Five years on: Riley and Lee-Anne Kemp

Country Guide revisits two Manitoba beef producers building their future

In the five years since Country Guide last caught up with Riley and Lee-Anne Kemp, their lives have become even more hectic.

For starters, their family has grown to three children — six-year-old Lexi, three-year-old Elliot and Halle, who just turned six months old. Riley still works off farm as a teacher at the local school, while Lee-Anne has ventured into her own physiotherapy practice in the area.

Focusing on ease and efficiency

Add to that the fact that they are now equal partners with Riley’s parents in the family farm business and there isn’t a lot of down time, which means they’ve had to focus on making their farming system more efficient.

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“We’re trying to make the system as manageable as possible,” says Riley Kemp. “Dad still does most of the day-to-day jobs himself, and I try and do most of the planning and management. But we are constantly looking for ways to make our system as user-friendly as possible, which means cattle that are durable so that we don’t have calving problems and we’re not out there with a Medi-Dart and penicillin every day. It’s looking at how do we cull, how do we improve our herd so that problems that can be major time eaters are not present or are as rare as possible. We’re trying to go with low maintenance cows that work with our system.”

The farm has expanded its land base and cow herd since 2012. “Our personal herd is at 75 head, but Dad and I run about 150 cows as a unit,” says Kemp. “We’ve added another quarter section and just purchased one of our rented quarters. We’ve been trying to focus on genetics and getting the right type of cow, and we hope in the next couple of years to move towards direct marketing grass-fed beef.”

photo: Sandy Black

They have employed their holistic management training to increase their carrying capacity and extend the grazing season, which has had a positive effect on the bottom line. “The greatest change we’ve seen in the last five years is the productivity of the pastures and the lack of erosion that occurs now. It’s tough to walk out and see bare ground, whereas before you could,” says Kemp. “For example, in 2012 we were dry and many people were feeding hay by September, but we were still grazing in October. Our cattle are consistently grazing until mid-November so we are seeing tremendous changes that way. On pasture they do so much better and are producing more. We can achieve a higher stocking rate, so we’re able to run more animals on the same land and for longer periods of time. Our most expensive cost has been to acquire more land, so to be able to produce more pounds of beef per acre is almost like getting some land for free, and we’re more profitable in the end.”

Making sure they get it right

The Kemps’ goal has always been to direct market all their beef, but they are taking a measured approach to growing the farm business, and they’re taking the time to make sure their product is right before they take that plunge.

“We are not totally satisfied with our product yet,” says Kemp. “I know that we could probably wait around forever trying to make things perfect, but we’re just trying to get to where we want to be before we jump in. I don’t want to work hard to gain customers and then lose them because we don’t have the right product or what they’re looking for. I think we’re not far off at this point. We’re hoping to direct market grass-fed beef within a calendar year of now.”

With Riley and Lee-Anne both still working off the farm, rigorous planning is key for making the farm as efficient as possible.
photo: Sandy Black

They also want to expand their product line by offering pasture-raised chickens and pork in the future, but are taking the same methodical approach. “We’ve always raised chickens for our family, so we’re going to try some pasture-raised poultry this year for our own use because I’d rather test the product on ourselves than on potential customers,” says Kemp. “But the idea is to add that product when we take beef to market and maybe pork down the road as well. We want to be more of a one-stop shop.”

Exploring niche markets

Marketing to larger, urban areas — like Winnipeg and Brandon — is definitely part of the plan, and the Kemps have contacts that may help them move into a niche market. “My brother lives in Winnipeg and runs in triathlons, and associates with a crowd that is very health conscious, so we’re hoping that might help us tie into a market,” says Kemp. “We’re just starting to look into how we’re going to develop our market because, again, I didn’t want to go and try and attract customers and then tell them they have to wait, because then they go and find someone else. I am hoping that we can create a buying club or something similar where we can stock to a location and sell to our regular customers on a certain time frame.”

They have done a lot of homework, chatting with other farmers who direct market their products, seeing how they do it and learning from their mistakes, which most are more than willing to share.

“The great thing about people who think the same way we do is that they’re just so willing to share their failures and say this is what doesn’t work, and this is why it didn’t work for us, and this is what you’re probably going to need,” says Kemp.

“Troy Stozek and Michelle Schram sell a lot of product directly and they’re just a tremendous resource to have in our area because they understand some of the perils, and pitfalls, and the challenges associated with selling large amounts of product to consumers, things like storage and the cost involved and all the other questions that come up.”

Setting up for transition

Their focus was, and remains achieving their goal of direct marketing their beef and future products, but they’ve also been trying to create time for their growing family, as well as prepare for the transition of the farm when Riley’s father Kim, who is 63, decides it’s time to take a smaller role in the daily operations.

By then, the aim is to have at least one of them working full time on the farm. “We will continue to focus on planning so that things run as smoothly as possible,” says Kemp. “We’ve had lots of conversations about when our 50/50 partnership will end and this will be my baby. Dad’s certainly not talking about slowing down right now, but we’re trying to put ourselves in as good a position as possible so that when that time comes we’re able to make that transition.”

The Kemps still believe that young people can make a good living from farming, especially if they are open to new ideas and look objectively at the opportunities and different management models that are out there.

“It’s going to be hard work and challenging, but I think that with some good management techniques, people are doing tremendous things,” Kemp says. “I don’t think we’re even close to what lots of people are doing with growth of grass, and diversity of livestock, and planned grazing. There are incredible opportunities for people who are following similar paths.”

Then he adds, “A conventional model of expensive machinery and grains and inputs is going to be next to impossible for anyone who doesn’t marry in or inherit… but there’s still room for people who want to grow a great product and there are people that are looking for a great product. And as long as that continues, there’ll be places for young people to start and be profitable.”

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