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On board at WestGen

The unique co-op celebrates its 75th anniversary by focusing on its farm board’s “direct and protect” role

WestGen began life in Surrey, B.C in September 1944 under the moniker of the Lower Fraser Valley Artificial Insemination Association, and in many ways it’s the same group that currently operates out of Abbotsford, B.C., despite a litany of name and location changes over the years.

Over those years, too, the co-operative-minded group has become Western Canada’s pre-eminent farmer-owned beef and dairy genetics non-profit society, with its members dutifully answering the call for three-quarters of a century, working in ways that help all farmers drive the industry forward.

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A big part of that success is due not just to local governance, but to finding ways to help farmer directors continuously improve their involvement. And in these days when farms are getting so much more complex, the parallels for on-farm management are getting stronger.

WestGen has a board that consists of 10 directors — two from B.C., two from Alberta, one from Saskatchewan as well as a single Manitoban. The remaining four at-large positions can come from any one of the four western Canadian provinces.

One of those directors is Eric L. Iversen, the board’s current president. He and his brother John manage 190 dairy cows and calves at Olds, Alta. Since joining the board four years ago, the energetic Iversen quickly worked his way up from a general director to vice-president and now president for two years and counting.

For Iversen, the WestGen presidential role is a natural progression. It’s also been a family thing. His father Aage had been on dairy boards and was an industry advocate when such roles seemed relatively unheard of and appointments typically lasted a lifetime.

“We’ve always believed in giving back to the industry you make your living from and contributing if you can,” says Iversen.

There are sacrifices to be made, though, and Iversen admits to being lucky his brother is at the farm when he needs to be away tending to WestGen business. “The biggest challenge is having to go to a meeting if it’s haying, harvest or seeding time,” he says. “But having said that, once you commit to being on a board you should commit to being there if you can.”

Those commitments occur between five to seven times per year in Abbotsford, including one “away meeting” where the board will travel to a new location within Western Canada to meet and interact with local farmers and learn about their operations.

Pouring over policy papers may be sleep-inducing to many, but not for Iversen. The key is to keep the larger goal in view. “We’re all working together to do what’s best for western Canadian beef and dairy farmers,” he says. “That’s always utmost in our mind.”

Any director who steps onto the WestGen board will have their hands full, as well. The newbies are provided a two-day intensive crash course in board governance at WestGen’s head office, followed with a one-day intensive two months later. In their welcome package, they receive meeting minutes going back five years along with a governance manual. The expectation is that new directors will read the previous two years’ worth of minutes and familiarize themselves with the governance book.

Seasoned directors continue to sharpen their skills by attending professional development courses related to board governance. If meetings cannot be run and decisions are at a standstill, predictably, nothing is accomplished.

“Board governance is something that’s constantly under review,” says Parry. “The key for our board of directors is communication. If the communication is strong, they tend to be more engaged. When you have high levels of engagement and interest, governance naturally comes in hand.”

WestGen CEO Chris Parry says he is proud to work for an industry that advances the interests of farmers. He sees farmers work for the benefit of one another, not for distant shareholders.
photo: WestGen

The board regularly reviews documents through the online portal, Boardadvantage, a Nasdaq-developed governance software. Through the digital directory, the board can sift through important information prior to in-person meetings and examine archived material relevant to current discussions.

Along with juggling on-farm demands and board responsibilities, those at the table assess themselves by whether they’re keeping WestGen going just as vigorously as their family farms.

The paramount goal

For Westgen, the goal has always been quality breeding. More specifically, it’s been to get better quality semen to the farm, starting with the bull buggy driver who would pound the pavement around the province supplying quality live genetics to beef and dairy farmers.

By 1957, frozen semen had become an option. This allowed WestGen to send its genetic stock much farther. Live products tended to have a shelf life of two days if chilled, with conception rates dropping as time went on. Frozen semen by contrast could be sent around the province and eventually across Canada.

With no limit on frozen shelf life, the semen has slowly made its way around the world to more than 100 countries.

A big moment came in 1997 when, after 53 years of supporting farmers, WestGen formed a partnership: the Semex Alliance.

Along with genetics companies EastGen out of Guelph, Ont., and Centre d’insémination artificielle du Québec (CIAQ) in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., WestGen formed a three-way enterprise to own Semex, one of the world’s top four semen suppliers in terms of sales. The majority of bulls are housed in Ontario and Quebec, along with a handful in Alberta, but Semex also has studs in far-flung destinations such as Argentina, Brazil, China and Hungary.

