By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
A new generation of Gardiners are finding their voice at Dave Gardiner Farms Inc. in Kirkton and Dave is all about hearing it.
Three generations of the family are sitting at the office table. They are all here because Dave said it was their voices that needed to be heard as the family expands with a new barn and a new vision for their feedlot operation.
Dave Gardiner says he’s the “oldest bugger in the room” when he sits on the board of the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association and he’s the oldest one at this table too. He was once the grandson at the table in a long line of Gardiners that have farmed this land since the 1800s.
Still very active in the business as the cattle trader, Dave is handing over the reins to daughter Shauna and her husband Ron Soundant, and their two children, Lexi and Jackson Soudant. Lexi’s partner, Dominik, is also part of the farm dynamic as they learn to combine their skillsets to farm 700 acres and fatten 2,200 head of cattle using both old and new barns.
The new barn is a We Cover structure that was put up last year and filled in September. At Dave Gardiner Farms Inc., cattle are purchased from Ontario, the western provinces and the United States. Multiple sources are required to fill the barn with cattle that suit their system. The first group is soon to be shipped and the family has been watching their progress carefully to see if their million dollar barn is paying off.
So far, so good. Lexi has already noted that the cattle have more room and there is less competition at the bunk. The barn has a grooved floor and the benefit of it was noted on the first day cows were put in the barn.
“The cattle never wipe out,” says Lexi. “There used to be so much stress when it was cattle moving day. Now it’s just another day.”
The flow in the new barn is smooth and also reduces stress. The cattle move progressively around the barn until they are full weight and ready to be shipped. “The cattle seem to understand the new system too and they just move so easily,” adds Lexi.
Curbs were installed to protect the alleyway and water troughs to contain manure and prevent damage from the payloader which is used to clean the barn. The manure is scraped out every three weeks and stored in the north end of the same barn. It was designed with two pits on either end, behind a six-foot wall, to contain the manure and keep rainfall and snow out. Jackson says it was expensive to add more roofline to cover the manure storage but it was so worth it.
“The manure is consistent and easy to work with,” he says. Part of the expansion plan was to sell excess manure and it’s easier to sell dry manure versus liquid manure.
Ron is a fan of the natural light with the white fabric roof of the structure and is impressed with the automatic curtains, installed by Huron Ventilation Systems out of Hensall, which move up and down based on four temperature sensors inside the barn. There aren’t any fans in the barn and Ron doesn’t expect the barn will need them given how well it is ventilated with the curtains and the two, huge doors open on each end. He has ordered additional humidity sensors, finding that sometimes the temperature indicates the curtains need to be closed but humidity created by the cows requires more airflow.
With a new barn comes new responsibilities and as I went around the table, asking each one about their skills and responsibilities, there were clear answers about their responsibilities.
Dave continues his winning ways as the trader, buying and selling the cattle like he has done his whole life. He likes being on the road, and meeting people. He relishes his role, while proudly watching his family members find their niche in the beef farming operation. His family teases that he is also their “number one parts guy”.
Farming is what he has always done and what he wants to continue doing. “I have no desire to sit in the coffee shop because if you weren’t full of #$%@ before you went in, you’ll be full of #$%@ when you leave,” Dave jokes.
Daughter Shauna has done the books for decades and takes it as a perk of the job that she gets to see and work with her children everyday.
Ron was a trucker for most of his career and when he retired from that, discovered he had a passion and skill for cattle nutrition. He’s the feed and general manager.
Lexi has worked part-time on the farm since she went to Western University to earn her undergraduate degree and returned full-time to focus on managing the health of the cattle, including reducing cattle stress. She’s also skilled at grant proposals and the farm has been able to purchase a Gallagher animal management system (to scan animal codes and track animals) as well as a Daniels cattle chute with the help of grant money. She also does the paperwork to manage the farm’s restricted feedlot status, which allows them to import cattle from the United States to fill their barns.
Jackson’s skills are more in the arena of machines and cropping. He does the equipment repairs, helps with feeding and “fixes whatever needs fixing.” He returned to the farm right out of high school and is looking forward to moving the cropping operation side of the business towards cover crops and no-till.
Dominik is the main feed guy during the week, is a skilled welder and helps Jackson in the shop. He also has an AZ licence so he trucks the farm cattle.
The glue that keeps them all together and fed is Mary, Dave’s wife who, when she came to the barn for the photoshoot said, “well, let’s get on with it then!”
Technology has been part of the process of improving the feedlot operation and incorporating the skill sets of the younger generation. The Gallagher system traces all the cattle and allows the family to collect data to compare groups of cattle so they can determine which cattle thrive best in their feedlot system. It also allows them to take part in programs such as Performance Beef, which is a subscription program allowing the farm to track data on feed usage.
The data is used to manage costs, reduce margins, and keep track of inventory. Ron says they want to be progressive about records, tracking and data management so that when government mandates come down the pipe, they are ready.
Dave has been buying, raising and selling beef cattle his whole life. Over the years, he has seen how competitive the industry has become and how tight the margins are. Down the road, he predicts there will be a problem sourcing calves from Ontario because the cow/calf operations require hard work for the income they produce.
“New farmers don’t want to do cow/calf,” says Dave. “It’s a tough business.”
Also, farmers can make more money cash cropping their land than grazing it, which has further reduced cow/calf operations in the province.
It comes down to the final product. If feedlots were paid more for the end product, that could be passed down to the cow/calf producers, says Dave.
He predicts the dairy industry will fill some of the market shortage with crossbred calves, though he prefers not to stock his barns with calves that are half Holstein.
The interview ends with a visit to the new barn. It is a beautiful, high-ceilinged barn with dramatic windows facing the road. Inside, the cattle are calm and the alleyways full of feed. The feed is scraped twice a day with a blade on a John Deere riding tractor, a fun job. They are considering an automatic feed pusher because the cattle come to the bunk whenever fresh feed is pushed outward but right now, the system works.
There will be more tweaks as the family learns the best way to manage cattle in their new barn but so far, all agree it was well worth the investment to keep the farm viable for the next generation of Gardiners.◊