Peer out from Graeme Finn’s back door and of course you’ll be struck by the Rocky Mountains in the distance, but it’s the rolling hills covered in diverse pastures of mixed grasses and legumes that are the real attraction at Southern Cross Livestock near Madden, Alta.
It’s all part of the philosophy that the operation is based on — “work with the environment to improve the environment.”
At the core of that philosophy is Southern Cross’s environmental farm plan, which Finn says pays dividends both in terms of soil health and the farm’s bottom line. He and his wife Heather were early adopters of environmental planning, laying out their own plan back in 2006.
“We’re going to get dominated more and more by rules and regulations, so we might as well start now, before the government starts telling us what to do,” says Finn. “At least we’ve got a bit of a leg in and we show that we’re progressive and we show that we care about what is going on.”
Researching, creating and implementing an environmental farm plan does take hard work, but Finn says the financial payback is worth the investment. Having an environmental farm plan is also a bulwark against the erosion of social licence, giving consumers and governments confidence that production methods are sustainable in the long term.
As part of the environmental planning process, Southern Cross critically evaluated both its business and its agronomy practices, looking at the pros and cons of various production methods and weighing the impact they would have on both the environment and revenue. As a result, changes were made.
“For example, we no longer have fuel tanks on the place. We get all our fuel in town now in bulk and then, through the season, I’ll put the slip tank in the truck,” Finn says. “And year-round grazing. We’re a total year-round grazing operation. So we use high-nutrient forages for winter for swath grazing — like forage rapes, peas, oats and cereals. This way we’re keeping the manure out in the paddock instead of bringing it into the corrals.”
Other changes made under Southern Cross’s environmental farm plan have kept wild critters in mind. Finn says he’s made the move to electric fencing with only one wire — instead of four or five barbed wires — resulting in less maintenance, while also allowing smaller animals to come and go under the wire. Larger animals, like moose and elk, can easily step over the one wire system.
“We have also built a low-stress cattle handling system that works really well, both for the cattle and the operators,” he says.
Two operations exist under the mantle of Southern Cross Livestock, including a yearling operation that is currently wound down and a cow-calf operation. Both benefit from the environmental farm plan.
“We have two styles of operation, a cow-calf where we have 80 cow-calves that we run in the wintertime in conjunction with my in-laws, which we manage there through the wintertime and takes it up to 320 head of cows — that’s the permanent number on the place — and then Heather and I have a grass yearling, un-bred female side of the operation too,” Finn explains. “We only actually own a quarter, but we rent up to 1,600 acres of land… that’s why I have to be on top of everything for my landlords, because they don’t want to see me abusing the places.”
Each summer Finn purchases anywhere between 100 and 1,000 head of cattle, depending on the land base available for rent. He says there is no better way to let would-be-landlords know how you intend to treat their land than showing them an environmental farm plan.
“I haven’t really pulled that card on them yet, but say that you’ve got someone else competing for the same piece of land… that you and I are competing for the same half section, I would throw those cards on the table as quick as nothing,” says Finn.
Since implementing their environmental farm plan more than a decade ago, Finn says soil health on the ranch is noticeably better.
“It’s not overgrazed,” says Finn. “We’ve taken over land that producers have just grazed to death and we’ve really lowered the stocking numbers on it.”
But it’s about more than just lower stock numbers, he says. It’s about improving and diversifying forages, swath grazing animals, adding or preserving shelter belts, moving cattle daily and managing water systems. Finn also seeds a heavy legume mix filled with alfalfa, vetch and sainfoin — the latter two to help prevent bloating — and he uses a cell rotational grazing program for summer grazing management.
“When I am sod seeding, I like to use 10 pounds per acre of grass blend, which is hybrid bromegrasses, smooth leaf tall fescue and orchardgrass. The legume is at five pounds an acre: alfalfa, cicer milk vetch and sainfoin,” Finn notes. “After a couple of years there is more vetch and sainfoin repopulating in the stand. I find that a mixture of grasses and legumes gives me the best milk production and weight gains for my grazing cattle. Do not be afraid of using legumes. With grazing management, they can be the best for your pastures.”
