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Seeing the ranch as a classroom

Learning is a way of life at the Bar K

From 400 auction market cows in the early 1980s, Bar K Ranch has evolved into a modern beef operation with more than 1,000 cows on 8,000 acres north of Prince George, B.C.

Bar K manager Taylor Grafton credits innovation and education for the ranch’s growth, which is very much in line with the philosophy applied to the owner’s original family business, Carrier Lumber. Founded in 1951 by William Kordyban of Prince George, Carrier Lumber survived the trade and insect turmoil that beset the forestry industry and today operates forestry divisions with a mill and mill fabrication shop at Prince George along with operations in Saskatchewan.

Grafton’s parents, Mark and Laura, were the first managers at Bar K back when it was little more than a few corrals and outbuildings with some fencing around the cleared land. That relationship has now been transferred to the second generation of both families, with Grafton taking over his role as manager in the last couple of years.

“The owners have always wanted to use the ranch as a place where people can learn,” Grafton says. Toward that end, participating in Agriculture in the Classroom has been a frequent community initiative with classroom visits to Prince George schools and up to 1,000 students visiting the ranch most years.

In a similar vein the ranch has hosted grazing workshops, Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals animal-handling clinics, co-operated in the province’s first farmed-Arctic Char pilot project, and conducted tours of its winter grazing pastures as part of the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association’s technology transfer pilot program.

This same philosophy extends to employees. In 2005, with full support from the ranch’s seven cowboys, Bar K became the first B.C. beef operation registered under the Verified Beef Production program, which goes a step beyond attending a voluntary workshop to ongoing record-keeping and third-party audits to verify program requirements are being met. The audit is intended to be a learning opportunity.

“I really work on training for our cowboys and explaining the science and principles behind how we do things to help them learn faster than the old way. That was to have a new cowboy travel along and watch the experienced riders and it could take years to make a good cowboy,” Grafton explains.

His employee training materials focus on practical animal behaviour, and include some books by Dr. Temple Grandin and Tim O’Byrne’s Cowboys and Buckaroos.

Grafton himself is currently doing a masters degree on foraging behaviour through Texas A&M, and admits he’s addicted to learning.

The Bar K has been a family affair for Warren, Chantelle, Mark, Laura, Tamara and Taylor Grafton.

The Bar K has been a family affair for Warren, Chantelle, Mark, Laura, Tamara and Taylor Grafton.
photo: Courtesy of the Grafton family

Similar to many larger outfits in British Columbia, Bar K’s horsemanship and stockmanship history traces back to the buckaroo tradition. Grafton’s grandfather was a buckaroo for ranches of the Great Basin before emigrating from the U.S. to British Columbia.

Buckaroo is the American term for Vaquero. The traditional Spanish style of gentling horses and moving cattle was introduced to the Americas through the early mission ranches. Their methods of taking time to work with horse and cattle instincts rather than fast-breaking horses to work cattle spread to Nevada, which is the nucleus of the Great Basin area.

As part of this ongoing training, Grafton takes time before working the cattle to talk about what could go wrong and how they will prevent those things from happening.

“It’s really just being more verbal about what I’m thinking and I encourage the experienced cowboys to teach the younger ones and verbalize what they know. The younger generation seems to respond well to this and it has created a culture around the teaching and learning process at the ranch.

“I’m a collaborative person. My philosophy is that everyone has a different way of looking at things and contributing, so I like to encourage people to think independently and critically and to be creative, come up with new ideas and innovate. I think that’s the way the cattle industry will succeed,” Grafton says.

Innovation

The ranch was also an early supporter of electronic auctions, first selling calves through TEAM and now selling cull cows through B.C. Livestock Producers Co-operative’s video auction sales.

“We’ve had success off the get-go. I think we are well suited to Internet sales because we can sell whole lots of very similar calves and we’ve built a reputation for cattle that do well in the feedlot, with low mortality and sickness. We attribute this to several factors including our pre-conditioning program and the fact that our cattle don’t have to mix with other cattle,” he explains.

Bar K runs a three-way cross-breeding program. The main maternal herd is Red Angus bred Hereford to produce Red Baldies that are bred Black Angus as the terminal cross. They also keep a small Black Angus herd on the side and sell some bred heifers out of this program that the ranch started 15 years ago.

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photo: Courtesy of the Grafton family

They tag the calves as they are born and add them to a database of all of the animals’ radio frequency identification numbers. This allows them to keep detailed records and register all birth dates.

