Couple knows way to success can be painful

Erin and Dan Howell took Hi Low Angus in a direct marketing direction 10 years ago and say listening to customers made them better cattle producers.  |  Karen Briere photo

LUMSDEN, Sask. — Dan and Erin Howell will calve out 170 purebred Black Angus cows this spring.

That might not be so remarkable, except the cattle business wasn’t always so kind.

Dan understands completely how producers recently affected by bovine tuberculosis feel because his family went through a similar experience.

His parents, Robert and Marg, started Hi Low as a dairy in 1952 and switched to a small commercial beef herd in the mid-1970s.

The farm’s name was chosen because it is located in and atop the Qu’Appelle Valley west of Lumsden.

But in 1978, the discovery of two positive brucellosis tests in the area, one on the Howell farm, re-sulted in the slaughter of their entire herd.

The federal agriculture department allowed them to resume business in 1980, and the rebuilding began with a small herd of purebred Angus cows and heifers. The name carried on as Hi Low Angus.

The usual frustrations of farming and ranching, such as $2 wheat and bad weather, didn’t deter Dan, the youngest of four children, from joining the operation.

“We were perking along pretty good, and then BSE,” he said of the 2003 discovery that shook the beef industry.

He recalled taking a five-year-old open cow to market in 2006 and receiving 22 cents a pound.

“I was whipped, and my family was extremely frustrated,” he said.

“What do you do? Do you adapt to a lousy situation or do you let the business die?”

The answer came at a local trade show, where the Howells booked a table, took some ground beef, teriyaki jerky and beef sausage and set up a sample station.

“We sold out before the day was done,” Dan said.

They had previously sold some quarters and halves to friends and family, but this was entirely different. Dan said he isn’t a risk-taker, and he dragged his feet on the idea of direct marketing beef and value-added products.

But one day Erin came home with tables and his brother-in-law showed up with a small trailer, and with that small investment of about $7,000, they went to the Regina Farmers Market.

Since 2008, customers have flocked to the booth, where they sell frozen products.

“There are so many people that are not ever going to buy a quarter of a beef, or half a beef, but they do want farm-raised beef every week, every other week, once a month, and there’s no place to source it.”

Dan also said it’s better to add value to cattle that might not earn top dollar at auction but still taste good.

Erin and their daughter, Cassidy, who attends the University of Regina, help out at the markets.

Erin, who was raised on a pedigreed seed farm near Pense, Sask., is a strategic management professional and coach who operates her own company, Erin Campbell Howell Consulting Inc.

She helps people make changes, leads workshops and conferences and occasionally hosts small groups at their farm home, where people can get outside.

“My purpose is to inspire transformation from the inside out,” she said. “People are seeking something more than just the day-to-day routine that they have.”

The routine on Hi Low has certainly changed since they began attending markets. Each market day requires a full day of preparation, and Dan has discovered his attendance is required.

Young children know him as Farmer Dan, and he said customers want interaction with the person who produced their food.

They really do care that their beef had a good quality of life before it ends up on their dinner tables, he said.

Dan has responded by moving to silent weaners to cut down on stress and said he has seen the difference.

His value-added products are gluten-free to serve that growing market.

“I think I’m a better cattle person because I listen to the customer,” he said.

The Howells have 3,600 acres of grazing and cultivated land on which they grow cash crops and feed, so extra help, largely from family, has been needed.

Dan said they are proud to be small farmers who can also give back. They have hosted tours and donate to Regina organizations such as Chili for Children, Carmichael Outreach, Soul’s Harbour and women’s shelters.

They have donated to the food bank and recently donated 50 lb. of ground beef to the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association’s beef drive.

Direct marketing has insulated them from fluctuations in the market, although margins shift de-pending on prices. The margin was pretty slim when prices were higher, but Dan said he couldn’t abandon his customers and held his price.

They use three provincially inspected abattoirs for their products, rent a small freezer space in Regina and have seven freezers of on-farm storage to meet demand.

January through March is a bit slower because there are no farmers markets.

However, they are busy with the purebred operation, selling bulls online at the end of March and consigning to the Triple A Angus live auction in Moose Jaw, Sask.

They also see challenges ahead.

A country residential development is being established across the road from the farm. Dan has registered as an intensive livestock operation so that he can increase the herd up to 500 if he chooses, and he wonders if every piece of valley requires a house.

Drainage is also a recurring problem.

The low-lying land in the valley floods often, including twice last year. Oats were finally planted July 1 and crop that was swathed just before the Thanksgiving snowstorm is now being swath grazed. Dan sees the increasing amount of water as a worrisome trend.

However, good can come from adversity, as the Howells can attest. What they thought would be a short-term venture to get through the BSE crisis is now a way of life.

“My passion for beef is being fueled by my customers,” Dan said.

“Direct marketing of beef is a good fit for me and my family, so we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing.”

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