On the Farm: Cattle managed to work with environment; purebreds calve early but commercials calve on grass
BOWDEN, Alta. — When Randy and Sandra Radau drive down the back roads inspecting this year’s crops, they heave a sigh of relief.
There will be a hay crop and their grains and oilseeds are slowly emerging after a dry spring at their central Alberta farm. The pastures in the coulees have enough grass and water is flowing from nearby springs.
A lot of that is due to good management. The Radaus’ Coulee Crest Herefords was recognized as Alberta Beef Producers’ 2019 environmental stewardship award winner.
The farm has been in the Radau family since 1927 and has grown to 1,500 acres of crops and 2,000 acres of pasture and hayland. There are 200 purebred Herefords and 160 commercial cows.
“The two complement each other,” said Randy.
“We are the classic mixed farm so I was surprised when we won,” he said.
His grandfather bought this farm in 1927 and the family added purebred Herefords in 1944. This year, they are celebrating 75 years in the business.
Randy and Sandra met when they were working in downtown Calgary in the 1980s.
Sandra came from an acreage at Langley, B.C., and moved to Calgary in the 1980s looking for work. She met Randy when she worked for an accounting firm and he was hired to work on managing farms that had gone bankrupt in the hardship years of the 1980s when interest rates soared and oil and commodity prices collapsed.
“If we had worked on different floors we never would have met,” said Sandra, who continues to do the farm accounts.
Randy had graduated from the University of Alberta with an agriculture degree and the plan was to return to the family farm near Bowden. It was a bit of a culture shock for Sandra.
“I like the country. Living in the city was all right but I prefer looking out and seeing the country. I just didn’t have a grasp of the expenses,” she admitted.
The first fertilizer bill she paid was more than she had made on an accountant’s salary for a year. She also learned farming is a full-time job and they fit time off between seeding, calving, haying and harvest.
They have two daughters. Miranda has a degree in biology and lives in Olds, Alta., with her family but helps on the farm. Colette has a degree in theatre and works in the Toronto arts scene.
Their son, Luke, just completed his agriculture degree from the University of Lethbridge and is poised to take over. He had shown an interest early on so the family started to expand the cow herd and buy more land.
Randy’s father, Frank, is 90 and still involved in the farm on a limited basis.
“There will be three generations of us and that is fun,” he said.
Expansion is difficult in this area with high land prices because of the location between Calgary and Red Deer.
“Land we bought for $100,000 a quarter is now $700,000,” he said.
“We were willing to take the risk to buy, but at the time we wondered how we were going to pay for this. Now we think we should have bought more,” said Sandra.
It has not always been smooth sailing.
Coulee Crest Herefords hosted a production sale for 15 years and probably half their bulls were exported to the United States. BSE and border closures in 2003 forced changes. They sold beef privately and saw their income reduced to about a third of what it was and recovery was slow, said Sandra.
Today, they sell 35 to 40 range bulls off the farm each year to repeat and new customers.
“We have always had purebreds. During the BSE years, the bottom-end cows weren’t worth anything so I was able to rent more pasture and we expanded into commercials,” he said.
They carried on because both are optimists.
They have sold semen and cattle around the world. This year they sold 50 heifers to Mexico where a new purebred Hereford herd is being established.
They have seen renewed interest in their cattle because in the last five years more people are looking for crossbred possibilities to improve hybrid vigour. However, the number of purebred producers is unlikely to grow because it requires more work to raise them and keep records.
Change is inevitable and when they took over the farm they had new ideas and are encouraging Luke to do the same.
They were timothy hay growers for 15 years, sending the bales to Olds or Lethbridge. They have tried different crops but in an area with a short frost-free season barley, wheat, canola, oats and hay grow best. They tried grazing corn but abandoned it because it only succeeded one year in three. However, this year Randy is considering polycropping for grazing to see how that system might improve the soil.
It is a high snowfall area and they receive 300 to 400 millimetres of rain each year. Last year they were hit by high temperatures in the mid 30s and got about 100 mm of rain. So far this year they have had more than 75 mm and they can already see the crops and hayland making a turnaround.
Continuous improvement is always on their minds.
They practice rotational grazing on tame and native grasslands. Part of the property is carved by a 90 metre deep coulee left behind by the glaciers. There are year round springs that were developed 70 years ago and good grass. The crops are on the uplands.
Most of the grazing is done in Spruce Coulee, which was designated an environmentally significant area by Red Deer County. They also started an ALUS project, which involves using sustainable management practices, and are involved with the environmental group Cows and Fish to assess wetland health.
They also joined with Ducks Unlimited to restore a wetland. It was a mucky little duck pond that dried up and was covered with weeds every year. An engineered berm and a few other improvements turned it into a 30-acre wetland that provides some limited grazing and plenty of fresh water as well as aesthetic value.
The cattle are managed strategically to work with the environment. The purebreds calve early in the season but the commercial cows calve in late May and June on grass.
The cattle graze bales, stubble and chaff after harvest. Manure is composted and spread on the crops while the cows also do their fair share of transporting nutrients around the fields in winter.
“With a combination of good environment and good genetics they look after themselves,” he said.
Life for the couple reaches beyond the farm.
Randy is a past-president of the Canadian Hereford Association. He sat on the board for eight years and was involved in planning the World Hereford Conference when it was held in Canada. Next year, they hope to travel to the world conference in New Zealand to renew old acquaintances and see different ranches.
“We have hosted people from around the world so we can go back and see some of their operations,” he said.
While they like the visiting and camaraderie of the purebred business, they are land managers and beef producers first.
“There are benefits to the environment from beef production,” said Sandra.
Added Randy: “I would like to send out a positive message about beef production that we are not hard on the land or the animals.”