Alberta custom graziers aim to always evolve

On the Farm: Amber and Steve Kenyon plan to never give up learning, even if it means moving elsewhere in the future

BUSBY, Alta. — One of Amber and Steve Kenyon’s missions is to never stop learning.

The couple has always looked to improve their custom grazing operation, Greener Pastures Ranching, by managing the soil, forage and through grazing concepts.

Steve said it’s important that the business remains profitable and sustainable for future generations.

“There is always something new to learn and new things to try,” Amber said, in a telephone interview from the Busby area. “Even with every herd that comes in, there is a new learning curve.”

Before launching the operation, Steve grew up on a mixed farm with his parents. When he was 13, however, they decided to retire and move away from the farm.

But Steve said he didn’t like living in a town or city, so he decided to return to farming. He had cattle at the time.

In 2001, however, he sold the herd. It was a couple years before the BSE crisis.

He said his plan was always to buy low and sell high. In 2001, he said he sold the herd because prices were at the top of the cycle.

But when drought and the crisis hit in 2003, he said there was more demand for grazing.

He launched a custom grazing operation that year, later expanding in the following years as more land became available.

“Demand went up and a lot of people quit the cow herd, a lot of small farmers just bailed because prices were gone,” he said. “That made a lot of land available, so I was able to expand in pastureland quite easily. I grew my business quite quickly.”

The business environment changed again around 2007, he said. The United States had opened the ethanol market, sparking more competition for land.

He said he lost some land at the time, but it’s how the cycles go.

As custom graziers, he and Amber operate only on leased land with other producers’ cattle.

They try to find separate pieces of land that can be joined together, making them into a larger pasture.

Steve said building relationships with landowners and other producers has been critical.

“If a grain farmer comes in and offers a landowner more money, and if there is no relationship built or no personal connection between me and that landowner, they can just give land to a grain farmer,” he said.

“I need to build those relationships.”

He said profitability is important. If the land doesn’t make him money, then there is no point in having it.

“You’ve got to make sure the numbers are there,” he said. “It’s not just trying to get a hold of every piece of land. You’ve got to make a profit at it.”

After Steve and Amber met, she began to work with him in about 2013.

It was a big learning curve, she said. She grew up in Vancouver and had no farm experience, but found she enjoyed the work.

“I have an innate love for learning and because of that, I did a lot of research,” she said. “Steve likes to use a lot of my Googling skills, so I did a lot of that to supplement what I was learning in practice on the farm.”

Amber said she might have come into the business with a slight advantage.

Because she didn’t grow up on a farm, she had no pre-conceived ideas of how things should be done.

“So many people in agriculture have been raised in it,” she said. “I think I had a little bit of a benefit coming in by not knowing anything, because I didn’t have any paradigms that needed to change.”

She said it was more difficult to learn about conventional practices, given their grazing operation follows regenerative practices.

“It was probably an easier transition than what most would have, if they were coming from a generational farm and trying to switch all their practices over,” Amber said. “I think that’s a lot more of a challenge than coming in with no previous paradigms.”

It took her a while to become more comfortable speaking with other producers about agriculture, Steve said.

It wasn’t until two government officials and two university professors had been quizzing her at a conference that she felt 100 percent confident.

“I always say she has a master’s degree in ag,” Steve said.

Along with the operation, Steve runs a day school for other producers looking to integrate regenerative grazing practices.

He never planned to offer courses; it was just something that happened. More people became interested in his work after he would speak at conferences.

“It grew from there and has become a unique side of the business,” he said.

Amber also works as an outreach officer with the Gateway Research Organization, an applied agricultural research association.

In the future, the couple plans on moving somewhere totally different.

Steve said they have no idea when they’ll move, but they want to show that their management practices can work and adapt in a different environment.

“We want to learn something new. You get stagnant doing the same thing over and over again,” he said.

Amber added: “You can’t create new paradigms if you continue to do the same thing.”

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