Calving starts April 15 with the heifers in the yard and May 1 for the cows out on a calving pasture. The pairs are turned out to summer pastures as they and the grass are ready, usually around the end of May.

Weaning takes place from the end of October into early November. Normally they like to background the calves over winter and pasture them the following summer, depending on their feed and grass supplies.

The intensively managed-grazing system his mom originally established for the Red Baldy pairs has since been found to be more conducive to putting weight on yearlings than grazing pairs because the quality and quantity of the early grass allows them to up their stocking density. As an added bonus, it doesn’t take long for a few cowboys on horseback to grab groups of yearlings as the market wants them, he adds.

Most of the range is a mix of tame fescues, orchardgrass and bromegrasses favoured by the region’s moderate climate with summertime highs that peak around 25 C with ample rainfall. Grafton says the calves grow like crazy on it because it doesn’t get coarse as fast as the grasses in more arid areas of the province.

Experience has been the best teacher over the past decade as Bar K looked for ways to extend the grazing season. It didn’t hurt that the Graftons also have close ties with Dr. Bart Lardner, who cowboyed at Bar K in his youth and is now a research scientist with the Western Beef Development Centre in Saskatchewan focused on grazing research. “Knowing Bart and trusting in his research program helped us adopt winter grazing early on. It was a nice foundation to work from and we can move on from there to the next things,” Grafton says.

From his own experience he has learned that swath grazing is as much an art as it is a science. One of those lessons is to make big swaths that stand up under snow and run in a consistent direction. When cows have a tough time finding snow-covered swaths that zigzag around sloughs and corners they will just stop grazing, he explains.

Double swaths are easier to find in the snow so there is less waste, but the manure isn’t spread as evenly as it is with single swaths. To even out the manure, they place their double swaths between the old rows every other year, or lay down single swaths and roll them over to double them up later when heavy snow is expected.

Free-choice grazing of swaths with hay bales between the rows was a bad idea. The cattle ate the bales and ignored the swaths.

Triticale flunked out as a swath-grazing crop the first time they tried it using alternating rows of oats sown at 120 lbs./acre and triticale at 100 lbs./acre. The cows picked through the swaths to get at the oats and flat-out refused the triticale.

To be fair, this was the herd’s first taste of triticale. Since then they’ve learned cattle clean up triticale swaths if the crop is planted on its own and they are expecting a new mix of triticale-fall rye will make great early grazing this spring.

Bears, it turns out, love straight oats but lost interest when the Graftons started growing an oat-barley mix and more triticale for swath grazing as well as corn for winter grazing. They do see elk, but the herds seem to be migrating to somewhere else, and never take much feed. Same goes for the deer that are seen from time to time.

Mixed feeding has been successful when limit-feeding silage to supplement grazing on poor-quality hay bales. An advantage of this system is that monensin can be added to the silage to improve feed efficiency by approximately three per cent.

Bale grazing is fairly new at Bar K. They are not set up very well for making or feeding hay, but Grafton intends to do more of it based on what he’s seen so far. In deep-snow the bales are easier to find and the cattle tend to finish one bale before breaking trail to another, eliminating the need to move an electric fence to control access. He also likes the look of those lush rings of forage where the bales were sitting that dot the pastures on marginal land when the grass comes back.

They use galvanized aircraft cable for electric fencing because it has a 500-pound break tensile strength, excellent conductivity, and costs around $25 for a 1,000-foot roll. On the downside, it’s heavy and not very visible to cattle.

Grazing standing whole corn plants is another idea that’s likely to gain a permanent place in Bar K’s winter grazing scheme after using it for three winters. It fits well as the last crop to be grazed because the cows can easily get at it in deep snow. Grazing is controlled to avoid founder as the cows go for the cobs first thing.

It looks as though two or three years of annuals for swath grazing to help control weeds before corn will be a beneficial rotation. Grafton has found it’s better to seed the corn as early as possible to take advantage of spring moisture and then focus on weed control even when the crop gets off to a good start. Corn makes excellent use of nitrogen, so feeding silage in winter on fields slated for corn in the spring is a great way to recycle nutrients.

After trying everything from one-day to one-week moves for swath grazing, they’ve settled on three-day moves for the swaths and the corn with one day added on the third move to encourage the cattle to clean up the entire pasture.

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