Laura and Ryan Plett know all about building something from nothing.
Their farm, tucked into the bush near Stead, on the southeastern tip of Lake Winnipeg, is largely forested. Pasture expansions mean pushing farther into the bush. Grazing is marginal. The Pletts’ herds, now hundreds of head strong and combining cattle and sheep, was grown from scratch rather than inherited or taken over, and continues to expand, despite the challenges of farming in the area.
“We’re not on sprawling wide-open grass,” Laura Plett said. “Anything that’s sprawling and wide open has crops on it around here, so we are in the bush. Our pastures, there’s a lot of trees — and not just poplar trees. We’re grazing some pretty heavy timber stuff and just trying to find ways to get the most out of that very marginal land has been a challenge.”
The Pletts started Sawmill Creek Livestock from scratch while juggling careers as hunting and fishing guides.
Neither of the Pletts had much in the way of livestock ownership experience prior to starting Sawmill Creek Livestock, so named for the sawmill, run by Laura Plett’s grandfather, that once stood on the couple’s yard site.
She grew up mainly with crops, and her parents still manage the family’s nearby grain operation. However, her resumé after high school is padded with livestock-centric ranch jobs ranging through the rest of Western Canada and as far away as Australia. Her husband Ryan, likewise, grew up near Wawanesa, working on neighbouring farms.
In 2014, after moving back to her hometown, Plett bought her first 30 bred heifers, the seed of what is now Sawmill Creek Livestock.
The following years were a juggling act.
The Pletts have spent most of the time since that purchase as some of the over 44 per cent of Canadian farmers who also work off farm — emphasis on “off.”
Apart from the farm, the couple balanced full-time careers as hunting and fishing guides, a job that commonly took them out of province for weeks at a time.
“It was really hard,” Plett said. “We both guided in northern Saskatchewan, northern Manitoba, the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, so we were always a long ways from home. We did a lot of stuff in the winter that you would normally do in the summer and then we would take turns flying back to put up hay.”
In the summer, the act of doing business shifted to satellite phone or other remote long-distance communications technology. In the winter, the couple worked their feeding system around trade show trips.
The breakthrough came when the couple got their animals onto a managed community pasture. For the first time, the Pletts were able to both grow their herd and see to their guiding careers with less worry for care of their cattle.
“My parents were a huge help as well,” Plett recalled. “We would keep a small number of cattle on pasture where we live now and then they would kind of keep an eye on them throughout the summer, but the majority of them would go to community pasture.”
The couple was now able to grow their herd according to how many more cattle they could put on the community pasture, eventually getting to the point that, two years ago, the couple decided to make the full-time switch to farming.
Since then, Plett joked, fencing has become the couple’s “full-time hobby,” given their aggressive growth.
The Pletts will feed over 200 cattle this winter, largely commercial Black Angus, although some Hereford bulls have also added into the farm’s genetics. New this past year, the couple also added sheep in an effort to use more of the species growing in their pastures. The farm will be lambing about 100 sheep next year, Plett said.
“Adding the sheep was a big thing for us, just because land hasn’t, certainly, been getting any cheaper. It’s hard to come by here, let alone other parts of the province,” she said.
The couple hopes housing sheep on the same grazing land as their cattle will help boost the amount of meat they harvest per acre, thus bolstering the productivity of their marginal land.
Guardian dogs have been another, necessary addition to the farm. Wolves are prevalent in the area, Plett noted, and predation losses are an ongoing concern for the new sheep herd.
Looking to the future
There is yet more fencing in the future for Sawmill Creek Livestock, according to Plett.
The couple plans to use both their sheep and cattle to, “improve the land as much as we can.”
“That would be, probably the main thing for us,” she said. “And just to continue growing. We’ve got a one-year-old boy now. So I guess the hope is to have enough of a farm when he’s old enough that we can give him a piece of it.”