Maximum production doesn’t always mean maximum profit

With uncertain times in Russia in the 1920s, Peter Doerksen and his family immigrated to Canada putting down roots near Gem, Alberta. Part of the draw to the area was the CP development of irrigation land which later became known as the Eastern Irrigation District.

The family grew crops and ran a commercial herd of cattle and, for more than 40 years, have raised purebred Herefords under Doerksen farms.  

Peter’s son Jake continued to run the operation until retirement a few years back. Today, Jake’s sons Arno and Tim, along with 30-year old grandson Daniel and their families carry on the legacy. The operation is run as Doerksen Farms for the cropped acres while the purebred and commercial cattle herds are under the banner of Gemstone Cattle Co.   

According to Daniel Doerksen, coming from a farm family doesn’t always mean an immediate rite of passage into the business.

“After high school I wanted to stay on the farm, but dad said it wasn’t enough to be an employee, I had to bring value to the operation,” says 4th generation Daniel Doerksen.

“Agriculture is changing and continues to be our preferred lifestyle. But, it’s become much more than that – it’s a business. While there are three distinct parts to our operation, it all run as one outfit.”

Daniel went off to Lethbridge College and got an animal science diploma. He also took some plant and soils courses and all of the farm finance and business courses that were offered at the time.

Meanwhile, still in his teens, Daniel was able to rent a couple of quarters of crop land and at age 20 bought his first quarter.  

After returning home, he spent two winters in the oil patch which provided income and experience working for others which solidified his dream of farming and raising cattle.

While Arno and Daniel focus more on the cattle, Tim’s focus is on the farming side of thing. However, they still share in the day-to-day management duties for the farm, commercial, purebred and feeder cattle operations. They stress it is a family business, where management and marketing decisions are made with a consensus between the three of them.

Only two ways to increase profitability: Higher productivity and/or lower input costs

The Doerksens focus on raising purebred cattle that meet all the phenotypic traits for functionality, but also rate low for residual feed intake or RFI.

‘’About 10 years ago, we tested our purebred Hereford cow herd for Leptin.  Cattle with the TT allele produce more milk fat, higher weaning weight, more 12th rib back fat, higher quality grade as well as a longer productive cow life.’’

Once the results were in, our cows tested 87% TT when the Hereford breed average was 32%.”

Over the last two years, the family has participated in the Canadian Hereford Association Residual Feed Intake (RFI) trials.

“The first year of the CHA trials we had 23 out of 26 bulls in the top 18 percent for low RFI,” says Doerksen. “Last year, two of our bulls were rated the top two bulls in the test and most of our cattle have tested better than breed average for RFI.  

“With feed being one of biggest expenses in a cattle operation these numbers tell us we are heading in the right direction. This year, we put all of our Hereford and Angus bull calves on the RFI test at Cattleland Feed Yards.

Maximum production doesn’t necessarily mean maximum profit

Doerksen says that if you compare the feed intake of a 1200 lb. cow to a 1500 lb. cow, there is a difference of about a ton and a half of feed required over a year between the two.

He estimates the difference is about $200 in savings feeding a smaller framed cow. The Doerksens have focused their breeding program to produce moderate framed females.

“We are trying to raise moderate framed cows in that 1200 to 1300 lb. range with all the important functional traits such as fertility, good feet and sound udders but are also superior converters of feed into lbs. of beef,” says Doerksen.

The Doerksens farm about 2,500 acres of irrigated land which is mostly used for producing feed for the cattle; however, as the land base has expanded, they have been able to seed more cash crops. Both irrigation and the feedlot give the family options for increasing the value of their agricultural products.

‘’The cattle graze on native and irrigated tame pasture throughout the summer and fall,” explains Doerksen. “We have used some dual cropping to extend the grazing season into late fall and winter when we can.

“Last year we had 350 acres seeded to corn. We put up about 240 acres for corn silage and another 110 acres were combined and then grazed. We were pleased with the amount of grazing we got after harvesting the grain.  We have tried grazing standing corn, but felt we didn’t get enough value out of it. By combining the corn, we cover our expenses plus a bit of a profit and the grazing is an added bonus. We plan to put in more acres of corn for combining this year.”

Looking to improve their stocking rate on pastures, Daniel attended a grazing seminar put on by Steve Kenyon of Greener Pastures in February. The family plans to further reduce their cost of production by adopting some of the Ranching for Profit fundamentals. They want to try out different grass mixes hoping to extend the grazing season and reduce the feeding period.

Additional future plans include doing a better job of tracking their cattle’s progress. Last year they began putting their cattle information on bioTrack, a livestock tracking and traceability system and use BIXS.  

“In 2012, I participated in the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) mentorship program with Mike McMorris, general manager of BIO in Ontario as my mentor,” says Doerksen. bioTrack is the animal tracking program they offer.

“We want to be able to track the performance of individual animals in our purebred and commercial herds. Hopefully by using our RFID numbers from BIXS, we will get the carcass data on our cattle even if we aren’t the last owner of the cattle before harvest.

“In addition, both the feedlot and cow calf operation have gone through the process of verification for the McDonalds verified beef program.

Marketing plans change

depending on the market signals

“Dad has always enjoyed the purebred cattle and for 25 years we contributed to the Bulls Eye Select Sale in Brooks until 2003,” says Doerksen. “At that point we made a decision to back away from the bull sale and start selling bull’s by private treaty which we did for many years. But, last year, we held our first bull sale at Bow Slope Shipping Association auction market. We plan to continue with an annual fall bull sale for both the Hereford and Red Angus bulls and offer top end bred commercial females.

“We don’t usually sell calves in the fall run. We feed them to certain weights. Depending on the market, we will feed to mid-winter for feeder weight or sell grassers or finish some. The feedlot gives us the option to be flexible.”

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