A rancher’s vocabulary has some colourful words, and dare we say a few choice ones now and then, but “blog” isn’t usually one of them unless you’re talking with Erika Fossen and Erika Strande (Stewart). 2erikas, as they are now known around the blogging world, created “Life on a BC Cattle Ranch” and as of November had attracted 1,160 followers since their first blog post in March 2013.
Fossen knows ranching inside out, but blogging? “What’s a blog?” she recalls asking Strande when she suggested the idea.
Blog is short for web log, so it’s a record of activities posted in an online forum to interact with readers. Strande’s idea for the blog was to help debunk erroneous myths about beef production by giving readers an insider’s view of everyday life on the two family ranches.
“People are as many as three generations removed from the farm and now they are interested in food,” Strande says. “We want to reach out with our side of the story of ranching and the cattle industry because it’s a side they never got before. We’d like consumers to learn and understand what it means to take care of animals so that they will be able to think critically and not be blinded by negative information about the industry. Whatever decision they reach, we want it to be an informed decision.”
Fossen knew from her family’s involvement in the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association’s (BCCA) Meet-A-Rancher program at local grocery stores that young moms, in particular, are searching for factual information. Oddly, many shoppers thought the ranchers featured on the display poster were just actors. Once she pointed out that she is the rancher in the picture, they really wanted to talk, asking whether beef is safe, what’s added to beef, about treatments and if animals are treated humanely.
“My goal is to teach my audience and reach young mothers trying to decide if beef is a safe product to feed their children, that beef is a beautiful, awesome, natural product they can be proud to serve,” she says.
Thinking at least their families and friends would follow along, they began posting a few blogs and soon found that people really did want to learn about ranching. The reach into faraway countries such as India and Australia was totally unexpected! Encouraging comments and questions from readers have helped fuel their motivation.
“In thinking about where I fit in coming back to the ranch and seeing the city perspective of what people want, natural beef seemed to be an easy fit for us,” says Strande who obtained her degree in education from the University of Alberta.
Even though Rock Creek (near Osoyoos along the B.C.-Washington border) is three hours south of Merritt, the two ranches share commonalities typical of B.C. ranches that set them apart from other parts of Canada.
Calving season is pretty much set in stone, running from February through April, because their home fields and pastures need to be emptied by the end of April to grow winter feed supplies and the calves have to be old enough to travel to government range (Crown lease pasture) in May.
The Fossens’ 280 cows and heifers calve in separate areas on a 25-acre field close to the yard. It can still be wintery in early February when the heifers start calving a couple of weeks ahead of the cows, but by the beginning of March most of the snow has melted. On average, snow accumulation is two to three feet and average daily temperature is -7 C through winter. The bonus is that the area doesn’t get hit with the late-spring storms that wreak havoc on the Prairies.
They use their land and rent private pasture for early grazing until the cows can go to government range sometime between May 7 and June 1 through to late October, depending on the range. The Fossens’ leases encompass 70,000 acres, while the Strandes, with 250 cows, have 126,000 acres. At $2 per animal unit per month, access to government range is pivotal to their management strategies and a bargain compared to renting private pasture for $15 to $30 per animal unit per month.
There are frustrations, though. Strande blogs about gathering cows off a major highway built through one of their leases because recreational users, who by the way don’t pay for access, leave gates open.
The Fossens are firm supporters of the forestry industry, but discouraged with present-day reforestation plans that leave acres of heavy logging debris to purposely favour tree growth. This comes at the expense of forage regrowth and is gradually reducing the amount of usable forage on government ranges.
The trials and tribulations of checking, moving, and rounding up cattle on the expansive rugged ranges of the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains make for interesting blogs and likely many more to come given the predictable unpredictability of cow behaviour.
The Fossens, similar to many ranchers in their area, use a small plane to spot cattle, then ride out to look after whatever needs to be done. Steady horses with cow sense and smart working dogs are a must to manoeuvre through, but hopefully around, heavily forested areas on both ranches.
