Increased protein and energy in multi-species forage is essential for keeping cattle healthy in negative 40 degree winters.

For those who don't enter the agriculture industry through succession, finding a foothold and making the business profitable can be difficult. For Graeme Finn, a chance opportunity to work in agriculture in Canada saw him decide to save up to enter the industry in a country with cheaper land prices. But becoming a rancher where you know no one, and where the winters can reach −40℃ comes with another set of challenges.


Farm/Enterprise Name: Southern Cross Livestock, Union Forages

Farm/Enterprise Location: Madden, Alberta, Canada

Type of Enterprise: Yearling grass operation and beef cattle

Property Size: 2,800 acres of rented pasture

Average Annual Rainfall: 387mm

Climate: Continental



Graeme Finn first travelled to Canada in 1990 to buy semen embryos for a station he was managing in Australia. But after that Australian station was sold, he was given the opportunity to work in Canada, where a colleague offered to sponsor him to stay.

After several years of working odd jobs, from instructing the British Army in Canadian mountain survival to being an on-flight groom for livestock with an airline, he had earned enough to be able to buy some land to start building his own cattle herd.


Australian Graeme Finn moved to Canada in the early 1990s with the goal of becoming a rancher and a steep learning curve on his hands. From 30℃ plus summers to −30℃ winters, the climate was an immediate challenge and not just for him, but also for his livestock.

Being new to the country and industry, Graeme needed to do everything as cheaply and efficiently as possible, so he aimed to find more productive practices than some of the traditional ways Canadians ranched cattle.

From a station manager's wage in Australia to a considerably lower minimum wage in Canada, Graeme needed to do everything as cost efficiently as possible, but also wanted to utilise some Australian best practices that were far from the norm in Canada.

Graeme's other challenge was building up a grazing business without the inbuilt support system of his home country. As a new arrival, he started with no community to turn to for advice or education on best practices of Canadian ranching, as well as just general information and insights into a foreign beef industry.


Aerial view of forage windrows slashed and ready for swath grazing.

The primary area in which he could see opportunity for improved cost efficiency was during winter months when, traditionally, Canadian ranchers manually bring in straw for bedding, hay or silage for supplements.

Rather than spend significant money on tractors, fuel and imported fodder in winter, Graeme wanted to see if the cattle could graze year round, reducing labour and financial requirements. To achieve that, cattle need appropriate nutrition, energy to keep warm and protein to keep them growing.

Through workshops, Graeme learnt about swath grazing where, prior to winter, ranchers cut the grown crop of oats and lay it down, before snow snap freezes it in a condition cattle can continue to eat over subsequent months. Swath grazing has the potential to significantly lower winter feeding costs, cutting out the need to store and supply forage daily.

Increasing the total digestible nutrients (TDN) and protein of the forage was essential, and Graeme experimented with annual legumes and other crops to increase the nutrients per hectare.

Turning to New Zealand for examples, Graeme started working with PGG Seeds, who would export to Canada. He started blending Winfred forage rape seed into mixes of oats, triticale and peas, which moved nutrient rates from 9.3% protein to around 15.5% protein. With no manual on what ratio to make seed mixes, it was trial and error to figure out what percentages worked to create a good mix of forage.

An example of Graeme's high protein multi-species forage cover crop.

For summer, Graeme likes to seed a heavy mixture of different legumes, including alfalfa, cicer milk vetch and Glenview sainfoin along with the grass. The winter swath grazing evolved into now using a nutrient dense blend of forage rape, turnips, peas, sunflower, grains like triticale, and oats.

To control the daily feed intake of cattle, Graeme uses electric fences, and grazing paddocks are divided up into cells for cattle to be rotated through. Rotational grazing like this was all but unheard of in Canada when Graeme started, but it has since grown in popularity.

To measure efficiency, he looked not only at the increased nutrients in the forage, but at grazing days per hectare. At first, the average Graeme measured was around 1.5-2 acres (0.6-0.8 hectares) per animal to last around 170-175 days, but he quickly cut the figures down to only needing 1 acre (0.4) hectares per head to last 170-175 days, depending on the year's rainfall.

