February 25, 2021

Resilient systems put to work on Alberta ranch

By Mary MacArthur

Moving cows
Credit: Prairie Song Photography

The bitter cold that blanketed the prairies has eased. The sun is shining, the winds have calmed, the days are longer, and the Andrew family is reminded why they live and ranch in the Special Areas.

It’s things such as the snowy owl that lives at the end of the driveway, the flock of sharp-tailed grouse that has made a home in the bale yard, and the neighbours, who, whatever the weather, are always around to lend a hand.

“We’re surrounded by people who are great and we live in a great community,” says Tim Andrew, who ranches near Youngstown with his wife Lois and son Clayton.

“It is a way of life where you can raise a family and make a life. Everyone works hard out here and if you don’t you are not going to be successful.

“We’re too stubborn to move,” said son Clayton.

The Andrew family put down roots in 1956 when Jim and Dorothy, Tim’s parents, moved to the area. Like a hedge of caragana planted by homesteaders, the family’s roots are solid and deep in the prairie soil.

The 17,000-acre ranch is spread over three properties and includes a combination of farmland for silage and greenfeed, and land leased from the Special Area’s government for grazing and hay. About half the leased land is native grass and the rest is seeded for grazing and hay. It is here where they raise more than 800 head of Limousin cattle, the breed that caught Jim’s eye when the European cattle were imported to Canada in the 1970s.

Surviving in the harsh area means caring for the land, grass, water and livestock in unison. When one fails the others hang in a balance.

“A bank of grass is something you always want to maintain so you can get through the next drought. We run from one drought to the next drought,” says Tim.

Many of the pastures are old homestead land that have been reseeded to a mixture of crested wheatgrass and alfalfa

“Because it is such an early grass and we get some growth out of it, we don’t have to go to our native grass until the first of July. It has given the native grass time to go to seed and make as much growth as possible,” he says.

“We take care of the stock the very best way we can. The stock pays the bills so we better take care of them.”

Caring for the native grass through planned grazing is an important step to maintain a healthy ecosystem for wildlife, waterfowl and livestock.

“We try to get to the native grass as late in the year as we can. That has been our mantra from day one. That is how we began ranching here. If you can take care of that you’ll always have a reserve.”

When the cattle are on pasture, they water from a series dugouts or dams in the roughly 640-acre fields. Having a consistent, reliable water supply in each pasture gives the family confidence their livestock will always have access to water.

On the furthest east property, water flows onto their ranch from the Scory project, a large Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) dam. While the structure is not on their land, fluctuating water levels from the dam on their land make maintaining a fence along the property line a challenge.  Working with DUC, the family fenced off about 50 acres of wetland to ensure a secure perimeter fence while maintaining a healthy wetland

On the west side of the property is DUC’s Orville project, another large dam built in 1968. When the dam is full, the water spills over its banks and the water spreads out onto more than 1,200 acres of land along the Berry creek, bringing much needed water and fresh grass to the Andrew ranch

“You get fresh water and fresh grass down that whole creek bottom in late summer. When it comes out of our property it freshens up the neighbour’s property as well. When you’re getting calves ready to go to the auction market and you put them on fresh grass like that is a huge benefit. Anything green at that time of year in the special areas is a kind of bonus.”

This past summer the family partnered with DUC to assess former wetlands that had been drained, some almost a century ago. Identifying key locations, the water courses were plugged and about 15 acres returned to sloughs and wetlands

Kale Scarff, DUC’s conservation program specialist, says these wetland restoration projects are less expensive and more beneficial to waterfowl than the former large dam projects. Water is returned to its natural levels and the shallower wetlands help prevent flooding and create more beneficial wildlife and waterfowl habitat.

“They were areas already on the landscape and we know that they were good for wildlife and habitat,” says Scarff. As part of the agreement, DUC pays for the newly flooded land and will help maintain the new wetland for 10 years.

Those newly restored wetlands have huge benefits that provide more areas for water access for livestock and improved grass, says Tim.

“We’ll store more water on the land with that. Instead of cows hanging around one area. If there is water every couple miles that land isn’t overgrazed.”

The family also took advantage of DUC’s forage program which pays producers to convert crop land to perennial forage. Under the program, producers receive $100 for every 50 lb bag of Proven Seed bought from Nutrien Ag Solutions plus an additional $35 per acre for securing the habitat.

“We got a fabulous catch,” says Tim. It was a great spring to seed grass. We will have hay there for as long as it is economical. A fresh stand like that might make that magical bale an acre.”

Ranching in the Special Areas requires special management and only small adjustments to the grazing plan and livestock herd, says Lois.

“Even though we had a good year you can’t think we can raise 50 more animals next year. You have to leave some grass knowing we’re only so far away from the next drought. You can’t leave your land in worse shape,” she adds.

With drought always a concern, increasing the herd is not feasible, says Clayton. Instead the family focuses on getting more value from each of their existing animals.

“We are focused on quality over quantity.”

In 2003, the family started their own purebred Limousin herd to provide good-quality bulls and replacement heifers for their commercial Limousin herd.

“We’re always focusing on the type of cattle that will bring the most acceptance in the commercial sales ring. That brings a huge amount of credibility back to the purebred cattle we raise,” says Tim.

“We want cattle that are going to be high gaining. Our mantra is calve easily, grow quickly and bring premiums from the sale rings to the carcass rail. Our goal is from the time they’re weaned to sell, they gain two pounds a day. We still have 1,700, to 1,800-pound two-year-old bulls at our sale, but he hasn’t been pushed any time in his life so he will remain sound.”

The family has started to work towards applying for the Verified Beef Production plus program that could bring extra money for their animals by meeting industry standards for food safety, animal care, biosecurity and environmental stewardship.

Kristine Tapley, DUC’s regional agrologist – beef industry, says DUC initiatives like the Canada Roundtable on Sustainable Beef and the Verified Beef program help encourage producers to maintain important habitat.

“If you think about the land that exists for habitat and the conservation landscape it is virtually all owned by beef producers and those are the folks that are managing it and using it. If we lose beef producers on the landscape, that conserved habitat is at a much higher risk of being lost,” said Tapley.

“If they are doing well then the grassland stays intact and those wetlands stay on the landscape.”