Build it – and they may come

Build it – and they may come

When Bob and Don Lowe of Nanton graduated from high school, they wanted to continue on with the family tradition of raising cows. But buying land didn’t fit their budget, so they settled on building a small feedlot. That 700 head feedlot now with a 4,000 head capacity, is said to be one of the oldest continuously operated feedlots in the province; but also one of the smallest.

 

Our family history is in raising cattle. My dad’s family came to Canada from Idaho in 1898 and mother’s family traveled here in and around 1875; both families raised cattle. Dad farmed and we had about 200 cows on the place so adding a feedlot to the mix wasn’t a daunting task for Don and me when we were young bucks,” says Bob Lowe with a chuckle.

“As it turned out dad (Jim Lowe) had always wanted a feedlot so he quickly gave us his blessing.

“We built the first corrals in 1984. We didn’t really have a plan in mind we just started putting in water lines. The quarter section we chose wasn’t good for anything else. The rocks were too soft for gravel and the land was too rocky to farm it. It had a natural slope which worked out for us when we had to get permits after we built the thing. My dad used to say it was easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission. Luckily, it turned out alright.”

Lowe refers to the partnership as farmer feeders. He and his brother each had small operating loans but neither one big enough to fund the feedlot. They just continued to write cheques on their overdraft and kept a low profile from their banker.

“In those days the local banker had more control about what he could approve and he knew the farm provided collateral. He probably wasn’t too concerned about giving us some leeway to expand. We didn’t see it as a stretch to put up a shingle to feed cattle. We just assumed we could make some money.”

As the industry has progressed, the successful people have good marketing programs and hedging plans. But, Lowe says, when they built the feedlot they figured if they build it – the cattle would come. And, 30 years later, the lot is still filling.

When the brothers built the feedlot, a local cattle order buyer was coincidently looking for another place to feed cattle for Lakeside Feeders. The location of Bear Trap Feeders 90 miles from Brooks and about 25 miles from the Cargill Plant at High River have kept them in an envious location for receiving custom orders.

The first few years, Lowe describes the lot as rather sketchy. They had little equipment and it was a work in progress. They used a mixer box and a Case 4 wheel drive tractor with a homemade front-end loader.

“But we had a good idea how things should be done and over the course of time, we got bigger and put our catch basins where they needed to be following the direction of the National Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) in Canada and we always built beyond their standards,” suggests Lowe.

As it turned out, a 700 head capacity wasn’t big enough to make a dollar. But they continued to build and in time, the capacity increased to 4,000.

Bear Trap Feeders started out as a backgrounding lot, but when BSE hit, it became a fattening lot.

In the meantime, Lowe had built up a yearling feeding business but growing tired of renting land to grass them, he set out to find a ranch that fit his criteria for the capital cost per yearling steer.

He says, since backgrounding lots were famous for being empty in the summer, grassing yearlings gave him something to do during the summer months. The cattle were fed in the winter on a custom basis in the feedlot. His brother Don started a farming operation while still keeping a watchful eye on the feedlot. The brothers continue to share that responsibility.

Bob bought a ranch in the Interlake area of Manitoba in the spring of 2003. It included 7,000 acres of native grassland and he found it a perfect getaway from the BSE trauma which hit the industry. But that first year, because of BSE, there were no markets in Manitoba and Lowe had to haul all 1,000 yearlings back to Alberta. Over the years, the yearlings have been replaced by cows.

 

Cowboy politics changed the dynamic

 

“I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I always preferred the work as opposed to thinking about the work. But when I got into sitting on committees and industry boards, I realized just how much I like to be part of the bigger picture planning for the industry,” says Lowe thoughtfully.

Today the Manitoba ranch is up for sale as Lowe has become much more involved in Alberta’s cowboy politics. He will still be involved in the feedlot and also plans to continue to run yearlings.



Initiation by fire

 

Lowe’s first attempt at cowboy politics was to let his name stand as a board member for the Alberta Cattle Feeders. It coincided with the onset of BSE and he recalls it being more reactive than proactive. After two years, he stepped down.

On a nudge from a friend, he let his name stand to run as a delegate for ABP but admits just saying his name followed by two minutes of silence didn’t get him elected.

He figured that would be the end of his political career until a so-called friend volunteered his name to stand as an ABP delegate in Zone 2.  After attending a few ABP meetings, he realized he actually liked this other side of the industry.

A few years later, when he wasn’t happy with some happenings at the CCA, he ran as an ABP rep off the floor at the ABP annual meeting where, to his surprise, he was inadvertently picked.

It was an unexpected turning point for the feeder. CCA picked him to act as one of two producer voices on the planning committee for the McDonald’s Sustainability Pilot Project which is currently underway.

“We have been working on the McDonald’s file for close to two years. It has been a great learning experience. The indicators for determining sustainability have been developed using a collaborative approach with McDonalds, the World Wildlife Fund and industry all having input,” says Lowe now putting on his CCA board and environment committee hat as well as his ABP vice-chair hat.

“The indicators for sustainable beef must also work on the world stage to meet the global criteria. Once the McDonald’s verification project is done at the end of April, the plan is for the CRSB to take the indicators and make them their own.

“Everyone I’ve talked with that has gone through the verification process has been excited about drilling down their own operations to see how they stack up. It really has been an invaluable internal review of what we do and how we do it.”

Lowe and his nephew Tyson went through the verification process the same day, first for Bear Trap Feeders and then Lowe Ranch.  

“The idea for the indicators was to raise the bar high enough to be credible and low enough for them to be achievable. There were a few things the feedlot didn’t score high in and we can fix them. We just need to pull up our boot straps in a couple of areas.

“But the real success of this verification pilot project is it shows the Canadian industry is scoring high overall. The indicators prove we are well ahead in sustainability compared to our competitors. Most of the 31 indicators are things we, as an industry, are already doing, we just have to do a better job of being able to prove them.”

Some of the indicators included:

Water quality, sediment, nutrient runoff ground water and waterway health. In response, Lowes showed the verifiers the catch basins and letter from the National Resources Conservation Board.

Supports local community. In response, Lowes showed involvement in local service and industry organizations.

Cattle have at-will access to a palatable quality water source. In response, Lowes showed water analysis and trough size.

Operation responsibly optimizes efficiency and productivity through innovation and technology. In response, Lowes showed documentation for feeding ionophores and strategic use of growth promotants.

McDonald’s has made arrangements for taking the verification process on the road to explain to producers what the results actually mean for the industry and their fast-food business. Meetings are being held across the province to help to dispel any myths about the project.

“There is a whole society out there that wants to see the end of animal agriculture and we can’t ignore that anymore. We have rested on our laurels for many years and if the world’s biggest food retailer and the World Wildlife Fund backs our claim of being efficient and good producers of beef, then we have some powerful allies.”

 

by Bonnie Warnyca