Community pasture patrons adapt to new business models

When the government pulled out of community pastures, operations became the responsibility of board members and patron volunteers.

The following is the second in a three-part series exploring how different community pastures shifted from government to producer operation, and the ongoing effects of that shift.

Years after government decided to turn over community pasture management to patrons, board members and staff are still finding new approaches to managing and improving operations while ensuring pastures are financially sustainable.

In 2012, the federal government announced they would gradually wind down the 75-year-old Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) community pasture program over five grazing seasons. In 2017, Saskatchewan announced it too would get out of the community pasture business, which had been operating in some areas since 1922.

The pastures were turned over to patrons who found themselves having to decide the best way to form a business structure and take over the reins. Some producers and organizations welcomed the announcements while others were wary of what a transition would mean for their bottom lines. Patrons had to consider their individual circumstances, as some were approaching retirement and looking to scale down, while others were just starting and strapped for the cash necessary to invest in a new grazing entity.

One size won't fit all

Pastures scheduled to transition in the first two years were left scrambling to get organized. Sean Miller, board member at the Caledonia/Elmsthorpe Community Pasture, says that like most groups, they were anxious to determine costs for their southeast Saskatchewan pasture.

"We had a lot to be thankful for because we were further down the [transition] list," Miller says, adding they built upon the experiences of a nearby pasture that had undergone the transition earlier."Two years seems like a lot of time but it really isn't," he says of formulating a plan and raising startup funds.

The patrons at Caledonia-Elmsthorpe set up a buy-in share structure with a per pair fee that would secure grazing. The group decided that shares should maintain the same value into the future, explains Miller, who adds that the board works to keep costs low enough so that the pasture remains economically viable.

Rick Stolz is the chair of the patron group operating Crooked River and Sylvania pastures in northeastern Saskatchewan. He was keen to start the transition process early to plan for the future.

"There is very little pasture land here, and grain farmers are large," Stolz says. There aren't a lot of alternative grazing options and patrons rely on the pastures. Their group, which comprises patrons from all across Saskatchewan, opted to collect a larger one-time buy-in fee rather than a per head share.

"You can sell your voting share or allocation to someone else as long as the board approves it," Stolz says. Shares cannot decrease in value but they can increase, he says and adds that there is a maximum allocation of 60 pairs per patron.

The patrons at Monet Pasture, located south of Elrose, Sask., structured their shares differently. Current pasture chair Dallen Hamilton explains that the patron group at the time set up a buy-in fee of $160 per share of one cow-calf unit. Patrons looking to get out of the pasture can sell their shares for any dollar amount to any producer as long as they meet eligibility criteria, including wintering cattle within 42 miles of the pasture's edge. New patrons must also qualify as a Saskatchewan Crown land leaseholder, a stipulation for any participant in community pastures in that province. The maximum number of shares a qualified applicant can have in Monet is capped at 72.

Hamilton says that everyone talks about how important it is to keep the pasture viable for new entrants. However, the value of shares has risen dramatically as they've traded hands.

"Guys aren't saying they got too much money for their shares when they sell," Hamilton says, even though they may be cost-prohibitive to young entrants.

In Manitoba, most former PFRA pastures joined the Association of Manitoba Community Pastures (AMCP), a nonprofit umbrella group started in response to the pasture transition. Portage Pasture was one of the first pastures to be divested and one of four pastures that chose to strike out on its own.

"Everything was up in the air with AMCP, so a group of us patrons thought we should look into running it ourselves," explains Dale Wood, who is on the pasture board, and is also a councillor with the Rural Municipality (RM) of Portage la Prairie.

"We've had really good support from the RM and AMCP," says Wood. The RM owns about 85 per cent of the land and the patrons have an arrangement to lease the remaining 15 per cent of the pasture, buildings and yard site from AMCP.

"We have good board members and a good bunch of patrons. We all get along," Wood says. "We've kept it pretty simple — any trouble, your only option is to go somewhere else," he says, and adds that there is a waiting list of people wanting in. "The demand is unbelievable; we could probably refill our pasture three times over if we had the space."

Managing cash flow

Dale Wood says Portage Pasture hasn't changed fees in eight years, but they did time payments differently than the PFRA. The pasture takes grazing deposits at the end of February and charges another per head fee at take-in.

"We basically have half our fees in before we start," Wood explains. The final bill, along with any pasture treatment expenses, is due in the fall.

At Crooked River, Rick Stolz says they had to modify their payment schedule after some hard lessons.

"We're a good group of people who watch our dollars closely," Stolz says, but adds that patrons have to live up to their financial obligations to be a part of the pasture.

