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Animal care lives here

Doug Sawyer in a pasture with cattle

Driving down the road to the family’s old homestead established in 1903 near Pine Lake, Alta., Doug Sawyer stops to look at the corrals he helped design and build when he was a kid.

“We thought about the ways animals move and how to make it work for us by rounding out corners and letting them go out where they came in. We didn’t know then that there was a name for it. It just made mechanical sense and animal sense. It always was part of what we did and led us to other things like rotational grazing early on. The philosophy continues here today.

“The point is, I got drawn into animal care because I’m naturally interested in it,” says Sawyer, former chair of Alberta Farm Animal Care, who is currently a member-at-large representing Alberta citizens on the province’s Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Somehow along the way the public view of animal welfare seems to have become focused on whatever their interest happens to be, such as animal handling or housing, because they don’t understand the big picture. Producers, on the other hand think of it in much broader terms they call animal care.

Another misconception among consumers is that doing what’s right for animals costs money, so poor animal welfare happens because farmers are trying to save money, when it’s exactly the opposite in producers’ books. Good animal care makes money.

Sawyer never shies away from the opportunity to talk with consumers about animal care and ranching. His basic message is simple: “I am in business and have to make money to stay in business. Animal care has a huge role. My animals have to be comfortable and healthy.”

Animal care practices differ from farm to farm and evolve over time as research makes new information available, but it always comes down to the animal.

“The best improvements need to be driven from the impact on my farm and my cows. What I see happening is change being driven from the outside as our industry and producers are getting caught up with an uniformed public or uninformed policy-makers. So it’s really important for us as producers to be able to show and communicate what we are doing,” he says.

Talking with consumers about animal care starts with recognizing what you do and how you do it, he adds, meaning that animal care is so second nature to producers that most don’t take stock of everything they do day in and day out to provide for their animals.

Sawyer’s varied roles in the beef industry have reinforced his motivation to talk with consumers about the family’s ranch and the Canadian beef industry in general. He is past chair of Alberta Beef Producers and represents ABP on the board of Canada Beef and on the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association where he is vice-chair of foreign trade and on the environment committee, as well as one of CCA’s representatives to the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency.

The Canadian beef industry depends on you the producer because it markets Canadian beef worldwide on the merits of Canadian cattlemen being among the best in the world with good animal care practices, leading genetics and a pristine environment.

Cattle on pasture at the Ghostpine Ranch.
Cattle on pasture at the Ghostpine Ranch. photo: Supplied

Animal care at Ghostpine

“I’m really fortunate to have a good team. Everyone figures out things together, so I am confident that things will be taken care of while I’m away,” Sawyer says.

The team includes his wife Carole, son, Braden and daughter, Brittany, along with some great friends and neighbours.

The ideal genetics for Ghostpine’s people and program is an Angus-Gelbvieh-cross cow with some Maine Anjou mixed in as they rotate bulls for genetic change.

They are slowly rebuilding the herd up to around a comfortable 250 cows from the 100 it dropped to during the depressed markets following BSE. He says it was better to be in margin cattle (yearlings) than to try to control input costs to make a living from cow-calf back then.

The first thing that comes to mind when Sawyer thinks of animal care practices is having feed and water plans for winter and summer.

Calving has gradually moved to start in mid-April from February in earlier years when they did some grain farming as well. Generally, April is warm enough in the rolling hills east of Red Deer to get through calving on pasture, but they still have the barn for shelter if the area gets hit with a late, wet snowstorm.

They manage the grass to have one-quarter stockpiled for calving. The advantage of later calving is that the cows have free access to fresh grass leading into breeding season. On the flip side, he sees that in early spring the cows will walk miles nibbling fresh sprigs and come back to rest on the hay. To ensure the herd is getting enough energy, they feed pellets daily.

Their preference is for a 50 per cent barley pellet. Tiny seeds in the screenings pass through the cows so they’re never sure of what they are actually getting out of pellets made from screenings alone.

Pellets and straw are the mainstay of the winter ration. Feed is stacked in several locations across the ranch to mitigate the risk of losing all of it in a natural disaster, such as fire or another tornado with the force that hit a nearby campground in 2000.

The combination of tame and native pasture across rolling hills provides a nice balance of open terrain and bush that offers shelter winter and summer. A grain-farmer neighbour takes care of cropping for swath grazing.

The barbed-wire fences on their own land have been built through the years to manage rotational grazing to the best advantage of the grass and cattle, while electric fencing works well on rented pasture to manage bush and open areas separately.

There is always something growing in the moist, shady surroundings of the bush pastures to help carry the cattle through dry spells. When he says he’s never more than five days away from a drought it’s because much of his pasture is on sandy land that needs timely precipitation to carry it through the summer. When he uses the word drought he adds a qualifier that there is a lot of fertile land and grain farming in the area, so there’s always something for cattle feed — grain, damaged crops, straw, slough hay — unlike producers farther east and in the south of the province who faced making tough marketing decisions earlier this year.

Many beef producers have experience and understand their options when it comes to managing cattle through droughts. The concern this year was for backyard animals because the prolonged stretch of dry weather through May and June, coming at the worst possible time for the hay crop, coupled with the sluggish Alberta economy may make it very difficult for families to purchase high-priced hay.

Nutrition has always been backstopped by a vaccination program at Ghostpine. They’ve used various strategies from a minimum protocol when they had a closed herd to a medium protocol for yearlings and now use the Bovishield Gold program to protect cows and calves because they are always bringing in yearlings. It’s a popular program making it easy for the next owner to follow up, he adds.

Animal handling does require a setup for safely restraining animals as needed and for loading out. The main corral system in the yard is a ring they built for team roping with a set of pens across an alley to one side, the working chute off one end of the alley, and a calf-handling chute at the opposite end. There are some adjustments he’d like to make in time, such as narrowing the sorting alley, taking out some square corners here and there, and adding another large holding pen separate from the ring, but for now it meets their needs.

They use a portable panel system for work that needs to be done in the pastures because it can be set up anywhere, and because a permanent corral in a secluded setting is an invitation to would-be rustlers.

More than facilities, cattle handling on their place is about matching cattle genetics and numbers to the people who work with them.

“Your own stress is not a bad barometer of cattle stress,” Sawyer says. “We have a pretty small crew who work together well and know the cattle so we get the work done.”

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