All in the family

Faces of Ag: The Riddell family of Pierson has been named the Manitoba Charolais Association Commercial Breeder of the Year

Greg (left) and Brenda (right) Riddell accept the sign marking R4 Ranch as the 2020 Manitoba Charolais Association Commercial Breeder of the Year.

Greg Riddell of R4 Ranch near Pierson remembers that his father kept cattle on a small scale.

So the decision to ramp up livestock operations was not totally novel after he and his wife, Brenda, took over the family farm in the late 1970s.

In the decades since, the fourth-generation farmer has expanded that foothold in the beef industry, with hopes that a fifth generation is well in the works. Since taking over the farm, the family’s small-scale cattle numbers have expanded into a solidly sized cow-calf herd. Over the years, they have experimented with different breeds and different management practices. New technology has been added to help meet increased feed demand. New family members have been added.

“The number of cattle has certainly increased, but the machinery that we use to put the feed out has changed too,” Greg Riddell said. “Originally it was square bales to now round bales and silage. It’s just more intense, I suspect would be the right word.”

Why it matters: The Riddell family is the latest to be honoured by the provincial Charolais association.

The bulk of that shift has taken place since 2000, he said, noting that the farm has, “kind of grown into it.”

Today, the farm runs about 7,500 acres of cropped land and 550 commercial cow-calf pairs, crossing Charolais and (mostly) Red Angus genetics. Calves are fed through winter to be marketed in spring.

Management has also changed over the years, a shift that Greg Riddell describes as more “in tune with nature.” Extended winter grazing, rotational grazing and fencing off of riparian areas on forage land — methods often touted by sustainability movements like regenerative agriculture — form key pieces of their system.

On a more personal level, the Riddell family itself has grown. The couple’s three sons — Daniel, David and Garrett — along with their families, have all returned to farm full time following stints working for the oil industry, while three grandchildren (aged 10 years, six years and one year) promise yet another generation of Riddells will grow up on the family farm.

“I guess they never really left the farm, but they always had off-farm jobs, and now they’re full time on the farm,” Greg Riddell said.

MCA nod

The farm’s efforts won them laurels from the Manitoba Charolais Association earlier this year. The Riddell family of R4 Ranch was named the latest commercial breeder of the year by the provincial organization.

“I guess we noticed they’ve had very good cattle,” association director Mervin Nykoliation said.

In particular, he noted, cattle from R4 Ranch have previously topped the competitive Virden auction barn for several years in a row. The association also noted that the farm well represents both white and red facets of the Charolais commercial herd.

“They were kind of a hidden secret,” Nykoliation said. “The cattle buyers knew about them, but they just (kept on) doing their job and doing an excellent job. We just kind of thought maybe it’s time they got recognized for a job well done in promoting the Charolais breed in the commercial end of it.”

Part of the award’s mandate is to highlight and provide regional recognition for some of the customers buying seedstock from local breeders.

Greg Riddell says the current Charolais base for his herd came after many years of experimenting with breeds. Crossbred bulls formed the base of his first efforts to grow his herd. The first animal with Charolais ancestry passed through the ranch’s gates in the late ’70s. Soon, however, calving difficulties began to frustrate Riddell, and he turned instead to purebred bulls, in the hope of resolving the problem.

The Riddells then turned to a local breeder, a resource that Greg Riddell now says played a critical guidance role. Since then, the R4 Ranch has developed a web of seedstock operations in western Manitoba and into Saskatchewan through which they buy their bulls.

“We always seem to go back to the Charolais because of the reliability at the marketplace,” Greg Riddell said.

Crystal ball

The next big steps, according to Riddell, look to the next generation.

After decades in the driver’s seat, Greg and Brenda Riddell are shifting gears, looking more towards succession planning and stepping back from management decisions in order for their children to eventually take over.

About the author

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Alexis Stockford

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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