Finn says that even land depleted by 30 years of continuous cropping is now thriving with biological organisms that give back to the soil with the help of cover crops and winter swath grazing.
“With all the biology that’s building in the soil — with worms and microbes and microbia — we only use $30 of fertilizer a year now (per acre) compared to $120 of fertilizer before, because we’re using the cattle to fertilize the swath grazing land,” says Finn, adding that the proof is the bottom line.
Including the cost of his own labour, plus seeding, swathing and spraying, the system costs Southern Cross $133.18 per acre or 94 cents per cow, per day. Calves come in at 57 cents per day.
“The Alberta average… is up around $2.50 a day with yardage and feed processing and so on,” he says. “So just in our winter program alone it is costing us less than a dollar a day to maintain a cow, plus they’re out in the swath grazing — not in the corral — so their health is better and the result is better soil out in the paddock.”
As a public speaker, Finn says he’s often challenged on those numbers, but emphasizes you have to include your own labour and land costs if you want to really evaluate what it costs to run your farm business.
“These guys who want to challenge me don’t know their numbers,” says Finn. “I had one guy who says he can do corn less than what I can do by swath grazing and that’s bull, because he hasn’t penciled all his costs and himself in at $25 an hour — which is on the cheap side.”
The rancher says that the time it takes to complete even routine acts, like driving out to a paddock, need to be accounted for in terms of expense.
“I’m putting land rents in, all my inputs, moving the fence every day, driving to and from the paddocks,” Finn says. “But there’s a lot of guys who just put the cost of putting it in and swathing it or grazing it or whatever and they don’t add all the small numbers in and those numbers add up.”
Beyond cost calculations, there’s also the economic benefits of building climate and weather resiliency into your business model. Every one per cent of organic matter per acre holds 45,000 litres of water, Finn says. Having grown up in a cattle ranching family in Australia, he knows the dire impact of water shortages and droughts better than many.
“This country is a breeze to do agriculture in, it’s so predictable it’s great,” says the rancher. “When I left home we were in three and a half years of drought and we were shooting livestock like nothing else because we couldn’t afford to feed them.”
Yes, there was a learning curve for Finn after immigrating to Canada. In Australia, he was used to Brahman cattle and a different seasonal rhythm, but his home country continues to inform his farming practices.
“I’m glad I didn’t follow the normal Canadian way of ranching,” says Finn. “I could have gone down the road of machinery and then silage and then greenfeed and yada yada, but we are a total year-round grazing operation here. We don’t turn a wheel to feed livestock in the wintertime, so that makes us pretty unique.”
Finn adds that seeking out mentors and joining organizations like the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association has helped him stay at the forefront with environmental practices and production methods, while predictable weather patterns helped him implement what he learned.
“I love Canada because every six months I know we’ve got a mini-drought coming on. So we prepare our winter swath grazing and winter pastures… there’s no need for machinery in the winter scenario,” he says.
While both Finn and his wife Heather work off-farm as well, Finn says it’s the ranch’s environmentally minded, low-impact methods that give them the extra time needed to pursue additional interests and occupations. The couple also has two young daughters.
But he emphasizes that, at the end of the day, family farms are family businesses and they need to be operated as businesses. That means implementing innovative practices and getting on board with environmental planning.
“This is where farming has got to change its attitude. It’s a freaking business,” says Finn. “You look at the oil patch or the trucking industry or electrical trades, they have to be certified to come and work on your house and the government rules that and tells them what they got to do. And here we have a prime opportunity to be proactive and these guys go, ‘I don’t get anything out of it.’ Yeah, you do, if you do the work, you get something out of it.”
Ultimately, Finn would like to see farm businesses that adopt proactive measures be rewarded with better access to government programs and priority grant applications. Southern Cross was also an early adopter of the Verified Beef program and has now moved onto Verified Beef Plus, and it’s participating in McDonald’s Verified Sustainable Beef project. Finn is on the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, as well as on a collaborative research project between Canada and the U.K.
“I think a guy like myself who’s got three certificates should have priority over a guy who’s got no certificates and is applying to the same programs I am — that would really help guys get involved,” Finn says. “Really, I want to be proactive, I don’t want the government coming in and telling us what to do, and the environmental farm plan is part of that.”