Goal is on-farm improvements
Fed up with the frantic pace of life as a New York City artist, Jane Charlotte plunked herself down on 156 acres near Rocky Mountain House and started raising yearlings.
Success didn't happen overnight.
Starting out in the mid-1990s, the Calgary-born and raised Charlotte quickly realized that traditional farming methods weren't well-suited to a one-woman operation. She attended a Grey Wooded Forage Association Grass School, picked up tips from mentors along the way, and that proved to be just the catalyst she needed to get her own managed grazing system up and running.
An enthusiastic, life-long learner, she has been quick to take advantage of additional government and industry education programs through the years. It was by attending those courses, lectures and walk-abouts that she learned the ins-and-outs of building a successful cattle operation, starting from square one. Farming, she has learned, is very much about solving problems.
"I've always thought that the way I've learned is because I'm an artist," Charlotte says. "When you have a blank piece of canvas and you put a mark on that canvas, you have to figure out the problem of what the next mark should be and the next one and building on that. There's no formula for telling you that.
"I believe farming is a creative process and most farmers are interesting people because they are creative in some respect. That's why they invent things, because they do make it work."
Independent, determined and handy (she's built most everything on her farm, including her house and fencing system), she's also open-minded and quick to consider new ideas and programs. That's why, when the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) was introduced in 2006, she was one of the first groups in Clearwater County to go through the process and implement it into her operation.
She already had most of her operational procedures in place, but she noted that the EFP process served to enhance the environmentally-aware thinking she had already embraced. It also resulted in her implementing several improvements on her land.
Spring shipments of yearlings arrive at Charlotte's Koru Farm in April and May. Several days of electric fence training follow for the new arrivals and she also takes that time to look the herd over for any signs of trouble. After three or four days in the training pen, animals are processed through her extended head gate chute. Some of her customers from Calgary, many of whom she considers friends, come out during this time to pitch in with jobs like preparing supplies for vaccinations and recording electronic tags.
"There's lots to do, but it's all part of an experience of where your food's coming from and what it's all about," she says. "Even though these animals are big, they're actually gentle and lovely."
She buys her yearlings from farms with solid reputations for animal handling and care. That foundation for her herd, combined with her own low-stress management system (inspired by ideas from animal handling experts Temple Grandin and Dylan Biggs), serve as a marketing tool for her finished product.
Once the animals are trained to the electric fences, usually in May, she starts her flow through the fields, depending on where she left off last year.
"This time of year, it will be every 12 hours," she says of her grazing process, which involves moving her electric lines to lead the cattle into the next grazing area. Starting in mid-June, she'll move the herd every 24 hours, bringing the animals through for a second round, so they'll graze the forage before it heads out.
Charlotte strongly believes in the idea of "work smarter, not harder," so she puts the animals to work for her. To reseed some of the legumes like clover, she'll add seed to their free salt and let cattle do the work. Instead of using chemical fertilizers, the electric wires help her move her herd so the animals distribute their nutrients while they're grazing back and forth over the land. She's learned that cattle enjoy grazing thistles and dandelions at certain stages of those weeds' growth. The herd helps limit the growth of weeds amongst the forage so she doesn't have to do a broad herbicide application. Instead, she uses a quad and a backpack sprayer and spot sprays for weed control.
Since initially completing her EFP, Charlotte's installed a solar watering system; added diversified shelterbelts and hedgerows; implemented a system for secondary containment for chemicals from machinery work done; built berms around and installed backflow valves in her wells; and taken her riparian areas out of her grazing rotation.
"I believe in best practices and I think a lot of people do," Charlotte says. "I think the Environmental Farm Plan identifies things. I think you have to approach it so that you don't feel that when you do the plan, that it's all stuff that has to be done tomorrow because you can't. I think I had a five-year plan on a lot of things. And money can be a deterrent, so it's a balancing act."
This spring, she worked with Gary Lewis from Clearwater County to update her EFP. Although there are some high-risk ratings she can't change due to the slope of her land, she says the EFP updating process highlighted several goals that she had already accomplished and gave her new ideas for further improvements.
Driven by an artist's quest for "time and space" to create art, she's set up her gate-to-plate operation so that activity revs up in spring when the new shipment of yearlings arrives and winds down in late fall – leaving her the winter, when her land lies dormant under a cover of snow, to sculpt and paint.
"My days in June can start at 4:30 a.m. and I can go in June right until 10:30 or 11 at night because you've got these huge daylight hours," she says. "It slows down as the light changes and I do, too. I just move with it and it's delightful."
More information on EFPs in Alberta is available at www.albertaefp.com.