Schooten and Sons is one busy place.
The Lethbridge-area operation has four feed yards with a combined 40,000-head capacity; 6,300 acres of crops and pasture; a 300-head cattle herd; custom farming business; trucking company; composting operation; and 35 employees.
It’s a big change from the smaller, single feedlot that Shane, Cody, and Justin Schooten grew up on.
“If you want the honest truth, Dad did advise us he thought it would be better to pursue something else,” said Shane Schooten, who with wife Kristen, was named Alberta’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2016 earlier this year.
“As I got a little older, and he could see my passion for the business, and knowledge of it, he was fine with stepping back.”
Although only 33, Schooten’s entrepreneurial career goes back two decades. He bought his first cows at age 13, started a custom silaging business at 16, and took over management of Schooten and Sons Custom Feedyard from his father John shortly after the BSE crisis in 2003.
“Right from when I was young, I was involved with my dad every day as much as I could be,” said Schooten. “As I got older, I saw the potential in the business side and the family side, and it kind of confirmed that.”
With labour shortages and farmers not wanting to invest in machinery at that time, he saw an opportunity to grow the custom farming business as well.
“I did have a lot of educational heartburn over acquiring the capital to start, and getting a lender on side to buy this equipment and give me some operating money to buy fuel and pay wages,” admitted Schooten. “That was a real good learning experience because I was young, with not much financial history and no business history, so that took some time.”
Today, he invests heavily in both technology (tablets with touch screens abound on the operation) and freshly painted iron.
“Right from the start, I’ve built our business on efficiency and employee retention,” he said. “I learned that lesson when I was younger. I saw with the older equipment, sure, there wasn’t the big capital expense. But repairs and downtime add costs, and it’s hard to get employees who want to run older equipment. So I could see we needed to change that.
“If there’s any new technology out there that’s going to make us more efficient, or make a better work environment for our employees, we’re all over it. There’s a cost to that, but it pays back indirectly in a lot of different ways, like very low employee turnover.”
Technology in the feedlot allows for close tracking of the animals, their eating habits, and health status.
The family is also progressive when it comes to management approaches. Shane, the oldest of four boys, focuses on marketing, grain and cattle buying, and customer relations. Youngest brother Justin oversees HR and farming operations while Cody focuses on the feed yards, compost division, and staff training. Another brother, Michael, didn’t want to farm, and that started a succession planning process. It was costly and prompted “some hard, hard conversations,” but was well worth it, said Schooten.
“Today when we look back, everything is in place and everyone is happy,” he said. “That’s how we wanted it to be. We still like to get together as a whole family, and we didn’t want to jeopardize that at all.”
Communication and flexibility are key.
“If you can bring three minds into every different aspect, you come out with a pretty good point of view. We didn’t want to segregate the divisions because we thought that would be shorting our knowledge base.”
Family is the top priority for the Schootens. Their children Gracen (six) and Berkley (five) are active, especially in sports. Kristin grew up in the city and the couple originally lived in Lethbridge, but moved to an acreage near the Diamond City feed yard.
“Living in Lethbridge was a big change for me, and (moving to the farm) was a big adjustment for her,” he said. “Now she sees the benefits, especially with the kids. From my point of view, I couldn’t do what I do every day and run this business without her being involved.”
Along with tasks such as organizing harvest meals and helping foreign staff get used to life in Canada, Kristin and her husband have taken on a new role as farm ambassadors since winning the Outstanding Young Farmers award.
They are looking forward to the national event in Niagara Falls later this year and meeting other young producers who are seizing opportunities.
“We do see a future in agriculture. There are challenges in operating in a low-margin, high-dollar industry. How do you maintain profitability? The exciting part for me is trying to figure that out.”