By Natalie Noble

During calving season, Andre and Katie Steppler don’t need an alarm clock. They have three kids who can’t wait to see what’s happening on the farm, which cows are calving and if they can help out. It’s a respect and zest for life the couple is grateful to pass on in raising the fourth generation of Stepplers on the original homestead. “They’re absolutely obsessed with everything we’re doing,” says Katie. “We feel fortunate to have these lives that revolve around the family and the farm.”

Steppler Farms, near Miami, Man., celebrated its centennial last year. The operation continues to grow in scope and production alongside an expanding family on the original land purchased in 1920 by Andre’s grandfather, Arnold. 

Today, Andre’s parents, Dan and Pat, their four sons and respective families all reside on the farm. In addition to Andre and Katie, there’s Ian, married to Sandy; Geoff, married to Sarah; and Adam, married to Amber; each on their own yardsite within a mile of one another. Meanwhile, Arnold’s original 15 to 20-cow milking and small grain operation sustains the growing family through its expansion into 3,500 acres of grain, 650 head of cattle and an 1,800-hive honeybee business. It’s the Stepplers’ commitment to their continued succession through solid planning, progressive practices and innovation that’s made it all possible. 

Running the farm since returning home from university in 1970, Dan met and married Pat in 1973. While Dan sold the original cows, turning his focus to raising purebred Charolais cattle, Pat worked as a schoolteacher, always heavily involved on the farm while raising the boys. “We all had roles to play on the farm growing up, there’s no doubt about that,” says Andre. “We had lots to do with 4-H and our small town community values are instilled in all of us.” 

As the new century turned over, it became apparent their sons planned to return to the farm after post-secondary. “Mom and Dad had to go through a very intense, elaborate and proactive succession planning process to figure out how to get the farm succeeded down to all four of us,” says Andre. “It had to be done in a way that maintained stability across the farm and to each individual shareholder, which includes our parents and the four of us.” 

Each son returned with their own interest. Ian has his diploma in agriculture, Adam is a red seal carpenter, Geoff is an airline pilot for Air Canada who farms half-time and Andre earned a diploma in herd health technology. With that, the succession plan culminated into the farm’s 2008 restructure, allowing each brother to pursue their individual passions and raise their families in the lifestyle they love so much. Adam and Geoff co-manage the grain operation, Andre’s transforming the cattle side, and Ian’s venture into honeybees is a fortunate coincidence. “He needed two more credit hours to graduate and the honeybee course required the least amount of work,” says Andre with a laugh, adding that being stung as he checks the pastures is a casualty of the job. 

A member of the Bee Maid Honey co-op, when the honey flows, Ian delivers it into their Winnipeg co-op where all the marketing and distribution is handled. 

An ever-changing landscape

As the generations of Stepplers have witnessed and leveraged massive advancements in farming over the decades, the landscape of their farm has also evolved. “In Dad’s time, we had typical red spring wheat land,” says Andre, adding that being located up on an escarpment originally ruled out two-row crops while seasonally, their region didn’t have the heat units for corn. “Now, with technology and genetic advancements, we’re growing corn quite successfully and have introduced sunflowers. Of course, canola’s been a main staple here. To balance our rotations, we bring in oats and occasionally some beans. As for potatoes, there’s too many stones and hills here.” 

They’ve since expanded those crop acres from 800 acres in Dan’s earlier days, to 4,000 acres today.

In the 1970s, Dan recognized a need for innovation in the cattle industry. A mere decade behind the first Charolais cow to arrive in North America from France, he brought some of the first white cows to his region, predicting their ability to fill an industry void through enhanced performance. “When those first ones arrived here, our farm became like a zoo,” says Andre. “Everyone wanted to come and see how different they were. All those continental breeds coming over at that time, the Simmental and Anjou breeds as well, were so exotic compared to the British breeds already here.” 

The Stepplers will soon celebrate 50 years of successful Charolais breeding. When Andre left for college, they managed 60 to 80 cows. When he returned, he parlayed the angst of the BSE crisis into a growth opportunity. “I came back and grew a sizable herd, up to 600 purebred cows now,” he says. “We did that very affordably because at that time, the cows simply weren’t worth anything.” 

He then set to work modernizing the cattle enterprise, playing to the unique traits of the purebred animals, including their feeding system. Switching over to more corn silage, the Stepplers now feed their herd using 400 acres of cropland instead of the 1,500 acres dry hay would require.

Achieving more production on less acreage remains critical in agriculture, an evident challenge considering pastureland in southwest Manitoba can fetch upwards of $4,000 per acre. Since graduating in 2004, Andre’s seen cropland value in his area jump from $700 per acre to a recent nearby sale that drew $10,000 per acre. The situation has grain farmers improving marginal land into cropland, a problem for those reliant on grasslands Andre fears will only escalate across Western Canada.

Because they’ve held pastureland over decades, the Stepplers continue to use it as originally intended. When they require more during the growing season, they move cattle north to community pastures. Come fall, they’re grazed over all the crop acres as garburators picking up all the otherwise unusable residue.

Managing the many moving parts and labour demands across the farm, the Stepplers have two-full time employees assisting with cattle in winter and grain in the growing season. In summer, when things get hectic with honey flowing, managing cattle and full-tilt grain activity, they employ up to 16 part-time workers. 

