The three-mile stroll down a country road shortly after sunup on a crisp morning in late October went off as planned and the trail of silage from the feed wagon enticed the group of 700 cows straight into the stubble field where they will spend the winter.
It was a good start to the day as the crew closed the gate on the last big move of the year and a busy first summer of operations at Morsan Farms near Naicam in northeastern Saskatchewan.
Farm manager Keith Rattray says about 600 of the ranch’s 2,300 cows were purchased with the farm when owners Morris and Sandra Thalen of Ponoka, Alta., closed the deal in February. Another 600 purchased from a ranch near Carnduff, Sask., arrived in March, and the remainder were moved as pairs in June and July from the Thalens’ ranch at Pigeon Lake, Alta.
They’ve already bumped calving from April to a June start in 2018. One reason, Rattray explains, is to free up time to get the feed and cash crops planted. Their first year of seeding got off to an unusual start with harvesting the 2016 crops left stranded in the fields because of wet conditions topped off by an early October blizzard. Even at that, they managed to get the 3,000 acres of wheat, oats and corn in the ground while sowing 500 acres to new grass and breaking up 600 acres of old grass.
On the cattle side, June calving will get them away from the wet, unpredictable spring weather and give them time to get the cows settled on pasture before calving starts. This will also save the all-around stress of having to trail very young calves to summer pastures.
The network of country roads and trails allows them to safely trail cattle to almost all of the large pasture blocks spread across the 21,000-plus-acre land base, but the initial moves can be long hikes for tiny calves, Rattray says.
After that, summer moves are short because each group of 250 to 350 cows rotates within its own area for the entire grazing season. Only one group of cows has to be trucked to the 10-quarter block on the opposite side of Kipabiskau Lake.
The goal of the breeding program is to produce reputation feeder calves. They run Charolais bulls with the black cows to produce silver calves and with the red cows to produce yellow calves. Another group of black cows is bred Simmental, and the black baldy and mixed cows are bred Limousin.
In October, calves over 550 pounds are weaned into the ranch’s 2,500-head feedlot where they are sorted by colour and weight to be sold about three weeks later at a Canadian Satellite Livestock Auction (CSLA) sale through Vold Jones and Vold (VJV) Auction Co., Ponoka. The live satellite sales on www.csla.com have the advantage of presenting cattle videoed on the ranch to potential buyers across Canada and the U.S., while retaining the essence of a live auction with phone-in and real-time online bidding as the auctioneer calls the sale. Cattle then move directly from the ranch to the buyer’s location.
Lighter calves will stay with the cows in the wintering fields until sometime in January when they will be weaned and backgrounded for sale the same way, potentially into the spring grasser market.
Rattray says they won’t be retaining calves to grass at the ranch. The farm’s focus for now at least is on developing the cow herd and getting a good understanding of the ranch’s carrying capacity.
Saskatchewan’s parkland region isn’t uncharted territory for the Thalens, though. They sold one of their dairy operations there after selling their Ponoka dairy and purchasing the VJV Ponoka and Dawson Creek markets in 2014. Adding three more Alberta markets the following year, Morris and Sandra became owners of the Dawson Creek, Beaverlodge and Westlock markets, while their son, Henry, and his wife, Andrea, took over the Ponoka and Rimbey markets.
Sons Joe Thalen and Greg Thalen have a big hand in Morsan Farm operations as well. Joe manages the grain land and equipment for all locations, while Greg does the same on the cattle side.
Rattray, who has been working at Alberta feedlots and ranches since he was a kid, along with three cowboys, Glen Colby, Richard Nygaard and Devin Plantz, look after the cattle at the Saskatchewan ranch year-round with help as needed from other full-time employees, Kyle Colby and Dave Pisto.
The purchase of the Saskatchewan ranch from 3L Cattle Co. included three guest cabins overlooking a quiet lake at the end of the road that is the perfect place for crews from Ponoka to stay when they fly in to help with seeding, harvest and processing cattle. The cabins sit next to the owner’s lodge where Sandra keeps everyone well fed during those busy times.
The main ranch yard, with a house, barn, handling facilities and pens, is about four miles up the road.
Midway between the main yard and lodge is the feedlot, which has been the site of major upgrades over the summer months.
Concrete silage bunkers were constructed and work continued into fall on building concrete commodity bunkers for other ration ingredients, including ground hay, straw and dried distillers grains.
The pens have been brought back into like-new condition by rebuilding the gravel base, installing new water bowls, repairing the wind fences and adding extra cables above the feed bunks.
All pens now feature an open bunk design that saves all the work of shovelling snow and stale feed out of traditional two-sided feed bunks. The concrete footing that secures the posts and cables along the front of the pens is flanked by a concrete apron on the inside to keep the calves high and dry and the addition of a concrete pad along the outside for feed. The pad makes clean work of pushing up feed with a bobcat before fresh feed is delivered each morning and afternoon, and then scraping the pads clear with a tractor and blade before the evening feeding. Any excess feed goes into into the cows’ ration, Rattray explains.
Silage for the cows in the wintering fields is delivered into long rows of large steel bunks, which works well enough until ruts left by the tractor and feed wagon build up alongside the bunks. They are moveable, but that would only create ruts in the new spot, so plans have been set in motion to try a concrete bunk setup similar to that in the feedlot with a concrete runway down the centre for the tractor and feed wagon.
Looking back, Rattray says it was an excellent year and start for the Saskatchewan ranch. He could chalk it up to the combination of good cattle, land and weather, but without hesitation he says it was a lot of good communication and teamwork that got the job done.