Bulging beef steers with corn-crusted noses peered up from feed bunks as cattlemen from across Canada investigated how feedlot operators manage their operations in southwestern Ontario.
Over 100 cattlemen toured both Conlin Farm Ltd. near Lucan and Van Osch Farms near Ailsa Craig as part of the morning program of the Beef Farmers of Ontario farm tour. Conlin and Van Osch farms are members of the Ontario Corn Fed Beef Program, finishing over 12,000 head of beef cattle in well-ventilated barns.
Both large-scale, family-owned, feedlot operators, the owners revealed how the beef industry is merging into big business. It’s high-yield-focused farming both in terms of numbers of cattle required to be profitable, but also how data recording and production software is fine-tuning rations and redefining management strategies.
“These are intensive operations. Impressive ... to see how much production per acre goes on in Ontario,” said Brad Osadchuk, a member of the Alberta Beef Producers who took part in the day-long tour August 13 which also included cow calf farms and beef processors later in the day. “We are drier in Alberta and British Columbia so it’s acres per cow where we come from. Here it’s cows per acre ... totally the opposite end of the spectrum,” added Osadchuk, his cowboy hat and boots clearly indicating he comes from a place of horses, range and grasslands.Where finishing cattle in Western Canada wander the hills and valleys, terminal steers at both Conlin and Van Osch farms are housed in barns, some bedded, some on slats, with access to yards, as they reach the 1,500-pound weight that the market wants.
Angus is the predominant breed at Conlin Farms, started by Frank Conlin, expanded by Tony and Mary Conlin, now run by son Mike Conlin. Tony and Mary had the honoured position of sitting in a golf cart, driven by grandsons Peter and Tom, while listening to Mike explain he’s looking to five years down the road when his sons will graduate from college or university to help run this fourth-generation farm.
“Succession planning never starts or stops...it’s an ongoing process,” stated Mike in front of his Angus steers nearing market weight in a cross-ventilated, slatted, finishing barn with a wide middle alley and tall concrete feedbunks on each side.
Finishing 5,000 head per year, Conlin’s purchase backgrounded calves from beef farmers in Ontario and Western Canada. He likes them coming in at 950 pounds and leaving between 1,500 to 1,550 in weight.
“We want them to put on 600 pounds. We need that margin for profitability,” he said.
Calves come in to bedded yards, are fed a transition ration for 40 to 60 days, then move to a finisher ration of 47.0 per cent cobmeal, 27.4 per cent wet distiller’s grain, 13.7 per cent flaked corn, 6.8 per cent dry corn gluten, 2.3 per cent hay, 1.1 per cent supplement and 0.8 per cent limestone.
“The wet distillers makes for warm feed but it really cools off when mixed with the other feedstuffs,” said Mike.
Part of what makes Conlin Farms successful is aggressive sorting using data on days on feed and conversion scores. He also watches the cattle carefully, particularly for feet and legs and ships when “I don’t like how they walk down the alley.”
Since moving to rubber on the slats 10 years ago, the condition of the cattle’s feet and legs has greatly improved, particularly eliminating stovepipe legs. Foot rot is still his biggest problem, resulting in the largest number of culls.
“Cattle on slats, we know that’s hard on cattle. But when there is three inches of rain and all the yards are a mess, we love slats. When we have sore foot issues, we hate slats,” stated Mike.
Excellent ventilation in the finishing barn really keeps the cattle healthy. Insulating the roof is key to prevent rusting.
Mike was quick to name his support system that helps with feed rations, cattle records and adherence to the Corn Fed Beef Program to which he belongs for market pull. “I couldn’t do it without them.”
The Van Osch brothers, Gerald and Fred, were similarly free with praise for the managers and hired help on their 10,000 acre, 8,000-head finishing yard in multiple barns near Ailsa Craig.
The business was started by their parents in 1954, Gerald and Fred joined in the 1970s and now, sons Kurt and Brendon have joined the management team. The brothers are moving towards the crop side of the business (the company has its own elevators and trucks) while the sons/cousins are taking leadership roles in the feedlot operation.