Moves such as the Semex Alliance highlight how WestGen strives to best serve its farmer members. WestGen also made a critical role for expansion itself and began to cover Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

As WestGen CEO Parry describes, the moves solidified WestGen’s status as a major player without losing sight of its roots.

“That’s one of the (board of directors’) strengths, all they have in mind is the best interest of the producers, not necessarily the best interest of shareholder structure where they’re providing and driving profit to external investors,” Parry says. “They’re trying to drive the very best product for their peers and industry. They make decisions with that in mind.”

Parry says it’s easy to work for an organization where the farmers take their roles seriously and ultimately want an ROI that makes a splash at the farm gate and not ticker tape.

“They’re owners and customers,” he says. “All the assets that this company owns are owned by the beef and dairy producers of Western Canada. The profits get put back into the western Canadian industry. They don’t go offshore. They don’t go to some private investor on a luxury yacht somewhere.”

Capitalizing on a breakthrough

Of course, you’ve got to have a product.

Ponoka, Alta. farmer Tom Kootstra was a board director in the early ’90s and again from 2003 to 2015, and currently serves as the president of Alberta Milk. He manages 160 dairy cows along with 480 acres of forages at Stradow Farm Inc. with wife Pam and sons Craig and Tyce. Kootstra also came by his time honestly. His father Dick was WestGen’s president from 1970 to 1991, serving as board chair for 16 of those years.

They weren’t easy years. The company struggled through the ’70s and ’80s.

But then there was Aerostar.

Tom Kootstra.
photo: Alberta Milk

It was transformative. “The significance of WestGen happened with Aerostar,” Kootstra says. “That’s when WestGen really developed its cash reserves.”

The co-operative had struggled into 1989, when Aerostar shot it to new heights with his semen production. In 1990 alone, the organization moved Aerostar orders topping $2 million.

WestGen set records that year for gross income, bulls sampled and cows evaluated as well as for the number of semen units processed. It led former WestGen president Charlie Iberg to say of the famed Aerostar: “He came like a warm breeze on a cold winter night. Holstein breeders throughout the world have come to see his progeny.”

Aerostar is also one of 13 Semex bulls that have exceeded one million semen doses sent to farms across Canada and around the world. Without Aerostar, in fact, there may not have been a 75th anniversary.

The board’s role

As Kootstra sees it, the board’s job is to “direct and protect” and not simply rubber stamp. He recalls when the board collectively decided to fire one of its general managers. It wasn’t an easy decision, but the right one.

“Most of the time there has been a balance of strong management and board direction,” Kootstra says. “If the management was weak, the board had the courage to terminate them and look for someone else. I’ve seen some strong managers and some weak ones.”

“The WestGen board always recognized that it was producers’ dollars and equity that they had to protect, and they took that seriously,” he says. “Boards are elected to direct and protect. The WestGen board felt strongly that it needed to protect the equity and the viability of its farmer-owned non-profit organization.”

To that end, the board of directors created an endowment fund in 2004, kick-started with a $5 million investment. Out of that investment has come more than $2.5 million through its endowment fund and other direct sponsorships with an emphasis on youth programs, applied research and industry promotion.

By 2011, the WestGen brain trust established educational awards to celebrate the young minds studying agriculture or veterinary medicine.

With fresh hope of another generation succeeding at WestGen come new challenges, however.

It’s a digital age, unlike anything farmers have ever seen before, for better or for worse.

WestGen is a leader, but so are many other companies, and while production is still a grind, it’s a different grind. Kootstra has seen this change even occur at his own farm.

“One of the challenges today with on-farm technology, we have less of a commitment to get into the breed improvement activities,” he says. “If I look at my boys, I sense they are members of Holstein Canada because Dad said they should.

“When you look at genomics for example, there’s no longer the same need to prove young sires. If we don’t have to do that to the same degree of ownership, the challenge of WestGen today is you can access the best genetics anywhere in the world; you don’t need your local AI company to prove genetics.”

He’s right. A few quick taps of a smartphone and semen orders may be placed by a farmer.

“The risk for WestGen going forward is being relevant,” says Kootstra of impending decisions of its board and management. “Because of the digital age and the access to information, the risk there is if you can get it electronically, do you lose that personal connection?”

Regardless of where WestGen may find itself in five, 10 or even another 75 years, Kootstra knows how big a role its farmer board will play in its success or failure.

“I would have to say 100 per cent,” he says. “It was the farmers involved, they are the directors and the directors always had the strength to direct it. Here 75 years later, it’s still a viable successful business.”

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