Why do it Different?
Unless this is the first Green Beach Blog you have read, I imagine you have gathered that our farm does not look like most other 21st century Canadian farms. We do things a little differently – prioritizing agroecosystem health rather than strictly focusing on high levels of production (yield of grain, pounds of calf weaned). Although these are the core differences, there are many small differences that you would see if you ever came for a tour at the Green Beach – different breeds of cattle than most beef producers, pigs & chickens outdoors for much or all of the year, a diversity of plants in our pastures & cropped acres, and many more. Believe it or not, there are reasons that we have changed the way we farm over the last 10-15 years. Here is a quick look at why we have altered our practices at the Green Beach, what new practices we currently employ, and how the changes have affected our business.
So why do it different? Well, the simple answer is money. Even with large numbers of cattle, we found that running a cow-calf operation ‘by-the-book’ is not a very profitable endeavour in Manitoba. Calving in the dead of winter is labour intensive & takes huge amounts of feed to keep livestock happy & healthy. Checking for newborn calves every couple of hours for 2 months doesn’t exactly facilitate a good work-life balance. Or, in my parent’s case, make it very easy to go to kids hockey games and school functions. We may love our jobs as farmers, but we still need to be able to take time off without the wheels falling off the farming operation. The story on the grain side of our operation is much the same – margins in commodity grain production are very narrow with significant annual operating costs often requiring large amounts of short-term debt. Who wants hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt hanging over their head annually if they can avoid it? So when we decided to pursue grain production, it was with a Regenerative mindset under organic certification. The latest evolution of our farm has been gradual, but consistently in the pursuit of reducing workload while improving profitability. I believe improved profitability on the farm is paramount to reducing workload or maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
After a number of years of trying to farm like the ‘experts’ had told us, we began to stray from the path. The first big change was moving our calving date to warmer weather – April instead of February. This meant we were selling smaller calves come fall, but it did not mean we were making less money. In fact, we were able to make more money because the labour component of calving dropped to nearly zero! Although not realized until many years later, moving our calving date also meant we could support more cows on the same number of acres because their feed requirements are much lower. This has again added to profitability. Another change made early on was selling of beef directly off the farm, providing cashflow at times of the year other than fall when we would sell our calf crop.
As we got braver, the changes we were willing to make or new practices we were willing to trial seemed to get ‘crazier’. We started resting pasture for entire growing seasons, having the cows return in early winter to dig through the snow for feed – sometimes well over a foot of snow. Cows are now moved every day, or sometimes multiple times per day. Many years ago they would have been moved once every week or every other week. On the extreme end of our changes, we completely eliminated fertilizer use, then moved to an organic certification on the grain acres, and are now trying to figure out how to eliminate tillage entirely from our organic grain production. Some days it seems we are on a mission to find the wildest new practices we can find, and implement them on our farm and eagerly await the results – good, bad or indifferent. As a result of these changes to our farming practices, our beef production, pork production, poultry production & grain production bare very little resemblance to many other western Canadian farms producing the same products.
So how have these changes affected our business? I feel the most important effect is that it has kept farming fun – we truly enjoy going to work every day because we are learning new things & discovering new things about our farm. Previously, I made mention of money – many of our new practices have led to reduced production costs, allowing us to hire an employee with money saved & take some time off in summer. However, perhaps the most profound effect is that on the land itself. Cutting out inputs such as fertilizer, moving our calving dates and an overall desire to reduce workload has begun to improve the health of our agroecosystem. At the Green Beach, our pastures are producing more forage than ever before, sloughs & wetlands that were more akin to mud holes now have well established permanent vegetation around them, including new groves of trees in some cases that will provide crucial windbreak for cows grazing pasture in winter time. Insects, grassland birds (some at-risk species), and other wildlife are everywhere on our farm and seem to be thriving along with our farm business. It is ironic now to think that the consensus in agriculture and perhaps society at large, is that we cannot take care of the land or environment, and still make money – that environmental stewardship is not a profitable endeavour. We have found this to be absolute nonsense – prioritizing soil & ecosystem health will lead to improved profitability. Needless to say we are happy with the direction our farm is headed, and are more motivated than ever to trial new practices in order to further improve farm profitability and agroecosystem health, as there is no doubt in our minds at Green Beach Farm & Food that environmental health & economic health of a farm business go hand-in-hand.