Issues like lack of accessibly priced land led Manitoba Young Farmers to contemplate how to do more with less during the groups’ online conference on March 4.
Speakers like Farmery Estate Brewery’s Lawrence Warwaruk, Arron Nerbas of Nerbas Bros. Angus and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote of Black Fox Farm and Distillery shared their stories of adding value to their farms without making them larger (and in some cases, by making them smaller).
Black Fox Farm and Distillery
Stefanyshyn-Cote and husband John, now owners of an award-winning distillery near Saskatoon, Sask., began as conventional farmers. They raised crops on 5,000 acres and Stefanyshyn-Cote ran a livestock nutrition consulting business.
In 2010, they were ready to make a change. They felt they needed to expand to compete, but there was no land to buy or rent. Their children weren’t interested in taking over the farm. So they sold the farm, Stefanyshyn-Cote said.
Instead, they bought 80 acres 13 minutes from downtown Saskatoon with intentions to grow fruit and vegetables and to start a winery.
The first year they grew corn. “Everyone likes corn, and John and I are smart farmers,” she said. “Except we’re not very good at marketing.”
They had nowhere to sell the corn and ended up donating an acre of corn to a food bank.
The next year, they grew five acres of corn — ignorant of the types of pests that prey on it.
“We didn’t know about corn borer, and we got hammered,” said Stefanyshyn-Cote. “And decided that vegetables suck.”
They transitioned through flowers (which they still grow as a U-pick), pumpkins, and fruits for the planned winery.
Early on, they realized wine was a bad idea. They knew nothing about fruit, but “we knew grain,” she said. In 2015, the distillery was complete and they began producing vodka and “ultra-premium” whisky, gin and liquors.
“You’re always going to fail. Always, always, always,” said Stefanyshyn-Cote. “Even when you build your business plan.”
If you’ve never made a business plan, you don’t know how to make one, she said. Internet research and reaching out to others in your desired industry can go a long way.
“Every business plan that you make, you will be less wrong,” she said.
Nerbas Bros. Angus
Farmers don’t need to gauge success based on the acres of the farm or the number of animals they raise, Arron Nerbas told his online audience.
Nerbas, who farms with his brother near Russell, has a 600-head cow-calf operation on about 5,500 acres, he said. They also sell bulls and replacement heifers and direct market beef. The farm supports three families (including his parents).
“We’ve made a conscious business decision to not expand and to be more efficient with what we have and then look for value-added opportunities within our system,” he said.
They’ve also kept their machinery simple — Nerbas estimated the entire worth of the machinery was less than $250,000. They have no haying equipment (except for a well-used baler), or silage equipment.
“We really use our cows to be our equipment and our labourers or employees,” Nerbas said.
They use an adaptive multi-paddock grazing, or rotational grazing, system. This means that their cattle are never on more than five per cent of their grazing land at a time, allowing the other 95 per cent to recover.
This has at least doubled the forage their land produces, said Nerbas, which, he said, essentially doubles their grazing land for free.
If they can extend their grazing two weeks and winter feed less, he said, the cost savings on feed could make up for fewer cows.
Nerbas said they want to keep the same acres while, possibly, reducing cow numbers — translating to more profit with less labour.
They’ve also used a bale-grazing system for over 15 years which Nerbas said was one of the practices that made the most difference.
They buy most of their hay, which they can often have delivered to where they’ll set up grazing ‘pods’ — grids of round bales on a fenced section of land. This is a cost and labour savings, said Nerbas, as they don’t start their tractor all winter.
The cattle are healthy and content in the pods, said Nerbas. They don’t have to compete for food.
The foremost benefit is that this improves the land — they’ll see up to five times the forage growth on those sites, peaking within two or three years but lasting up to 15 years, said Nerbas. They set up the pods on land they want to improve.