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A ‘farm-her’ comes home to the family farm

Janelle Gulka is one of a growing number of young female farmers taking a leading role on her family's operation

It’s hard to miss the line of white faces underneath the sign, “Twin View Polled Herefords.”

The farm’s stall takes up a full row of the Hereford section at Ag Ex 2019, set up in one of the main barns of Brandon’s Keystone Centre and now a hive of activity as the fair’s registered cattle show agenda turned to the Hereford breed.

Janelle Gulka, one of the main faces behind the registered Hereford operation near Strathclair, is caught up in the activity as her team clips, brushes, blow-dries and generally prepares each animal for competition.

Why it matters: Janelle Gulka is looking to add a third generation to her family’s farm near Strathclair, and for her, it’s all about the Herefords.

Gulka is one of a growing number of farm daughters to take a leading role in the family farm as an adult, and her enthusiasm for her animals is infectious.

“It’s kind of a little bit of an addiction, I guess,” she said after the show, laughing. “I can’t lie. I’m just so excited about calving, and that’s January, the end of January/February.”

“The coldest months of the year and it shouldn’t be that fun,” her husband, Ken Gulka chimed in.

“But I can’t wait to see how the calves from last year grew up,” she said.

Janelle Gulka is the third generation to farm the tract of land near Strathclair. Her paternal grandfather took over operation of the land in 1941, although the farm’s interest in Herefords wouldn’t emerge until 1972, when her parents, Ernie and Marge McDonald, bought the farm from Ernie’s father.

Janelle Gulka (second from left) is among the next generation of young farmers taking over family farm operations, along with her husband, Ken (far left). Her parents, Marge and Ernie McDonald (third and fourth from left) took over the registered Hereford operation near Strathclair, from Ernie’s parents.
photo: Alexis Stockford

At the time, the farm spanned only a quarter section, a land base the McDonalds expanded over the next 40 years. Today, the family calves out 185 cows and farms 23 quarters, including 1,200 acres of grain, and eight quarters of rented land.

The farm eventually took on the moniker “Twin View,” inspired by Gulka’s twin brothers — although neither are currently involved with the farm.

Bringing in the purebreds

Ernie and Marge McDonald broke into the Hereford business with a single breeding pair soon after purchasing the farm itself.

“I always wanted them, ever since I was about six years old. I always wanted Hereford cattle,” Ernie McDonald said, pointing to the breed’s distinctive colouring.

That is not to say, however, that the McDonalds’ transition to the Hereford industry was totally smooth. One of the first heifers meant to jump-start their breeding program ended up so wild that she was sold after only a few weeks, the couple recalled.

Ernie soon reached out to other breeders and the official Hereford associations for advice and spent six weeks each spring following a local vet in order to get a better handle. He soon developed his own list of production practices and desired herd traits that would follow him for the rest of his breeding career, and would later be passed down to his daughter.

“A cow should come into the ring looking feminine, because she’s supposed to look feminine and have a nice udder, and the bulls are supposed to look like a bull,” Marge McDonald said, recalling one such nugget of wisdom.

The team from Twin View Polled Herefords near Strathclair gets the cattle ready for the ring during Ag Ex 2019 in Brandon.
photo: Alexis Stockford

Perfect udders, good feet and “longevity in the breeding program,” top the farm’s top traits, Ernie McDonald said.

Gulka still holds to those pearls of wisdom.

“You learn from your mistakes a lot too,” Ken Gulka also added. “Trial and error goes a long way.”

A farm-her

Like many growing up in rural Manitoba, Janelle Gulka joined 4-H, but she also joined the Junior Canadian Here­ford Association and local provincial association. She eventually took a stint as Manitoba Hereford Association Hereford Queen, working to promote the breed.

Her return to the family farm as an adult, however, was not always a sure thing.

Agriculture did not feature in her university education. Instead, she was drawn to North Dakota’s Mayville State University on a volleyball scholarship and earned degrees in business administration and computer programming. She eventually returned to Canada, but settled in Alberta where she met her husband.

Janelle married Ken, also a farm boy out of a small mixed farm in Saskatchewan, in 2004 after he had moved to Alberta to work in the oilfields.

Even living two provinces away and removed from agriculture however, Gulka’s passion for cattle was already laying the foundation for her return to the farm.

“I got away from it, and then I would come home in the summer to help on the farm when my husband was away working, and I just started getting attached to them,” Gulka said. “So then I started buying them and sending them home for dad to take care of.”

The couple eventually relocated back to Manitoba to farm full time with Twin View Polled Herefords, although the return came with one condition.

Before Janelle Gulka agreed to come back to her family farm, she wanted a horse.

“I said to my father, I wasn’t moving back to the farm unless I got a horse, and he said, ‘I don’t care what you do, as long as you come back,’” she recalled.

In 2011, Janelle and Ken took up residence on the farm itself, a mile and a half away from her parents’ house.

Building on success

Today, Janelle Gulka juggles a full-time job as a website designer with much of the day-to-day cattle management, while her husband handles much of the grain side of the business and machine maintenance. Calving requires more all hands on deck. Her father is still on hand to check fence and pasture, do maintenance jobs and helps promote the farm’s cattle, while Marge McDonald has stepped back from her role as a calving assistant since her daughter and son-in-law have returned to the farm, but still does the farm’s bookkeeping.

The farm has also done AI since the Gulkas moved in, the family says, something Ernie and Marge McDonald tried in past decades, but eventually let slide due to time constraints. Their daughter has turned to the practice to introduce new genetics to the herd.

Working with cattle after a day of website construction is the relief, not the stressor, in her juggled schedule, Janelle says. Her job is, “very stressful,” she said, “but I can walk out to the barn or drive the crappy old truck out to the pasture and sit there for hours.”

The farm’s breeding program has had its successes, both under her father’s tenure and now her own. The family is not a “show family,” Gulka said, with the exception of Ag Ex. Still, the farm has produced two Grand Champion bulls and one Reserve Champion bull at Ag Ex and earned a class win with a heifer calf during the national Hereford show in 2014 at Regina’s Canadian Western Agribition.

“That was big for me, because we never thought that we deserved to be there, but we did,” she said.

One of those Grand Champion bulls had genetics drawn and sold to Chile, Australia and Argentina and represented Canada during the World Hereford Conference in Spain in 1988.

The farm also does not sell in bull sales, but does brisk business in two-year-old bulls sold straight off the farm and has sold cattle throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as business in New Brunswick, Ontario and B.C.

“We’ve made some great relationships with people who have bought bulls from us,” Marge McDonald said, pointing to the many repeat customers who buy their bulls.

“We’ve a couple of (cows) for $7,000, but we sold one for $11,000,” she later added.

Those relationships are critical to the farm’s business plan, much more than bull sales or cattle shows, she said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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