Embracing change key, as Cecil Lake farm family switches to grain from dairy

A few years after taking over the dairy farm from his dad, Fred Lehmann faced a tough decision: was he to sell the herd or expand?

He and his wife Madeleine wrote down the pros and cons in their home in Cecil Lake. If they kept the cows, marketing and guaranteed cashflow would have been less of a problem, but Fred wasn’t passionate about dairying. It was a lot of work and employees were hard to find.

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“You never did get a day off,” said Madeleine.

If the Lehmanns were to keep the operation and be successful, Fred said they would have likely had to take on lots of debt to expand and renovate the barn.

He also liked machinery and working in the field. They had already been growing 600 acres for feed.

“I think it’s best to say my talents and interests naturally lied more with machinery and fields,” he said.

“I gradually realized that to be a successful dairyman, you’ve got to keep the cows healthy and you got to be ahead of the game. That was hard. It was a challenge to stay ahead of the herd with their health.”

But by selling the herd, he would essentially undo what his father, Gottlieb, worked hard to build. Gottlieb moved from Switzerland to the North Peace district to start a dairy operation. It was his legacy, Fred said.

“It was a hard thing to take into account,” he said. “For him, milk was good. He was a successful dairyman and things rolled for him.”

After much debate, the couple decided it was best to sell the herd in 2013 and get into grain farming. It allowed Fred to follow his passion.

“In the end, you’ve got to be able to go to bed and on the odd day say, ‘that was a good day.’ You don’t want to dread the next day,” he said. “When I sold the cows, for the next year I felt like I was going on vacation when I went to bed.”

The family is currently in the middle of converting the old barn into a storage facility for their machinery.

Fred is working with 1,800 acres, mostly growing canola and wheat. Some land is being used for oats and a little bit for flax.

Even though he’s enjoying grain farming, it does come with its challenges. For instance, he said dealing with dry years is never fun. As well, it’s important to get seeding and spraying right.

"You still have to be on the ball,” Fred said. “But when things are looking good out there, it’s stimulating to go out and watch that development.”

The couple has four daughters: Sarah, Stephanie, Christina and Alexandra. While the family is a long way from succession, if any of their daughters are open to farming in the future, Fred said he supports that but won’t pressure them into it.

He said it’s important for families in succession to know that children will likely make changes, especially if whatever they takeover isn’t in their wheelhouse.

“When someone takes over the farm, they might change direction, and we shouldn’t be surprised or hurt by that,” he said. “I’m glad I made the switch.”

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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