Students at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine receive hands-on experience at various beef operations. In many ways it’s been a successful approach — after only 10 years, the University of Calgary vet college is ranked among the top 50 vet schools globally.
But conducting research at partnering cow-calf operations poses challenges for students and researchers. Scientists have to remember that a cow-calf operation is a business first.
“That can require researchers to potentially compromise on some of the questions they want to ask or how they might want to ask those questions, or maybe the flexibility needed to carry out some of those questions,” said Ed Pajor, professor of animal behaviour and health at the vet college’s department of production animal health.
Several locations across the province with different management practices also increase variable data, not to mention travel time.
“Over the last few years, there has been an emerging need to develop our research and educational programs to the next level, especially in support of the food production industries in the province,” said Baljit Singh, dean of the faculty of veterinary medicine.
Enter the Chisholm and Anderson families. They own W.A. Ranches, a vast spread northeast of Cochrane, Alta., where the snowy peaks of the Rockies rise above the pastures. In late September, the University of Calgary announced that the Anderson and Chisholm families would donate W.A. Ranches to the university, as well as their herd of 1,000 Angus females, plus bulls. At 19,000 acres, the ranch is worth $44 million, making this both the largest ranch donation to a university in North America in monetary value and the largest in size donated to a Canadian university.
Wynne Chisholm, president and CEO of W.A. Ranches, and her father, Jack Anderson, opened their doors to the University of Calgary’s vet students since the faculty’s establishment. Here, future veterinarians have taken part in tasks such as calving, processing and semen testing bulls.
Anderson, a well-known philanthropist and businessman, has been involved in the cattle business for many of his 91 years.
“When I was born my mom and dad had a cattle operation near Gull Lake, Alberta,” said Chisholm. “They had started with a commercial Hereford operation and then moved into crossbreeding with Charolais.”
Chisholm found her passion for agriculture at a young age on her family’s operation. “I spent my summers, holidays and weekends at the lake, as we called it, which is where our ranch was, and then the school year in Calgary.”
After selling that operation and focusing on other ventures, Anderson returned to the cattle business, investing in their present location in the early 2000s.
“It was after that that I ended up going into business with him full time,” said Chisholm, whose husband, Bob, serves as the ranch’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer.
The family strengthened their relationship with the university in 2014 when they donated $5 million to establish the Anderson-Chisholm Research Chair in Animal Care and Welfare. This donation funds the chair holder’s research projects and outreach activities in this specific field.
“That’s one of my personal passions, and I thought it was an area that could use more focus,” she said.
“I don’t believe there’s another such chair in North America that’s focused completely on beef cattle welfare,” said Pajor, who holds this research chair. “It actually has an expectation of outreach to the community, of doing applied research and then taking it out to the ranching community to improve practices on the ranch.”
Thus far the endowment has supported studies on a variety of topics, including pain management, processing-related stress and economic factors of animal health.
Chisholm and her husband sit on the chair’s advisory committee and attend meetings with Pajor to learn about studies conducted by graduate and post-graduate students through the chair’s funding. Through this role, they became aware of the university’s need for its own research facility and herd. Chisholm and Anderson discussed how they could personally assist the faculty in this regard, then invited Pajor and Singh to their ranch to talk about the options.
“We really realized that there was a broader way that we could help the university,” she said. “We really want it to empower the faculty and the students to create and share the scientific, evidence-based discoveries that will improve animal care and welfare, and enhance our industry and inform the public.”
More opportunities for collaboration
The ranch will also transform the learning experience of University of Calgary students without having to travel far from the university’s clinical skills building.
“It really gives us an opportunity to create labs that complement the teaching that occurs in the classroom,” said Pajor. “Our DVM students, for example, will have the opportunity to learn about the cow-calf industry in the classroom but also experience it directly on the ranch.”
He anticipates students developing a better understanding of the cattle business. “It may attract more DVM students to things like a rural practice because they have an opportunity to get more hands-on.”
The ranch presents the opportunity to collaborate with other faculties at the University of Calgary in integrated education and research, offering the chance to ask more complex questions than one might ask with simply a research herd, Pajor explained.
“We don’t plan on losing sight of the applied opportunities in terms of research and teaching. But if that’s all we do, we haven’t really fulfilled the vision we have of what W.A. Ranches can actually do.”
Multi-disciplinary collaborations could fall into the One Health approach, a growing scientific initiative focused on the interactions between the health of humans, animals and the environment. For example, Pajor said it may include people from the school of public policy in the faculty of science looking at issues around environmental concerns. The ranch may “create an opportunity for them to carry out research, create data and then have that data to use to inform public policy.”
In addition to enhancing the academic experience for the university’s vet college students and developing multidisciplinary research, W.A. Ranches has the potential to strengthen the faculty’s role in meeting challenges facing the beef industry. For example, the university can offer more continuing education programs to veterinarians and beef producers.
“We can bring ranchers in… and talk to them about proper veterinary management approaches and actually demonstrate what it is we’re talking about at a real ranch, which will reflect much closer to what they have on their own farms,” said Pajor.
“I expect it to have not only specific results that help the producer on their farm on a day-to-day basis but also really help people in the world in terms of where animals fit in the food production system and in human health,” said Chisholm.
Singh anticipates the opportunity for greater engagement in discussions around these issues.
“I envision a concentration of partners from industry, from the academy, from the government and even from the public citizenry to get together around these very complex ideas and questions so we can collectively and collaboratively, and in a very interactive manner, find some answers,” he said. “They are very pressing questions, and no single discipline can answer those questions.”
Everyone at W.A. Ranches has been working hard to wrap up their last fall run, bringing pairs home from grazing lands, organizing the sales of their calves and finish baling straw. Transitioning the ranch’s assets to the university is an enormous undertaking. The legal and financial aspects have taken several months, including inventories, appraisals and transferring deeded and leased lands.
One of their first and most important transition steps, Chisholm explained, was to ensure that the university would hire their current staff, allowing for their continued employment and continuity in knowledge of the ranch’s management. Chisholm and her family have also been involved in an education process to ensure the university has everything in place to start running the ranch.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to an agreement like this,” she said. “It’s a huge amount of work, and then it’s really important to us that we do it really well, that our staff and our animals and the rest of the ranch assets will be well cared for.”
The transition of the ranch to the university took effect on November 30. As a research and education facility, it will be known as W.A. Ranches at the University of Calgary.
“We have gifted assets from our ranch as opposed to the ranch itself, so our company still exists and then we’ve given the cattle and the equipment and the feed and the lands and so on, we’re giving those to the university as well as the right to use our brand and our name,” Chisholm explained.
The University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine is currently developing operations and strategic planning committees, and is in the process of hiring a general manager to take on the Chisholms’ responsibilities. Before the faculty’s current research trials can be moved to the ranch, they will ensure the infrastructure is ready to facilitate these projects.
Come spring, when calving season is underway at W.A. Ranches at the University of Calgary, some of the brightest young minds in veterinary medicine and bovine health will be in the thick of it, starting new research trials and learning all they can. Singh is looking forward to seeing where this donation will take the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine and the beef industry.
“My colleagues within the faculty and I are very grateful to the Anderson and Chisholm families for their donation, and I’m very grateful to the community around us that supports us every day.”
Chisholm and her family will be there to see what the future holds, as they’ve retained their home quarters and have the opportunity to be part of the ranch’s strategic advisory committee.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for the University of Calgary, and it’s a marvellous opportunity for the beef industry, and I’m just really excited about the things that are going to come out of this going forward,” she says.