Buis Beef
Chatham, Ontario

Mike and Joanne Buis – Buis Beef

By Blair Andrews

Mike and Joanne Buis knew they had to make some big changes if their family’s beef farm near Chatham was going to survive.  Thanks to an innovative management approach and leading-edge technology, they have grown beyond their feedlot business to include a retail store that sells their own brand of Buis Beef.

The days of running a feedlot that finished calves from western Canada were numbered when cattle prices plummeted in 2003 because of the BSE crisis.

“We started out as finding a way to stay in the beef business in general, and we needed to figure out how we are going to make it sustainable,” says Mike.

In a move aimed at becoming more vertically integrated, they decided to get into the cow-calf business and raise their own calves to be finished in their feed yard. Following some trial and error, they worked out a system in which the cows spend the summer in the barn and graze in the fields during winter.

In essence, it runs opposite to the way most cow-calf businesses are managed in Ontario.

“We flipped the whole thing on its ear,” says Mike.

At first, the neighbours thought Buis was the one who flipped because he had fenced off a large portion of his valuable cash crop land to pasture cattle.  “People were really wondering if we were completely crazy, but when you think about it, it makes sense from a whole-farm perspective.”

The key is the cropping system that includes planting a cover crop, usually cereal rye, to ensure the acreage is covered all year. After the farm’s cash crops and vegetables are harvested, the cows are turned out into the crop residues and the cover crops where they harvest their own feed.

“The other plus to that is we don’t have to spread manure in the winter,” says Buis. “We don’t have to haul feed to the cows. And a side benefit to that is we have greatly increased the health of the cows.”

The cover crops also protect the soil against erosion while helping to build up the organic matter and nutrients for the next crop.

On the retail side, the Buis family has developed a niche market of selling beef that has been raised without hormones and antibiotics. Also, the beef sold in the store is a certain size and is graded AAA.

Knowing whether an animal will meet those characteristics before it is processed is one of their biggest challenges. For an accurate prediction, Buis has turned to ultrasound technology to see what’s happening under the hide. The technology measures key carcass aspects such as the rib eye area, the back-fat thickness and the marbling.   A computer program predicts how the animal will finish and estimates the optimum day for harvest.

“So that way, we could pinpoint the day we wanted to pick the animal, plus it told us exactly which animals will work for the store,” says Buis.

What’s more, they have set up a traceability system to track the products back to the cow.

Each package has a four-digit number that corresponds to the last four digits of the electronic ID number of the cattle. Besides assuring customers the beef has been raised according to Buis standards, it also benefits their farm management.

By tracking the animals, they can use the information to assess their performance and make adjustments.  The next step is to automate the system to help streamline the inventory information. Bar codes are being added to the labels, which can be scanned and read by an iPod.

Buis hopes to use the system to create an online store to complement the retail outlet, which is located near the 401 ramps at Bloomfield Rd.

“We get customers from Toronto to Windsor who stop in. They could buy it online, have it packaged and pick it up and go when they drive through…that would be perfect,” says Buis.

For the family, it’s all part of keeping their 75-year old farm in the beef business.

It’s truly a family affair as Mike and his son John take care of the cattle and the cropping and Joanne manages the retail side. They also get some help from daughter Theresa and younger sons Matt and Patrick. And Mike’s father Martin, who is in his 80s, pitches in as well.

“We’re into that 60 to 70 hours a week, but if you’re doing what you really like, it’s not really work,” says Buis.