Graeme Finn: Not your average grazier

Graeme Finn: Not your average grazier
by Lee Gunderson - 10, 2011

It's a long way from a 500,000 acre Australian cattle station and 40 degree heat to Crossfield, Alberta and summer grazing 400 heifers. But Graeme Finn heard a different drummer as a teenager and as he said, “I was never born to follow.” He was either going into the Australian army or ag college and the college called him back first, so Graeme headed off to school.

Today Graeme and his wife Heather have two daughters and he lives not far from Crossfield on a pristine acreage from which he manages his cow/calf operation, his summer heifer grazing operation and not far from Agrowplow International headquarters in Crossfield, where Graeme serves as North American sales manager. Those who know the forage circuit in the West and the big trade shows will have seen Graeme selling seed drills and sub-soilers for agriculture.

Today, Graeme sits on the Board of the Beef Research and Development Group at Lacombe, is director of Foothills Forage and Grazing Association, is vice-president of ARECA (Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta) as well as heading Agrowplow sales for North America.

His wife Heather and two daughters would like to see more of him but Graeme is making hay and having fun on the leading edge of his industry, as well as pasture and forage innovation and research.

His expertise on rotational grazing, forage varieties and alternative methods of managing livestock grazing could literally fill books. His knowledge is current and in demand.

So it was that Brenda Schoepp of Rimbey (recall her BEEFLINK) dropped down for a day and we talked about Graeme's summer grazing management strategy. It really all comes down to 400 head of red and black heifers grazing 13 - 50 acre cell paddocks on a section that are all cross fenced off and connected via a central corridor that he rents from Wayne and Rhonda Hanson, near Airdrie. The cattle are exceptional, bought by Don Evans, Graeme's father-in-law. Brenda consults with Graeme on the big picture...buying, selling, risk management.

But it is Graeme that manages the cattle day to day and it is Graeme and Wayne who are partners in a seed drill that seeded the pasture his cattle are grazing. The pasture is rejuvenated and looks impressive. Wayne and Graeme used a mix of Sandfloin, vetch, alfalfa, creeping red fescue as well as meadow and smooth brome grasses. The photos along with this story tell the tale (taken Sept. 14). The cattle are in excellent condition and buyers are calling regularly with offers. After his costs and initial outlay, Graeme will fare quite well with his investment and his risk will have been amply rewarded. Though outcomes are never certain in cattle ventures, Graeme adds, “Every cent becomes a dollar.”

Graeme loves his family, his cattle and his Kelpie dog named “Kip” is his sidekick wherever he goes. What is evident is that Graeme enjoys putting all the theoretical things he's learned about forage, feeding cattle and grazing to work in the real world. He practices what he preaches and the results are outstanding.

Graeme is not your average stockman/grazier. He can take almost any livestock model in any locale, with any basic grazing/crop setup and improve upon it based on the hundreds of grazing models he's seen and studied. It's the knowledge of soils, livestock needs and utilizing the various legumes and grasses according to region and climate that round out Graeme’s skill set.

The day spent in conversation with Brenda and Graeme was most informative; it was time well spent to say the least. For instance Brenda believes, “Summer grazing heifers gives one more options.

You can sell them to a feeder but you can also breed and sell them or retain them. Steers on grass may limit your marketing choices. And I'm of the opinion that no cattle operation should be selling heifer calves in the fall. It makes no economic sense.”

Brenda was adamant that Graeme was on the right track with his cattle, his pasture, his pasture seeding and just to the right of the 50 acre parcel we were in, was an ungrazed 50 acre parcel of pasture that stood well over the heads of heifers standing beside the fence which separated them from it.

Brenda said, “The secret is the land. Improve your pastures as Graeme has done. It will pay more in the long haul than buying a new truck. Years ago we focused on cattle feeding. The focus has changed to a more comprehensive overview of what we're doing with the land. Cattle are just a tool. Money is just a tool. But it's the land that is the basis of all the wealth and the future.”