They run three John Deere 9600s and use a custom chopper to handle the 400 acres of corn silage in two-and-a-half days. “With dry hay this would be a three-month’s job. It could’ve caused a divorce if that switch wasn’t made,” jokes Andre, but more seriously says it allows the family to better focus their time and energy.

Innovation that matters

In raising their kids on the farm, Andre and Katie proudly pass along a legacy of incredible stewardship. “It’s character building, instills responsibility and we’re developing these kids to respect life,” says Andre. “That’s important when we’re farmers dealing with livestock.”

Their efforts to make innovations they believe improve their operation and also Canada’s cattle industry as a whole are likely rooted in their youth. The two were 4-H competitors over years, recalls Katie who grew up on a small cattle operation west of Carman, Man. 

Growing up in the purebred space, Andre’s also long been infatuated with the commercial side of the industry, appreciating the different attributes that lend well to certain efficiencies. When 2015/16 saw feed shortages, Katie’s father brought 100 Black Angus over to winter off the Stepplers’ good corn crop.

“We ended up buying these cows with a good marketing strategy in mind,” says Andre. “We took our white bulls and put them on these black cows for the best of both worlds. We get the performance of the Charolais breed that really performs in the feedlot and the efficiencies of the black angus cow. She’s so efficient at taking low-grade grass, maintaining herself, feeding a calf, breeding and doing it all over again next year.”

The product is a silver calf that confirms a notion the family already had. “We need to start championing the idea of a three-way cross in our industry. The better the Black Angus or Simmental cross cow out there bred to my white bull, the more we achieve and pass down through our sales,” says Andre.

Much like Dan’s zoo-like days of the ‘70s, the farm again attracts visitors. “I think people need to see what we have going on to believe it, ensure it’s working and whether it’s been a train wreck or not,” says Andre. “We start walking through these black cows with these beautiful big chromey calves on them and people are sold.”

Speaking of sold, the farm’s annual bull sale is attracting people interested in all the innovation. “The bull sale is a one-stop shop,” says Andre. “You can buy all three breeds of bulls – Charolais, Black Angus and Simmentals, as well as our silver calves – here. We’re also focusing extensively on our embryo transfer program and getting these cows producing purebred calves for us.”

Held in March, the bull sale is an important business day, but also a celebration of each year’s end of the production cycle. “We get to see what our genetics are doing for people and what they’re going for next time,” says Andre. “We gather with friends and reconnect with our customers. It’s a party afterwards where we relax and have fun.”

Selling in high quantity with excellent service, the Stepplers offer differentiating incentives, such as subsidizing deliveries in Western Canada and into Southern Ontario and offering warranties to back their products. “Not many bulls go down but if an issue did show up before, the insurance companies were hard to deal with, too expensive and in those cases, it was hard to retain the customer,” says Andre.

Their breeding warranties and herd bull guarantees cover all bulls for death or injury for six months at no premium. “We supply a backup bull to get their cows bred, that bull comes back and they get a full sales credit to buy a new bull next year,” says Andre. “It builds trust both ways between us and our clients.”

“We don’t just talk about it, we live it”

With future generations in mind, sustainable practices are everywhere on the Steppler farm and the honeybees play a big role. Their lifecycle tends to be a feast-or-famine scenario, dependent upon wildflowers, including dandelions, so the monocrop environment and enhanced spraying practices can starve them out. “When canola’s moving, it’s a gravy train with lots of nectar flowing in,” says Andre. “Once that stops, we’re back in a bust situation lacking the natural flowers to sustain those pollinators.”

The solutions established symbiotic relationships. Pollinator strips are implemented around fields and where wet patches prevent crops. Wildflowers, including sweet clover, are sown into a half-section of the grasslands. “We can move 100 cows over it in eight different paddocks and ensure there’s always one with sweet clover flowering in it,” says Andre. “The cows benefit from the clover’s higher protein, it puts nitrogen back in the soil for the grass and the bees benefit with a sustainable nutritional base when the canola’s not there.”

The Stepplers have a slogan: “we don’t just talk about it, we live it.” The living part is evident on the farm, but for Andre and Katie, the talking part plays an industry-wide role. “Andre and I are super passionate about this industry, advocating and bringing awareness for the next generation,” says Katie. “As time goes on, more people are removed from agriculture and that makes it so important for us to educate and share our story as much as possible. We want to help people understand what we do.”

In that spirit, the couple were named Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmers in 2020 and honoured at the 2021 event celebrating Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers. “This was really rewarding and allowed us to highlight what we’re doing on our farm,” says Katie. “It was exciting to participate in the national competition and meet people doing all sorts of things in Canadian agriculture.”

It’s an opportunity to share knowledge with the best in the industry. “We engaged with each other’s operations, our progression and how we’re all working within the industry,” says Andre. “We brought so much home to rethink our way out of the box. That’s a great benefit to our farm and it shows the program’s value.”

The couple regularly attends livestock events, sales and tradeshows, Andre often judging national competitions. It’s all to put a face to the industry people can relate to and better understand who produces their food. 

“We are hardworking, we have a high level of integrity, but we really are just like everyone else, raising families, going to the hockey rink and going camping. But we’re also raising your food,” says Andre. “The best part of farming is we do this with our kids and raise them to move this industry forward. Hopefully we can succeed everything down to them with our own succession plan.”