Mixed farming ensures steady growth for this OYF winner

When the Oswalds broke ground on their family farm in the 1930s, it was a mixed operation with everything from cows to grain to bees. Everything that could be farmed, was. Over time the farm narrowed its focus and concentrated on a few core businesses. Now the third generation to farm that land, Brent and Kirsty Oswald, have gone back to that mixed approach as a way to ensure slow and steady growth.

“When my dad took over the farm in the 1960s, all the small side businesses were slowly (eliminated),” says Brent. They got rid of the bees first because Brent’s dad was allergic then turned their attention to primarily dairy farming. This worked well for Brent’s dad but, he says, “When we started to look at succession planning, we decided that expanding the farm into other areas would help our growth. ”

This approach helped the Oswalds earn the 2017 Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award for the Manitoba region.  They own and operate Cottonwood Holsteins, a mixed dairy and grain farm near Steinbach, MB, located about 60 km southeast of Winnipeg. Together with the help of three full-time employees, they milk 145 cows and farm 2,400 acres. Since taking over the family farm almost 10 years ago, slow and steady is the way the Oswalds have grown their operation.

“In 2008 we milked 140 kg of quota and last year it was 200 kg,” he says. “Ten years ago we were farming 1,500 acres and today it’s 2,400 acres. ” The Oswalds were recently awarded some chicken production quota in the provincial lottery so now they’re working to set up a broiler chicken business. “We don’t look for big growth every year, but we want to make smart decisions that help our business in the long run. ”

And even in challenging times, the Oswalds still manage to move the farm forward. In 2016, Brent’s dad passed away.  At the time he was still an active participant on the farm. The following year was very difficult but, Brent says, he is proud of the way the farm continued to grow and perform at a high level of production and efficiency, despite the loss of his father.

“We look at everything we do, every change we make, as an investment in our growth,” says Brent. “And not everything is long term. A few years ago we invested in a pig barn, which was a good investment initially, but eventually we realized it wasn’t going to keep our farm growing,” he explains. So, it was sold and the money was invested back into the dairy, where it would have the most impact.

While mixing things up helps to grow the farm, new technology helps them operate more efficiently. Brent installed DeLaval robotic milkers in the dairy barns.  While the robots don’t really help Brent cut down on the amount of time spent in the barns, they do allow him more flexibility in running his business.

The robotic milkers have helped cut down milking time substantially, to the tune of six hours that Brent can now spend elsewhere on the farm. And his cows are calmer now that they aren’t been herded to holding areas every day.

“When my parents had the farm, my mom ran the dairy and my dad ran the farm,” he says. “With the robots I can do both and more. Technology is repeatable and consistent so it is very trustworthy, and that’s allowed me to spend more time with the herd. By more closely managing the herd we have seen a slight increase in production but a big change in overall herd health. ”

Brent also installed an automated feeder.  “Automated feeding is a huge time saver,” he says. “We fill the silo in September and the feeder keeps the cows properly fed until the next year. It keeps them from bottlenecking, and reduces labour costs feeding the herd on a daily basis. I can check on their rations while I am out seeding which means I can be in two places at once. ”

He hopes to bring similar technology to his chicken barn, allowing him to do the initial setup and then the technology will take over from there. Brent currently has a phone app that allows him to check the temperature in the barn, the feed rations and water, all without having to be there all the time.

Despite farming 2,400 acres of field crops, only 10 per cent is used for feed while the rest are cash crops. Even here, the Oswalds are always looking to increase production in their corn, soybean, wheat and alfalfa rotation. And in the future, Brent would like more of their grain production to go back to their herd.

Their growth plan is flexible and any changes are based on markets and opportunities. “Last year our three-year plan was to double the dairy but then we won the chicken quota so we decided to go in that direction instead,” he says.

“We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew, and we don’t want to add more full-time personnel. I already only get a few hours of sleep a night, and I would like any changes we make to allow me to get more, not less. ”

That being said, their growth is far from stagnant. The Oswalds are currently undergoing the approval process to set up a gravel pit in one area of the farm. “We have a piece of land where I realized I could get more by the yard than I could by the acre so I want to turn the worst piece of farming land into something productive,” he says.

When it comes to family, the two have been looking at how to incorporate more leisure time into their daily life. “When I was a kid, leisure time was working on the farm with your family,” he says. “I want to have an oasis on the farm where we can get away together and spend time not farming, so we are installing an indoor swimming pool. Leisure time should be more than sleeping four hours a night. ”

If Brent has one piece of advice, he would say to truly commit to your succession plan. The loss of his father made that point crystal clear. “Everyone talks about it and a lot of people do it to a certain extent,” he says. “But I would recommend to get together with your lawyer, your accountant and your staff to make sure everyone is on the same page for the ‘what ifs’. If you know the direction you want to go, take a team approach and make sure you are planning for the future. “