Everyone has a story. And how Larry Cairns worked his way up from the age of 12 to own and operate a successful 5,000 head feedyard has more twists and turns than the average country cattle trail.
Born in Vancouver, Cairns was a long way as the crow flies from Madden, Alberta. But his mother grew up along Beaver Dam Creek near Madden and there was still family living there. When Cairns was just five years old, his dad passed away and by the age of eight he began spending summers on his uncle’s farm at Madden. From then on he never cared much for the city and at age 11 convinced his mom to let him live on the farm.
His uncle ran a mixed farm with hogs, horses, cattle and a little grain land. Cairns took to the life immediately riding and caring for the stock as if he’d been born into it. He even took up steer riding at local rodeos. He went to school and worked for a neighbour to help pay for his room and board.
After leaving school in grade 11, he travelled to an aunt’s ranch down in New Mexico to lend a hand.
“My aunt was the first white girl born north of the Bow River and she married an American who homesteaded in Alberta. They eventually moved to New Mexico to ranch. I was only supposed to stay there for three months, but my aunt got permission for me to stay six months,” remembers Cairns.
“We fed the cattle cotton seed cake which was like a pellet, no bigger than your thumb. My aunt Bernie drove the pickup and I dribbled the cake on the ground. I always had a lariat handy in case we had to treat something. Ticks were a big problem in that country and we had to dig a lot of ticks out of the ears of the cattle.”
“I’d sneak up to the animal and throw the rope and she would come and snub it up to the bumper of the truck. I dogged it down and she tied the legs. We were quite a pair. Aunt Bernie was quite a gal – she was eventually inducted into the American Cowgirl Hall of Fame.”
“She tried to convince me to join the U.S. navy so I could stay in the country, but I hated water and I had other things I wanted to do – I just wasn’t sure what.”
Once home, Cairns hired on with a seismograph outfit for a couple of years becoming what they called a shooter who handled the dynamite. He continued to work out and with the help of his cousin’s backing, he borrowed money from Farm Credit to purchase a quarter of land with a house and some rundown buildings.
He married Joan Hamilton in 1963 and together they raised a bunch of hogs and some milk cows. Cairns remembers it as a good time in his life and they were doing not too bad.
“After chores, I started hanging out at the Calgary stockyards and watched as many of the lighter calves went through the ring. Most guys didn’t want these calves but I thought if I bought them cheap they’d be worth feeding out. The feeder association wouldn’t lend me money to get started, but the bank did,” he reminisces.
“I volunteered in the sale ring and when I saw a light calf I bought him. Roy Gilkes, an order buyer for Wheatcroft, picked up calves for me when I couldn’t get there. I gave these calves a little TLC and things worked out so well we got rid of the dam hogs.”
Pretty soon Cairns was feeding 250 of these light calves and while one banker (the mean son of buck) didn’t want to lend money for the calves, another banker thought Cairns should feed even more.
That marked the unofficial beginning of the Cairns Feedyard Ltd.
Cairns built pens with sucker rod and pipe from dismantled oil wells. He spent many late nights welding his pens together.
Today, that same design has stood the test of time and government regulations.
Cairns admits that a couple of fellows suggested that once the weather turned cold, the sucker rods would be lying on the ground. He proved them wrong. “The sucker rod is hard material and if you use the right welding rod it works just fine. I learned by doing things – I didn’t take a welding course. I was raised in an era if you wanted something done – you figured out how to do it.”
“We were getting along just fine until Mr. Trudeau came out with 24 percent interest rates which just killed me dead! It did nothing to the guy that spent his afternoons in the bar, but the rest of us trying to make a go of it – went down,” he remembers with fierce distain.
“I remember selling a group of calves and the check didn’t even cover what I had paid for them let alone the feed. By this time I had added a half section of land to my home quarter and had to sell it to settle up.”
Unsure of his next move, an order buyer by the name of Bob Walroth who bought cattle for XL Beef suggested Cairns get into custom feeding. He even offered to send him a customer from Olds and before long Cairns feedlot had a couple of full pens. That was in the early 1980s.