Brenda Schoepp has a broad client base from farmers, to investors, governments and banks.

They use her information bank as a trustworthy source for a second opinion. Graeme makes his moves after he bounces his moves and methodology off several people. Brenda's is one of the opinions he trusts, as well as his father-in-law. She adds, “Graeme looks at land and enhancing it with different eyes. With a different set of values. I think Graeme challenges the status quo. His is in a leadership role that shows people new ways to enhance their land, stocking rates, grazing methods and traditional ways they have of looking at their land and its value. He's making them rethink basic assumptions about their grazing management.”

We all agree that food security is a top priority now, not only in Canada but globally. We all concur that over eons food and water shortages have caused great social upheavals, migrations, wars and mass death. So I posed a question to Graeme: “Are you sorry you left the cattle station where you had 1 cow per 50 acres?” Graeme replied, “Oh s__t no!” And we looked out at 400 head of heifers intensively grazing the hip deep forage Graeme seeded two years ago. Graeme said he is most proud of the growth FFGA has seen in its membership and said, “The Foothills Forage group sees things with fresh eyes. I see myself as just an average bloke trying to make a go of it. You work hard, you get what you put into it. I rather think that I have a toolbox that I use to help me do what I do: Brenda is an advisor; Don Evans brings his expertise in buying the cattle; Mark Johns advises me on forage options (he's with Viterra) and I learn so much from people like Grant Lastiwka, Jim Bauer and Doug Wray. Nor am I afraid to ask when I don't know something. So really a lot of people have helped me get to where I'm at and it's all a lifelong learning curve that I enjoy immensely. I'm never too proud to say “I don't know. I'm not sure.”

Graeme adds, “Agriculture has been good to me. And I honestly don't like the 40-44 degree heat back home. I have some people in my 'tool box' that empower me. They keep inspiring me and they help me when I need it. It's good friends and neighbours that make this agricultural life I lead worthwhile.”

Brenda adds, “I want my clients to make money and lots of it. My job is to have my clients dream bigger dreams. Who are you? Where do you want to go? Make money, have fun, keep learning. Stop apologizing for being profitable. And I encourage my clients to use their gifts. Graeme is fully utilizing his gift for improving the land. He sees things can be done so much differently that most producers realize and they can become so much more profitable. Graeme is a leader in his field and has a gift for understanding and teaching soil, grass, pasture and grazing management. He'll look at a patch of land and see it as it could be, not as it is. I believe we have to become more “ok' in our excellence. Ranching, grazing, farming is a profession not just a job. Graeme's story is important, it has to be told. He cares about the health of soils, he knows why soil fertility is so important. And I remind all of my clients that life is about a set of disciplines: don't overspend. Understand your risk profile and don't step outside that comfort zone when it comes to taking on new or larger risks.”

The conversation drifts to many subjects. Like planting rhubarb in key low lying places so one has early frost indicators. And to surrounding yourself with positive people, having a positive mindset, trusting inner voices, travel with the right crowd that empowers you, not a crowd that criticizes you or pulls you down. It was a most interesting, challenging and informative afternoon spent with two young livestock/information professionals not afraid to share what they know. Cross trails with either one or both for a little while and you're sure to come away thinking different things than before you met. They enjoy enriching perspectives and challenging every idea you might have when it comes to land, values, goals and management. Graeme Finn of Crossfield, following his dream and enjoying every step along the way.

Graeme's enthusiasm, his hearty “Hello Mate” and his love of the land, people and cattle make him a leader. He believes problems are temporary and can be overcome with hard work and creative thinking. Over the years, I have seen him overcome adversity and continue on with new initiatives, never daunted by hard work or hard times. Brenda, Graeme and myself still believe there could be no better place in the world to be than in agriculture, in Alberta, right now. As Graeme said one day on the phone, “Just remember, things could always be worse.”