The moon shines on the bend in the meandering Assiniboine River and reflects a shimmering silver glimmer that illuminates the lush riverside and well up the gently sloped hill toward the farmhouse. Thus the name Silverbend Ranch, or so the story goes.
But while the moon may glisten at night, things weren’t always so shiny during the day on the long-time family farm operation located north of Miniota, Man. In fact, had it not been for urgent stop-gap measures, the sandy soil of Silverbend Ranch might have blown away to the point of no return.
“The ranch was being run by Karen’s two uncles who had run the operations for some time,” says Brian Greaves, who came to Canada in 1993 with Karen Hill, a Canadian he met while she was teaching near his home in New Zealand. “The land was so burnt out. They were advancing in their years and were struggling to make things work. They were going to sell it but it was so burnt out and degraded from the years of traditional agricultural practices and cropping that didn’t work on this soil. Good topsoil was being blown away. It was the poorest land in the municipality.”
Greaves credits Dave Hill, Karen’s father and a former provincial ag rep in Dauphin, for taking the largest step toward saving the ranch in 1988 by putting large portions of it into alfalfa and hay and halting the worst soil erosion. He and Karen were offered the opportunity of running Silverbend Ranch in 1993. They jumped at the chance.
“When we arrived, there were windblown ridgelines that we needed to use the rural municipality’s grader to move. Still, some ridges were impossible; they were pretty much gravel,” he recalls. “But after Karen’s dad started the alfalfa stand, things turned around. I was coming from a system in New Zealand where we pastured year-round. We took that concept and we saved the land via a rotational grazing system that we designed for the ranch. In order to have healthy livestock, we needed to have healthy pasture.”
Besides his understanding of healthy pastures, Greaves also brought a businessman’s grasp of the value of sheep to both the farm operations and the bank account. Fast-forward to 2015, and the mix of sheep, cattle and a dedication to conservation practices over the past two plus decades are showing their worth.
“We currently run 120 cows and 400 ewes,” says Greaves. “When we came over, I was used to sheep. Sheep are cheaper and easier and when it comes to multi-species grazing, sheep clean up the lower-quality grass species and they are not competing. This allows the plant species that the cattle like to graze to get stronger which improves production.”
Sheep are browsers and cattle are grazers and therefore sheep need an effective rotational grazing system as they are more prone to bloat. Coyotes, bears and eagles have prompted Greaves to implement a guard dog system to deter the predation. But sheep have helped the bottom line.
“Before the cattle industry boomed over the last two or three years, sheep were bringing more annual income to our operations,” he says. “There’s a ratio I use of five sheep to one cow. They eat the same amount of food and cost the same amount of money.”
Greaves and Hill were awarded the 2008-09 Farm Family of the Year by the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association. Since then, Greaves has intensified the conservation aspects of Silverbend Ranch’s operations.
“Our pasture rotation is good for the soil,” Greaves says, noting his system’s success with crested wheatgrass. “We have replanted tree lines for shade, our dugouts are fenced and we use watering systems away from them to maintain water quality for the livestock. We’ve donated a conservation easement on our property that includes sloughs and restored wetlands and walking trails with public access.”
During the day, besides her work on the ranch, Hill works for Agriculture in the Classroom. The willingness to mentor and use Silverbend Ranch as an example to others is something Greaves obviously takes pride in.
Ryan Canart is the manager for the Upper Assiniboine Conservation District that nominated Silverbend Ranch for the conservation honour in 2008 and continues to work closely with Hill and Greaves.
They’re basically doing everything from a conservation perspective,” says Canart. “Shelterbelts, restoring wetlands, watering systems, donating land for an easement, native grasses, managing soil and pasture and on and on. They are a farm family that go above and beyond.”