And slowly, by renting farmland for silage and adding machinery (although he’s quick to say he never got carried away with machinery), the feedyard got on its feet again. But there’s always another bump in the road – and it was a shortage of water this time.
Cairns had dug many wells, but none could meet the supply demand. So he designed a lagoon and built a dugout. It happened that his banker came to call during the excavation and asked him, ‘who is paying for this? He replied, “You are partner”.
“The idea was to use surface water rather than wells, but in 1990 there was no runoff and we had to get water out of the Beaver Dam Creek. It was a nightmare to get permission to pump water from the creek because the powers that be said the creek flow was down. It wasn’t and I finally got approval. I was ordered to pump at half velocity and that was okay with me. I hauled water from the creek and water from the community well to fill the dugout. A friend of mine sold me a railway tank car which I buried and we filled it up.”
“We only had to pump water from the Creek a couple of years when there was no runoff.”
Cairns decided to try digging another well and hired a driller to go to the marshy place on the outer edge of the quarter. The drill hit water at 40 feet but Cairns insisted he go much deeper and at 400 feet the water table was plentiful and it was good water. The family put up a shack along with two-2400 gallon plastic tanks with a small electronic pump and there have been no water problems since.
While 2003 is forever etched in every Canadian cattleman’s memories, the Cairns family was able to ride the storm.
That same year they won the Farm Family award which is given out to one deserving family in each municipality in Alberta.
Cairns remembers having to market the fat cattle much differently during the BSE years. Cargill wouldn’t bid on a pen of heifers but if you put up one or two loads they would bid trying to help everyone a bit.
“I just kept feeding cattle. I had a good bunch of customers and one day a trucker asked if I had ever fed cattle for John Prentice. Since the trucker hauled Prentice cattle right by our place, he suggested I give him a call. I did, and John filled a few pens every year. The Prentices had cattle in many of the feedlots around Lethbridge and regularly stopped in to check on their cattle. Since John was Scottish Joan would make them tea and scones.”
“I was honest with him and told him that some of the cattle the order buyers bought him didn’t feed well in the lot. I also told him not to take any more of the belly nut bulls because they didn’t make any money either.”
“While bigger feedlots can have as much as five percent death loss, we’re proud of our record of less than one percent death loss,” says Cairns.
“We walk every pen every morning and drive the alleys before dark.”
“We’ve used the same vets for many years for our health program. Dr. Mike Jelinski and Dr. Craig Dorin from Veterinary Agri-Health Services meet with us every fall and discuss any new protocols or vaccines. The vets have even shot a video at the lot showing others the proper way of doctoring cattle which runs on the internet and it attracted a new custom feeder who was impressed with our facilities.”
After 51 years married and 25 years in the feedlot business, Larry and Joan are working with the family to transition the business.
“We sat down with our friend and neighbour Merle Good who is a facilitator for succession planning. Everyone was at the table and understands where we want things to go. It’s a work in progress,” states Cairns.
“By watching our children and grandchildren we know that each one of them is passionate about the business. Our son DJ (Darryl) handles the grain buying and the farming. His sister Bobbie and her husband Sam help with feeding cattle and processing. Bobbie also does some of the feedyard bookwork. Their son Skylar has taken over the day-to-day running of the feedlot and is good with the customers. He went off to college in Oklahoma and decided to stay in the family business. Skylar is a professional bull rider and raises bucking bulls. He and his wife Katelan live at the feedyard and she works as a nurse.”
“Our other grandson Brody took a welding course at Olds, and has a few welding trucks working in the oil patch. He’s also a crazy team roper and has won many pots. He is a good hand at the feedyard and his partner Stephanie lends a hand whenever we need help.”
Currently Larry and Joan still handle much of the paper work and billings for the feedlot. While Larry pens out his part – Joan uses the computer to do the final invoicing.
From raising hogs, milking cows, feeding steers, raising a family – they’ve always worked as a team. Now, handing off the reins to their family, they know their life’s work is in good hands.