Bettering genetics was also a key component for improvement, and the breed of cattle was chosen based on preferred characteristics. He settled on Black Angus/Hereford as a hardy crossbreed; black coats to help keep livestock warm as well as good mothering properties from the Herefords.

For the right genetics, Graeme had to whittle down where he bought bulls, finding most Canadian ranchers gave bulls easier conditions over winter, with straw bedding and a high protein diet. The conditions in which they were kept meant they didn't cope well when turned out with the herd, which also, in turn, led to softer calves - something that wasn't ideal for herds that graze year round.

Another area where Graeme chose to reject Canadian tradition was with calving season, and therefore, when the bulls were put over cows. A large percentage of Canadian ranchers have their cows calve in February and March, assuming the calves will be in a good weight grade by the annual November sales. The final 6 to 8 weeks of winter can be harsh on the newborn calves and are high maintenance for ranchers. By pushing the calving season back from February/March to May, the calves have a better chance of survival in the warmer temperatures. By pushing back calving he has reduced both stress on cows as well as labour requirements for livestock management in bad weather.

With the addition of a high energy and protein diet from forage improvement, Graeme counteracts the extra months of life with faster growth in better conditions.

It's not only on-farm that Graeme works to ensure cost efficiency. Rather than rely on sending cattle to the sale yards, where prices are set by auction, Graeme sources his own buyers. He's found that working with his buyers, he's able to supply cattle to their demands, and as a result, on average makes around 10 cents a pound higher than the best sale of the week. The calves are weaned in November at around 580 pounds (263 kilograms) average.


Graeme's marker for success is having a profitable grazing business, and through improving nutritional value in fodder, soil health and reducing yearly input costs, he has achieved that.

Cattle grazing on snap-frozen forage windrows.

As he was starting from scratch, maximum cost efficiency was essential, and is measurable in several ways, but notably through the average cost of maintaining a cow through winter. For Graeme, the average cost of maintaining a cow comes to $1.27 CAD (approximately $1.45 AUD), less than half of the Albertan average of $3.80 CAD per day ($4.30 AUD.)

By being open to international best practices, and combining grazing practices not only from Australia, but Canada, the United States and New Zealand, Graeme has managed to create a system that leads the way for other Albertan ranchers to improve profitability. Approximately 10% to 15% of Albertan ranchers now use similar grazing styles, a notable increase on when he first started in Canada in the early 1990s. His ranch is now also partnered with an agricultural research team, as they continue to trial alternate proteins.

Graeme's motto, that sustainable agriculture must be profitable, has a significant impact on his pasture practices. With zero tillage annual forages and soil seeding new perennials with higher value legumes and grasses, he has now created a closed circuit system- where nutrients that feed the cattle return to the soil as fertiliser. He also uses the cattle as a low-cost seeding system. Upon feeding raw seed to cattle, legumes begin popping up in open pasture and in bush land, where tillage and mechanical seeding is difficult.

Beyond the grazing operation, Graeme has also founded several businesses to build on what was hard to source in Canada.

Graeme founded Union Forage, which imports perennial and annual seeds for Canadian ranchers to reduce winter feeding days and increase productivity. The start-up quickly grew into a business that now employs over 10 people. Graeme is now taking a step back from the day-to-day business operations, to be able to spend more time with his daughters before they leave high school.

He was also responsible for Australian company Agrowplow, exporting direct soil seeding equipment for forage seeding and subsequent aerobic soil care into Canada. His work with Agrowplow has improved access for other ranchers looking to trial different ranching techniques. He also partnered with electric fence supply company Gallagher to share and educate other ranchers on how to utilise electric fences for rotational grazing. These processes have not only helped share Graeme's learnings in increased profitability, they have also built the community Graeme was lacking when he first moved to Canada.

Graeme has expanded his role to become a consultant, leveraging his extensive experience spanning almost 30 years as a Canadian rancher. Meanwhile, his wife manages her physiotherapy business but is equally dedicated to the ranch on a full-time basis. Impressively, both their daughters have shown a knack for agriculture, running their own beef cattle and meat poultry ventures right on the farm - all of this before graduating high school. Graeme's sense of accomplishment stems not only from the thriving business they've built but also from his pride in running happy, healthy cattle both sustainably and profitably.