMEL, Ont. — Expanding their southern Ontario farm became a case of go big or go home for the Van Osch family.

Gerald and Fred Van Osch, who are third generation farmers descended from Dutch immigrants, evaluated their 600 acres of cropland and 900 head of cattle and decided to go big.

“We decided in 1995 we either had to get out of the beef business or expand,” Gerald told a tour group of Canadian beef producers.

Now Gerald with his sons, Kurtis, Jaron and Fred, along with Fred’s son, Brendon, farm about 10,000 acres and feed about 8,000 head of beef cattle on five locations around Mount Carmel, Ont. They employ an additional 12 people.

To start the expansion, they tore down aging facilities and embarked on a renovation project with outdoor feedlot pens that back into barns for shelter. They added silos and manure storage systems.

Most recently, they installed a major barn rooftop solar energy operation to cover 80,000 sq. feet. The system produces 250 kilowatts on one building and 175 kilowatts of electricity on another.

They grow 3,500 acres of corn, soybeans and edible beans, as well as hay, wheat and barley. Last year their corn averaged 208 bushels per acre.

They put up 10,000 to 15,000 bales of straw and store it indoors.

The pens are straw-bedded and are cleaned out each week.

There is enough manure storage for a year and every August it is spread on fields for added fertilizer.

They are certified Ontario Cornfed Producers, a program that requires the cattle receive 80 percent of the diet from corn and has a list of specifications for animal care and record keeping.

They have their own feed mill and offer a diet of high moisture corn as well as silage, hay and gluten. They make their own premix for feed measuring out minerals, salt and additional grains on the farm.

“We are a major buyer of byproducts,” said Gerald.

They haul corn to a local ethanol plant and bring back distillers grain and gluten.

The biggest change, however, was hiring Feedlot Health Management Services from Okotoks, Alta.

The company provides feedlot veterinarians, nutritionists and other advisers, who can monitor the cattle from thousands of miles away via computer.

Gerald’s son Kurtis manages nutrition and herd health by working with Feedlot Health.

“The first thing we did was upgrade our feeding program to be all automated. Before that, we were pretty well all pen and paper on our mix,” Kurtis said.

They have 350 to 400 head in the pens. The cattle can go outside, but the pens are attached to barns so they can go in during wet or overly hot weather. The barns are all connected wirelessly and electronic ear tags track each steer.

Feedlot Health is able to remotely monitor the use of hormone implants, antibiotics, body temperature and feed intake.

If body temperatures are elevated, the computer alerts them and that steer can be singled out for possible treatment.

Cattle are weighed every 90 days. The computer system can sort the cattle by weight and tell them if they need another implant or not.

“Doing that takes a lot of stress off us because the computer is able to tell, and we are able to go through and schedule when we have got to process the cattle or if there are any sick ones,” Kurtis said.

“It makes us more efficient.”

The system tracks withdrawal dates of medication so they know when cattle can be shipped.

The cattle are fed twice a day and bunks are scored from zero to four. Zero means it has been licked clean while four is full. This helps them with feed delivery to each pen.

Their target weight is a gain of 3.3 to 3.5 pounds per day for market weight of more than 1,500 lb.

Most of their cattle are sourced in Western Canada. In recent years Ontario-fed cattle have traded below Alberta. This makes it hard to stay competitive because of the cost of the cattle and transportation to go East.

“A lot of times we have been flat with the West or even 10 cents minus and it costs us over 10 cents to get the cattle here. We have been putting pressure on the packer that we have to keep that basis here for us to stay alive,” said Gerald.

This summer, they brought in two pens of feeder cattle from North Carolina. They weighed 750 lb. and performance will be monitored.

These cattle will not leave this feedlot according to federal regulations and will go direct to slaughter at Cargill Meats in Guelph.

All their cattle are sold on a formula rather than the cash market. The plan is to market them in the off season to earn a better premium.

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