Diversity keeps this 100-year-old family farm in the black

In the span of a single week last March, a lot went down in the Steppler household. First, Andre and Katie Steppler were named 2020 winners of the Outstanding Young Farmer’s Program award for the Manitoba region. A few days later, they hosted 200 people at their annual bull sale
where they sold a record 104 bulls. Five days after that, the whole country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It may sound odd to call anything about 2020 lucky, but we were really lucky with our timing last year,” says Andre, co-owner of Steppler Farms in Miami, MB. “We hold the second biggest bull sale in Canada and the fact that we were able to get that done in 2020 is something we are very proud of. Things are going to look different at our bull sale in 2021, but we are devoted to our customers and to this industry, and have been able to spend the year preparing for this.”

The Stepplers will also be recognizing their farm’s 100th anniversary in 2021. Andre’s parents took over the farm from his grandparents in 1973. They incorporated the business, then in 2007, handed sectors of farm to each of their four sons.

Andre and his wife Katie run Steppler Charolais, the cattle side of the operation. They grew it from a 60-head purebred ranch in 2007 to the 600-head purebred Charolais and 100-head Black Angus operation that it is today. They host two cattle sales a year — a bull sale in March and a cow sale in December. They are active in the Charolais community, travelling the country to promote the breed, showing their cattle and judging breeding competitions. Increasingly, Andre is asked to speak at industry events about their operation’s success.

THE FAMILY THAT FARMS TOGETHER…

Andre’s brothers handle other sides of the business. Ian manages Steppler Honey, a 2,500-hive beekeeping operation; Adam manages Steppler Grain, a 4,000-acre cash crop operation that, while small compared to the neighbours’, uses modern farming practices and is very profitable; and Geoff is an airline pilot who works part time in the grain business.

Together, the family is growing and modernizing the entire farm operation. On the cattle side, to accommodate the fast pace of growth, Andre says one of the first things he had to do was to build a large-scale calving barn to successfully manage the 400 cows that are calved each January. Ian has built a state-of-the-art honeybee house and there’s also a recently built, modern heated shop for the grain business. Every investment the brothers make is aimed at making sure they have everything they need to keep the overall business running profitably.

“I think we are all pretty astute when it comes to the financial end of the business, as we are all very focused on the overall profitability of the farm,” says Andre. “We manage our own entities but we are always talking to make sure that what we are doing can help each other when possible. We make sure every action we take is what our loyal customers want and what our future customers may be looking for.”

SOLVING THE INTERNET PROBLEM

Andre and Katie are currently planning for their 10th annual bull sale, which will take place in March 2021, a year after the pandemic changed the way so many people work and live.

As an essential service, the sale will go ahead in a COVID-19 restricted world, but it won’t look the same. Andre says they have unwittingly prepared for something like this as they were already in the process of moving online to meet the needs of customers who are unable to travel to the sale.

“Katie is a physiotherapist and works in the hospital so we have a lot of respect for the health care system and the stresses it has been put under due to this pandemic, and we don’t want to add to that stress,” he says. “Our business model is able to adapt to this changing environment. We video every bull so that we can put it online, and we had invested in a 100-foot Internet tower to improve our coverage. We were already doing what we needed to do to make an online sale a success, so our plan is very viable.”

The Internet tower turns out to be a key advantage, given the location of their farm in southern Manitoba. With poor cell and Internet coverage, they weren’t able to have an online presence in the past. Now they have been able to engage virtually, daily. Andre has become a regular figure online, featured in videos from the cab of his truck or in the field, sharing the stories of day-to-day work and advocating for the Charolais industry.

“We have grown our social media strategy a lot in recent years to complement the business,” says Katie. “We’ve grown the Steppler Farm brand on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. In addition, Andre is active on his personal pages to educate people about what it is we do. We are currently in the process of developing a new website. Taking things online will be an important part of our business going forward.”

THE GOOD BUSINESS OF CONSERVATION

Steppler Farms is conservation-minded and the brothers work together so that the different parts of the business work together to preserve the environment that has been handed down to them by their parents and grandparents.

Andre points to water source preservation as a mutually beneficial endeavour. By preserving local water bodies they are able to protect the habitat for native wildlife, while also ensuring a safe water source for the cattle.

“We try to keep as much of the natural environment as we can,” says Andre. “This is good for the future of our farm, but also gives us a social license to operate.” Bee and animal welfare are key priorities.

Canola pollination takes bees off the farm for a short stretch every year, but when on the farm, they’re in a bee paradise. “While canola is what keeps our bee business running, that is only busy a few weeks of the year,” says Andre. “We run our farm with bee health in mind. We seed sweet clover in our annual forage on our pastureland, which provides nutrition for our cows and, as we move them from paddock to paddock, it blooms all year for the bees. We seed pollinator strips on the grain operation in areas where we can’t grow crops, again providing another source of nutrition for bees and other birds and animals on our land.”

On the animal welfare side, Andre says that herd health is critical in order to provide quality stock to their customers and it has always been their intention to be leaders in quality health and genetics in their herd.

Looking to the future, growth and leaving a thriving business for the next generation is the plan. “We have great people farming with us but our next step forward will be looking at the next generation. (Between us) we have kids from one to 18 years of age, so we all have an interest in the progression of our farm.”

He says the cattle side of the business has the most room for growth as they have access to new pastureland an hour away. The bee business also has expansion potential while growing the grain business is a bit tougher as land prices nearby are high, as is demand from larger grain operations.

The Stepplers say their abbreviated experience with the OYF program has only left them wanting more. “We were super honoured to be nominated, and it has been great to connect virtually with farmers across Canada,” says Katie. “Normally we spend a lot of our time travelling and we look forward to getting out there and competing nationally when we are able to do so again.”