by Leeann Minogue
Ken Colborn, a fourth-generation farmer, says his great-grandfather’s decision to settle in an area with relatively light soil probably saved their farm. In 1910, William Colborn chose his homestead near Delisle, Saskatchewan, because he liked the trees and the creek in the area. It’s a nice spot, but not all the Colborn land is well suited to growing crops. As a result, Ken says, “we had to go into the beef business.” Today, the Colborns have built up a healthy cattle operation alongside their grain and egg production businesses.
Ken’s brother Ron was a teenager when his father and uncle first purchased a herd of cows from a neighbouring farmer. The brothers were looking for a way to make use of their hay land and a creek bottom that didn’t produce grain. Once they bought their first 30 cows, Ron says, “it was just a matter of growing the herd.”
The Colborns believe investment in high-quality cattle genetics has been the key to their success in the industry. In 2004, they started buying replacement heifers, female cattle new their herd that have not yet had a calf. These heifers were a cross of Red Angus and Red Simmental cattle breeds. When they crossed these heifers with Charolais bulls, the resulting calves were even and tan coloured, and were able to put on weight quickly. Ron attributes their calves’ high feed conversion rate to hybrid vigor. “We’ve never looked back,” Ron says.
Grains and oilseed yields are typically lower on lighter land. The Colborns use their lighter land to grow silage for their cattle herd. They plant barley as early in the spring as possible, then chop the plants for silage in June or July, when the barley is still green and made up of 65 percent moisture. They let it ferment over the summer and fall and feed it to the cattle through the winter and spring. “Once it’s in there and it’s cooked,” says Jeff (Ron’s son), referring to the fermenting process “it’s kind of like candy for the cows.”
Sustainability is always top of mind for the Colborns, in all aspects of their business. That includes soil health and environmental sustainability, as well as economic sustainability. “Sometimes people view farming and ranching as more of a lifestyle. It still needs to be operated as a business,” says Jeff’s cousin Shawn Colborn.
Investing in technology like new cattle genetics and alternative grazing practices have been key factors in the Colborn farm’s longevity. However, there is one area where visitors to the farm won’t see the latest farm machinery. The Colborns prefer to handle their cattle herd with horses rather than ATVs or other vehicles.
In some parts of their pasture, Jeff says, the bush is too thick to get through with an ATV. There would be no way to chase a bull out of the trees. Shawn says the cattle are less stressed when they’re handled by people on horseback rather than noisy machines. Jeff grew up learning to ride horses and rope, and he’s always imagined he would teach his kids, the sixth-generation of Colborn farmers, to do the same. “There’s no better way to go out and spend the day with cows than on the back of a horse.”