“In 1995, we had one small slatted-floor barn and we had to decide whether to get out of feeding cattle or expand,” explained Gerald. “We knew Ontario has lots of rainfall and therefore lots of feed. Corn and grain prices were cheap so we decided to expand and now have five locations for 2,000 to 2,500 head barns.”
The family stores 10 - 15,000 bales of straw under open-sided roofed barns. Manure storage at each facility can hold one year’s worth of manure.
“Barns are cleaned weekly and new straw dumped in,” said Gerald. Manure is spread when the wheat comes off and is immediately worked in to fertilize the corn and beans planted in the spring.
Twelve employees help run the farm. Three help with feeding and herd health, one guy cleans pens daily and the rest work the fields and help with the cattle in the winter. “We have our own shop because we want to keep our employees busy year round,” said Gerald.
Like the Conlins, Van Osch farms feeds a lot of wet distiller’s grain out of Aylmer along with high moisture corn ensiled in the farms’ five, 140,000 bushel capacity silos. The fermented corn is run through a hammermill daily in a ration tightly controlled by Don Glavin who has been making feed for over 55 years. Corn is taken every second day from each silo to keep the flow going. Minerals are bought in bulk and premix is made on farm.
Two hundred tonnes of feed are fed to the cattle each day .
Fred’s son, Kurt, took the microphone to explain how the cattle rations are formulated by Feedlot Health Management Services, an Alberta company that analyzes all the data supplied by Van Osch farms to provide daily/weekly feeding and health plans.
“We track all the feed for individual pens and input bunk scores daily,” explains Kurt. Bunk scores range from one to five with one meaning licked clean and five full of feed.
The software provides them with implant schedules, tracks treatment dates and withdrawals, recalibrates feed rations and tracks cattle weights and sorting procedures.
“It takes all the guesswork out of our management system,” said Kurt. “Feedlot Management has really made us more efficient.”
“We basically go to the barn with a laptop,” is how Gerald explained it.
Bovine specialist Mac Littlejohn, a veterinarian with the Kirkton Veterinary Clinic, said Van Osch farms is “one of my best feedlots and I needed to take them to the next level.”
Feedlot Management software keeps him in the loop, sending daily updates on how many cattle were pulled and how many died. Each dead animal gets an autopsy no matter what. Pictures are taken of the autopsy and sent to Littlejohn for diagnosis. All findings are recorded for future analysis and decision making.
“The new software is great for me as a veterinarian as I have data to work with,” said Littlejohn.
Management covered, owner Fred admitted marketing is the “biggest pain in our ass.”
Overachieving cattle are marked with red tags and shipped at ideal times. Market prices are followed and the company tries to market accordingly. “We try to hit those better selling times around Christmas and in January and April but it is not easy,” Fred admitted.
Van Osch Farms beef cattle are shipped to Cargill for slaughter. “They treat us well and that’s all we can ask,” said Fred.
Heading to the buses to tour one of the finishing barns, Fred pointed out the thriving bean fields. “That’s where our subsidy for the cattle comes from,” he joked.
He points out pens of cattle that came from out west and a newer batch out of North Carolina, which seem to be doing as well as the western calves though they don’t like being inside. “They are bit quicker on feed intake but because they aren’t used to being inside, we need to feed them outside. We’re only four weeks into these cattle so we have more to learn.”
There are two manure tanks on site, one round and the other a rectangle designed to fit a coverall if needed.
“I prefer the round tanks because they costs less. The rectangle ones are more expensive to build but easier to clean out,” said Fred.
It was a hot, humid day so most of the cattle were inside on the slats, trying to keep cool. It’s the kind of weather where it’s hard to keep animals clean. Once evening rolls around, the cattle move outside to the yards to enjoy the cooler air.
The Beef Farmers of Ontario Tour was held a day before the Canadian Beef Industry Conference held in London. The tour sold out, with participants also visiting Bluewater beef in Mooretown, River Point Cattle Company in Glencoe and Bee Zee Acres in Glencoe. ◊