In the past, patrons were expected to pay a 25 per cent deposit in the spring, 50 per cent of fees at take-in, with the final balance due in the fall. They now bill patrons for 75 per cent of the annual fee in February, with the remainder due in the fall, to maintain financial security in case a patron defaults on payment.

Stolz says it's important for pastures to have money set aside but also work toward continued advancement. "We've improved something every year. Our future looks bright. Our money is always in play," Stolz says, and adds they have invested funds in cross-fencing and water development since taking over from the province.

"If we have to raise rates we will. If we can reduce them, we will do that too," Stolz says. Dallen Hamilton says the Monet Pasture tries to balance affordable grazing rates with contingency funds.

"We felt that obviously you want some money in the bank account but how much is a big question," Hamilton says, adding that there are tax implications when profits are realized. "This year we were able to lower rates because of all the behind-the-scenes work the board has done getting grants and talking to conservation groups."

They reduced their rates for the 2021 season by about $20 per pair. "There's no reason not to at least have the conversation with these groups," Hamilton says, adding that Monet has received funding for fencing and water development because it meets certain conservation requirements.

Unique environmental challenges

The former government pasture systems had frameworks in place to deal with unpaid bills and administration. There were also dedicated resources and experts for water development, invasive species management and brush control. Now, these responsibilities are largely left up to board members and patron volunteers.

Many transitioned community pastures have invasive weeds, such as leafy spurge, that require extra management. Patrons have a responsibility to control invasive species which takes effort and adds costs. Photo: Tara Mulhern Davidson

Some community pasture leases came with unwanted invasive weed issues. Left unchecked, weeds such as leafy spurge will quickly overwhelm rangeland and reduce grazing capacity. However, annual control takes effort and co-ordination and comes with a hefty price tag. All of this was passed onto patrons.

The Elbow/Willner community pasture tackles leafy spurge using herbicide and sheep and goat grazing. Wyatt Ayers, pasture manager, says they spray fence lines to try to keep the weed contained within the pasture.

"We spray lots of the trails and roadways so it doesn't spread," Ayers explains, adding it's expensive but he doesn't see a way around it. "I've seen spurge eat up grazing acres and it would ruin this pasture."

Ayers says the sheep and goat grazing, which is contracted to an arms-length operator, is effective. "We have a good weed management plan and co-ordinate between sprayers and goat herders so we are definitely getting a good handle," Ayers says. He adds that they have received expert advice as well as financial assistance from conservation groups to help offset the cost of control.

Most pastures qualify for federal dollars through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership program. Weed management is eligible for funding. However, some groups reach their funding cap while the problem persists.

Monet Pasture has an ongoing invasive weed control program for burdock. Pasture manager Luke Ellingson says Monet has already exhausted some invasive weed funding and has since been pursuing other sources. He adds that many available grants focus on covering a portion of herbicide costs which aren't always the most expensive part.

"The labour cost to apply it is what's killing us," Ellingson says. He says it can be a tough sell to convince patrons to invest more dollars in weed control in the short term when the benefits are realized over a long time.

The Crooked River Pasture has been working to manage wildlife issues, including wild boars. Rick Stolz says as soon as they realized they had a problem, the pasture arranged to have the government come in and trap the boars.

The patrons also discovered a large herd of elk that have been using the pasture as a calving ground. Stolz says the elk have caused significant damage to fences and have also consumed a lot of forage. As part of their management strategy, the patron group is looking to work with First Nations to reduce the elk population.

Drought is a wild card

With a large part of the Prairies reporting moderate to extreme drought, patron-operated pastures may be under added pressure this season.

"Our one concern is dry conditions," says Sean Miller of Caledonia/Elmsthorpe. "Our lease rate is the same no matter what and some of our other costs will be too."

"We haven't met those challenges yet but it's definitely a concern," Miller says, adding that if allocations were reduced or the grazing season had to be cut short due to drought, that would be difficult for patrons.

Dale Wood says people near the Portage Pasture are worried about water. Typically, area farmers are looking to move cattle out to the pasture because it's too wet. However, this year they want to move because it's abnormally dry.

"We're in a pretty good area off Lake Manitoba for water table, but dugouts are down this spring compared to other years," Wood says. "It's not a problem yet but we are crossing our fingers."

Each pasture experienced growing pains during the transition and some are still evolving to better meet the needs of patrons.

Rick Stolz says life under the old system was fairly easy. "Before, I just paid my fees and went home. My biggest challenge now is finding all the extra time to commit to this. But we always learn every year."

Tara Mulhern Davidson is a writer and beef and forage consultant. She ranches with her family in southwestern Saskatchewan. She's also a former PFRA range specialist as well as a patron in community pastures which are not profiled in this series.

About the author

Contributor

Tara Mulhern Davidson is a writer and a beef and forage consultant. She ranches with her family in southwestern Saskatchewan.

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