Irrigation is indispensable for securing adequate winter feed. Strande blogs about moving the wheel lines four rotations, or 60 feet a day across the hay land, which was her job as a kid and still is! She explains the haying process, the difference a new rotary mower has made in getting their hay put up in a timely manner, what happens to cut hay when it lays out in the rain, and how a neighbour helped salvage some weathered hay by putting it up as baleage. Hay production off their timothy-orchardgrass-brome stands has doubled since they began fertilizing with manure from nearby chicken barns two years ago.
Fossen talks about hand-line irrigation, or irritation as a friend dubbed it, because the pipes have to be manually disassembled, moved and reassembled to cover 200 acres every day or so from early May through August. Rain takes on a special meaning considering it’s an eight-hour job for two people and the electrical bill runs up to $200 a day when the three pumps are running. Upgrading to a centre-pivot system this year, made possible in part through participation in the farm environmental plan program, has shortened the job by two hours a day.
The Fossens switched from hay to mainly silage more than 20 years ago because it takes some of the weather worry out of putting up feed and there’s very little leaf loss relative to rolling up bales at lower moisture content. It does take more people working at the time to chop, haul, pack and cover silage, but once it’s in the pit, the job is done. Feeding silage in winter is quicker than putting out hay bales and ensures all animals get a nice mix of each silage type.
They grow a mix of oat, barley, triticale and pea, which in good growing years yields around six tons of dry matter (DM) per acre in one cut. It’s layered in the pit with grass-alfalfa silage, which adds seven tons of DM per acre over three cuts, and top it off with corn grown for two years now, giving them another nine tons DM per acre. Each day during the winter feeding period, they scrape about a foot from the face of the pit, mix it in the feed wagon and dump it in small piles around the winter feeding areas; one for mature cows and another for the bred heifers and second calvers. Rolled barley is added to the ration for cows that have calved.
Most of the calves, except the potential replacement heifers and lighter calves, are sold off the cows either through an auction market or Internet sale when they come off government range. The cows continue grazing stockpiled grass on private land until winter feeding starts about mid-December. Right off the bat they feed in the middle of the afternoon because it has always worked well to set the cows’ biological time clocks for calving during daytime hours.
The Strandes generally keep 55 replacement heifers each year. At preg-check time, she holds back at least three open heifers for her natural beef packages, steaks and roasts along with the open cows for ground beef.
Her natural beef program, High Mountain Meats, is now in its third year. It’s going well aided by wholesaling to a group of local girls who had already established a distribution network for organic food and growing through word of mouth.
Both Erikas blogged loud and clear about what the new Western Livestock Price Insurance Program means to their operations. They call it a game changer because B.C. ranchers, alongside those in the Prairie provinces, now have the opportunity to secure a floor price for their product to help cover expenses and hopefully lock in a profit.
The Fossens weren’t in a claim position when they sold calves this fall, but that’s a good thing because market prices were 60 cents a pound higher than the insured price, more than covering the premium cost. “It gave us such peace of mind, knowing that if market prices dropped for whatever reason, all of our work wouldn’t be for nothing,” she says, adding that they’ll be watching the premium tables to insure a price on their backgrounders.
Fossen feels extremely fortunate to have the career she always dreamed of — being a farmer’s wife. For her, that means living on the land and raising a family, Adele, 13, Jade, 11, Reine, nine. Her roots in agriculture are deep running back to 1912 on the mixed farm where she was raised northwest of Grand Prairie. Doug, whose family has been on the ranch since 1976, writes, “it takes a lifetime of ranching to truly appreciate all that we have been gifted with.” This summer past, the family was honoured with the Grasslands Conservation Council of B.C. award for consistent excellence in grassland stewardship.
Strande seconds that feeling since committing to a ranching career, saying she has new-found appreciation for the many years her dad and grandpa devoted to cattle and the land since moving from Maple Creek, Sask., to establish Pine Ranch in 1962.
She has already garnered a strong support network as she sets out to continue the story. Her involvement with the CYL program has opened many doors, including being elected by her peers as chair of the CCA’s inaugural Young Cattlemen’s Council.
To read more of the 2erikas’ stories, visit the Life on a BC Cattle Ranch blog.