The prairie calls

And this Swiss couple found a new home

There’s nothing else Bayot and Franziska Britschgi would rather do than raise cattle and there’s nowhere they’d rather ranch than on the open prairie of southeastern Alberta.

They saw more than a few ranches in their younger days travelling from their native Switzerland to work on big ranches from Nevada through the western U.S. and Alberta to as far north as Douglas Lake Ranch in British Columbia.

Choosing Canada, the couple rented a ranch near Claresholm, Alta., for a few years before moving in 1998 to manage a ranch in the Manyberries area, about an hour south of Medicine Hat.

“At Claresholm there was getting to be more and more people. Here, is Big Country. People were moving away so there is more opportunity for ranching,” he says.

The investor bought the land, some cows and some machinery and within that framework they’ve been able to build their own ranch, J Bar J, through calf-share and pasture-lease arrangements with the owner.

“The dream was to own a ranch, but it is too risky because of big debt. It would have to be a small operation. This is 40,000 acres. It’s a toss-up. We don’t own the land, but this is more interesting and it is comfortable for us and the owner,” he says. It has turned out to be a good relationship built on trust.

The challenge and the appeal of the countryside with the wide-open landscape matching the expanse of the skies hasn’t disappointed either.

The Britschgis had a quick introduction to what would be the greatest challenge — the ever-present risk of drought — in 2001 when it was drier than dry across the province. Lessons learned back then held them in good stead this year when a mere inch of rainfall carried them through April well into July.

The prolonged dry spell this year, coming as it did during the peak time for grass growth, cut pasture, hay and greenfeed yields in half, but didn’t come close to comparing with the 2001 drought when they hauled water to cattle on pasture all season long. At least 2015 started with reserve soil moisture and full dugouts and held promise of ending on the greener side as showers rolled through in August and September.

The big take-away lesson from 2001 was to manage for carry-over grass. Since then, pastures are grazed only once a year and they plan for 12 to 15 sections to be grazed every other year. Time has proven the stewardship principle that it takes old grass to make new grass, he adds.

They routinely purchase pasture insurance through Alberta’s Agricultural Financial Services Corporation, which offers a choice between moisture deficiency (rainfall station accumulations) and satellite yield (satellite imagery to measure green-cover density). Within both, there are options for long- or short-season coverage with season split options to divide the growing season and dollar coverage into two parts.

“Flexibility is big, too, because you never know what to expect between weather risk and market risk,” Britschgi says. Their yearling heifer program hits the mark on both, giving them flexibility to sell down when market opportunities arise, but most importantly, to quickly destock during dry spells.

Normally, they sell the steer calves at weaning in October and keep most of the heifer calves through the winter. Come spring, they select approximately 140 heifers as replacements for breeding and grass the remainder through the summer.

This year, those grasser heifers were gone by June. The open replacement heifers and some bulls were shipped in mid-September, one-third of the heifer calves sold with the steers the next week, and the open cows were scheduled to go soon after.

Heifer calves are brought into the home yard for three or four weeks after weaning and then turned out on nearby pasture to winter on native grass, free-choice alfalfa-grass hay and oat greenfeed bales along with two to three pounds per head of screening pellets fed each day. They’ve noticed a definite improvement in health, and hay consumption is down by half since implementing the pasture wintering system compared to when the heifers were wintered in the feed yard.

Calving on carry-over pasture starting April 1 is also a bale saver. The energy-dense native grasses, also known as hard grass and prairie wool, provide excellent grazing as long as they don’t get iced down and there isn’t much snow, Britschgi explains.

Turnout on spring pasture with stockpiled grass is at the end of March for the yearling heifers as well, but the bred heifers stay near the yard where there is a barn to assist as needed during calving.

The main herd of 800 Red Angus cows is split into smaller groups of approximately 150 pairs for breeding and summer grazing. The Britschgis find that smaller groups are easier to move and easier on the grass and dugouts because they have more control over where and when the cattle move.

Most years the cows are able to graze into January on pasture saved for late grazing and second-growth hay and oat fields. Wintering on pasture near the home yard from then through to the end of March completes the cycle.

This year, they purchased 10 loads of baled corn stover to stretch the cow-feed supply. It will be fed through the bale processor with alfalfa-grass hay and greenfeed bales.

The bulk of their hay supply comes off the 600 to 800 acres of alfalfa-grass hayland flood irrigated each spring. They reseeded 350 acres this spring as a start on their plan to reseed all of the old hayground over the next few years.

They also maintain 850 acres of cultivated land with half seeded to oats for greenfeed and half chemfallowed for their greenfeed supply the following year.

Some of the land on the three original ranches that make up today’s operation had been cultivated by previous owners and is tame forage, but most is native prairie grass. They’ve been able to add 340 acres to that through their participation in the MULTISAR project since 2008.

MULTISAR sourced and supplied a mix of native grass seed to best match the native grasses on the ranch, helped with wildlife-friendly fencing to protect the field during establishment, and with developing a dugout there this year. The native grass established well under excellent growing conditions and was ready to graze lightly the third year. It’s looking great for fall grazing this year, he adds.

MULTISAR is an initiative of the Alberta Conservation Association, Government of Alberta, and the Prairie Conservation Forum based at Lethbridge that assists landowners with maintaining or developing habitat for the area’s at-risk, rare and unique mix of plants, animals and birds.

Preserving the land and environment that drew them to southeastern Alberta in the first place is important to the Britschgis and to the owner. In this regard, MULTISAR has proven to be a very helpful resource, they say. The people are knowledgeable, very respectful and co-operative with landowners and supportive of ranching.

Market risk

The last few years they’ve sold calves through TEAM (the electronic auction market) and like the fact that there are usually 200 to 300 registered bidders from across the country online for the sales, they know the price before the cattle leave the yard, and they’re not fixed to a certain day to ship cattle if the weather turns ugly.

Selling calves off the cows is a well-orchestrated process involving crews of three to nine people working simultaneously at each of the three yards and co-ordinated with Andy Houweling of Alberta Prime Beef at Picture Butte, who visits the ranch ahead of time to view and describe the calves. The company also provides trucking and a custom weigh facility for sorting the calves into groups.

They’ve also sold calves by private treaty through a dealer and regularly sell yearlings and cows through the rings at Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.

Although marketing isn’t an issue with all of today’s options, the Britschgis do have worries about the Canadian beef value chain on the whole.

Tied to that is the limitation and risk associated with heavy reliance on the two big packing plants in the west. Support for more smaller provincial plants, particularly by way of reducing government red tape, may be part of a solution.

They also feel it’s important to develop more alternatives to the mainstream feeding industry so that cow-calf producers have greater opportunity to stream their calves into specialty programs that align with their ranch programs and consumer demands.

“Beef is a luxury item and what consumers want is what we should give them,” Britschgi explains.

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