Doug Shelswell loves a good farm program.
Whether it improves his bottom line, increases consumer confidence or supports farm growth, he’s on it.
“Programs? We’re basically on them all; RMP for grains and livestock, we’re in AgriInvest, but we’re not in AgriStability because we have enough things on the go with our losses spread out pretty good,” said the Oro-Medonte beef producer. “If we lose on all of them, we better put a For Sale sign on the place.”
Why it matters: Taking advantage of funding programs and subscribing to industry programs such as the corn-fed beef program can offer greater returns.
Shelswell was one of several farms visited by attendees of the recent cow-calf school tour held by the Beef Farmers of Ontario.
He and his son Cal run a 170 cow-calf operation with mostly crossbred cows and they crop approximately 950 acres. The cows and calves are housed in an older barn with steers and heifers in the relatively new 60 by 120 feedlot barn. They subscribe to the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP), Nutrient Management Strategy (NMS), Corn-Fed Beef Program and Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+).
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The latter allows farms to be certified under the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) program, which gives access to certified sustainable beef value chains.
VBP+ indicates a producer aligns with the national code of practice for the care and handling of beef cattle, on-farm biosecurity standards ensuring good animal care, and follows various environmental principles and procedures.
“We’re a wealth of programs,” joked Shelswell.
The Shelswell’s feedlot barn was built in part with funding through government programs and the Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority.
“We used that to the maximum to build that (barn) and did it ourselves to max out all that we could,” Shelswell said.
He wasn’t sure if they’d get the nod for solar panels but installed the necessary rafters. It was a gamble that paid off a year-and-a-half later when permission came through.
One roof side is covered edge-to-edge with panels, producing 50 kilowatts that Shelswell said could run a 200-amp service at full blast.
“Ten years from now, when the contract’s over, then apparently . . . you go straight to net metering,” he said. “So, we’ve got to find something to burn a lot of hydro up if we’re gonna go to net metering because we don’t use that much.”
While a larger feedlot footprint was possible, a smaller but more effective design allowed them to utilize funding programs. They also tracked their manhours in the preparation and build, which yielded further savings.
Shelswell recommends program participation as a way to improve operations.
David Millsap agrees. He missed an opportunity to upgrade his new 1,500 head feedlot barn’s sorting and processing system because he declined funding when half of the proposal didn’t qualify.
“Two years ago, we applied to the CAP program to put in hydraulic chutes, scales and an EID reader,” said Millsap. “The hydraulic squeeze was on one program, the EID reader and scale head were on the other, and we were going to go to an elaborate one.”
The scale would have allowed them to weigh and scan each animal’s tag and track it through tracing software. The hydraulic squeeze qualified for funds, but not the EID reader and scale.
Millsap decided to resubmit a more detailed proposal during the second intake only to discover the price of the chute, which was already more than he wanted to spend, had risen 40 per cent.
“Now we got nothing. If (CAP) gave me the money on the second grant for the EID reader and the scale, we were ready to go,” he said. “Right now, those old chutes on both sides, they came out of our old barns, and they’re doing fine.”
The Shelswell crossbreds are on a closed loop Corn Fed Beef program and the VBP+ system with cows calving around February.
“Breeding-wise, we really like double muscle cattle, but sometimes they’re not always growthy,” said Cal Shelswell. “Our ideal cow would be a Limo-Simmental, and then we can hit back whatever we want.”
They creep-feed their cull calves and try to have them ready to process before the rush, which can sometimes net an extra $200 a head, said Cal Shelswell.
It also means the VBP+ program pays out.
Jim Whitley’s cow-calf operation outside Creemore is VBP+ certified, and he’s translated 30 years of automotive auditing skills with Honda into becoming a VBP+ auditor. He is also part of the Corn Fed Beef program.
Whitley can offer insight into the process and its benefits. For example, he said initiating VBP+ improved production, provided much-needed structure, and increased efficiencies for his farm.
“If you do get audited, you can get your score up just by writing down some of the things you do because it’s on the scoring criteria,” Whitley said. “The logic is that it’s real if it’s written.”
Before getting VBP+ certified, Whitley admitted their culling program was non-existent. Now, they actively cull for age, bad udders and poor performance and have purchased scales to increase record-keeping accuracy.
“Our herd health is much better and structured since joining VBP+.”
Whitely said it was a no-brainer to get VBP+ certified because of the structure, the check sheets and the increased consumer confidence in marketing their freezer beef.
“And it’s really not that hard to do,” he said. “It’s the future. We need to do our part for consumer confidence. Beef is the last commodity to have it, and it’s time we got on board.”
Millsap is VBP+ certified, but because his Ontario Corn Fed Beef feedlot brings in a variety of cattle from the west and Ontario, he faces challenges getting a return on investment for VBP+.
“The problem with the verified beef is that you have to be on it from birth to finish. So if anybody’s missing in the loop, you’re not going to get paid,” he said.
But Millsap believes the program is valuable, much like the Corn Fed Beef program.
“It’s important that everybody be on it to make it work. We would gladly source more verified beef calves,” Millsap said. “We haven’t aggressively gone after them yet. But as we move forward, hopefully we can get more verified beef calves in the barn here. It’s something we’re just working on.”