Devin Pouteau was lining up for a career in the sciences when he heard the farm call.
Devin, now 23, hadn’t planned to farm. He grew up on a mixed crop and cattle farm near Sanford and did his time driving the combine, but throughout high school he’d planned to pursue a career in chemistry.
Suddenly all he wanted was to be home.
“(I was) sitting in the classes and realizing I can’t even concentrate on the slides because I just want to be home in the combine,” Devin said. “It was kind of like a wake-up call.”
“If I’m not going to be happy going through the sciences, what’s the point of doing that?” he said.
Devin switched to studying agriculture, unsure of where that would lead.
The family farm
Devin is the third generation on the Pouteau farm between La Salle and Sanford.
Albert Pouteau bought the current site in 1962. He’d been farming nearby and was frustrated because every time it rained, the mud road would turn to soup and he’d be trapped on his yard.
One day, after a good rain, his neighbour rode over on horseback and told Albert he was planning to sell. His land was also on a dirt road but Albert knew that road was at least scheduled to be redone with gravel. That was good enough for him.
Albert’s sons Doug and Gary (Devin’s dad) also farmed cattle and crops. But in 2003, as cattle prices tanked during the BSE crisis, Doug and Gary decided to sell off their cows.
“I should have quit,” said Albert. “But I’m not that bright.”
“He always says it like a gloomy thing — but I probably wouldn’t be farming right now if he did,” Devin said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all that he kept cows.”
To cope with cattle farming without his sons, Albert stopped taking his cattle to his pasture near Portage la Prairie. He kept them on a feedlot year round.
In 2016, Devin graduated from the University of Manitoba with his diploma of agriculture. That year, Albert was talking about quitting cattle.
Devin said he’d done the math and realized it would be next to impossible to go into grain farming alone. He didn’t want to have to rely on his parents to fund his start.
“I didn’t want to be a leech off my parents. So I didn’t want to go to my dad and my mom or my grandpa and say ‘give me some land to farm,’” he said. “I didn’t see the point in shifting land from one family member to the other because that’s not making the farm as a whole grow.”
Devin began to buy calves from Albert to raise his herd. He funded his fledgling cow-calf operation by taking a winter job as an agriculture instructor at the University of Manitoba.
He knew it wouldn’t be very profitable to keep his cattle in the feedlot year round. Albert’s pasture land near Portage hadn’t been used for years. The fence had been wiped out by grass fires, and trees had grown up.
Devin and Albert started driving out to the property a few times a week. Devin didn’t have money to hire excavators to clear the fenceline, so he and Albert cleared five miles of fence with chainsaws, axes and whipper-snippers.
Today, Devin has 43 cows. He has about 500 acres of pasture fenced off. He also farms 50 acres of cash crops and 17 of forage.
Devin said he saw many opportunities to improve the cattle farm. When he began, his grandpa had about 25 cows. Between year-round feeding, an inconsistent calving season and aging infrastructure, the operation was extremely labour intensive.
Besides returning the cattle to pasture, Devin built a shed for the bulls to keep them separate for more consistent calving. He experimented with more efficient grazing and feeding methods to improve his feed utilization.
He also rigged up his own calving camera system, which Grandpa and Grandma enjoy watching, and which has saved enough calves to have long since paid for itself.
The last three dry years have been tough. In 2018, they had less than a third of their normal hay yield, Devin said. He is thankful for his neighbours, who let him cut their roadside ditches and coulees for hay.
“Without the support from them, I would have had to significantly downsize or sell off my cattle herd,” he said.
Devin has also got good at making do with old equipment. He’s pulled old press drills, trucks and hay rakes out of the bush and coaxed them back into working condition. His Soviet-era Belarus tractor is now more reliable than one of the newer ones on the farm.
Despite that, Devin said he doesn’t regret deciding to farm.
“I’ve been having fun,” he said.
His operation is separate from his dad’s and uncle’s farm. He can run his farm as he sees fit.
“I just have to answer to Grandpa,” he joked.