In a truly strange set of circumstances, when Chad Seelhof heard about the BSE announcement, he was in a cattle liner about to relocate from Paradise Hill, Sask., with his parents Louis and Ellie, to the Cariboo region of British Columbia.
Chad recalls hearing the report on a radio broadcast. “I really wondered what the heck we were doing moving from a mixed farming operation on the Prairies to a total cow-calf ranch in B.C.”
But the move and timing turned out to be just right. The Saskatchewan natives were able to increase cow numbers while the values were relatively low. The subsequent growth and expansion of the Woodjam Ranch of Horsefly, B.C., led to the recent Environmental Sustainability Award (TESA) by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. The ranching family initially received the 2020 Ranch Sustainability Award from the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association before garnering the national title.
The first owner of the ranch supposedly settled it in 1866 and then abandoned it the following year. Cattle came later in the 1890s with another settler, A. Patenaude. At that time Horsefly was a teeming metropolis of gold rush entrepreneurs who had built a small city. The ranch is located on the Horsefly River, 12 km east of the original town site. The current population of Horsefly is 1,000.
At the same time the Seelhofs were relocating, another young woman and her family made a similar trek from Saskatchewan. Ricky Hewitt had known Chad in high school but it was not until they were both in B.C. that they reconnected and married.
The senior Seelhofs had originally purchased the Woodjam in 2003. Some of the attributes that appealed to them included good grass, lots of water and little infrastructure.
“It was a great place to raise cows,” says Chad. He and Ricky moved to the ranch to work with his parents in 2004. Shortly after, the young couple bought a neighbouring ranch, giving them the entire south side of the Horsefly River.
In 2009, they formed a partnership and in 2016 Ricky and Chad bought out his parents and amalgamated the two ranches.
Working with the environment was important to them from the outset, on both the 2,100 acres of deeded land and the surrounding Crown lands of 80,000 acres. They have worked to protect riparian areas and limit direct access to the creeks and rivers.
Al and Bev Madley, 2009 TESA recipients themselves, nominated the Seelhofs after touring the ranch during a BCCA annual general meeting. The Madleys listed the Seelhofs’ work protecting the Horsefly River and 16 tributary creeks as particularly impressive, especially given declining populations of sockeye, coho and chinook salmon. The Horsefly River is the main sockeye spawning river in the Quesnel River watershed and in a dominant year up to 930,000 adult sockeye return to the watershed.
“We have had great support from some of the local agencies,” says Ricky.
The development of an Environment Farm Plan was an important part of the water access strategy.
“I can attest to the forward-thinking approach and their innovative stewardship practices,” says George Powell, Environmental Farm Plan advisor.
Along with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), who supported projects to protect salmon spawning in the river, they have also worked with the Invasive Plants Council and Tolko Industries.
Strategies that have been incorporated on the ranch include: close to 10 kilometres of permanent exclusion fencing to protect the Horsefly River, Kroener Creek and Woodjam Creek riparian areas; installing eight large off-stream year-round watering systems; planting willows and developing berms to stabilize stream banks; installing culverts and bridges; rotating winter feeding grounds; electric fencing and a rest and rotation grazing plan; winter bale grazing; invasive species management; protecting certain wildlife species and co-existing with many others.
The initial herd of 150 cows has now expanded to 500 head of commercial Black Angus. It did take some time for the cows to transition.
“It is tough country and you need some pretty good cows,” says Chad. “For the first few years out here it was slim pickings as calves were not worth much. But it was a good place to weather the BSE storm.”
They sell direct off the ranch in the fall, through B.C. Livestock’s video sale. Some replacements are kept, as well as the lighter end of calves. Some bulls are home-raised and some are bought. They have also been adding Black Simmental to the bull battery.
“We emphasize structure in our cattle. They need to be moderate size with good feet and legs,” says Chad.
With all the native meadows and abundant water, Chad says it’s “the most practical place to raise a calf, as our cost of production is quite low.”
The rugged landscape requires the use of both horses and dogs. “It is an awesome place to live and raise a family,” says Ricky, “We make all the fun we want to right here.” With a transition to home schooling, the kids will be able to be even more involved.
Community and industry involvement is exemplified by the three-generation ranching family. They are an audited Verified Beef Plus operation. They are active in 4-H and the local Horsefly Cattlemen’s Association and have participated in Ag Safe. Woodjam Ranch has been a host for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program at Thompson Rivers University. Chad is chair of the Horsefly Cattlemen’s Association. Ricky is also the chair of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Public Affairs and Education Committee and is a director on the Canadian Cattlemen’s Young Cattlemen’s Council. Louis and Ellie are directors on the Williams Lake Stampede Association. The family are all accomplished horse people. They also host many tours and education events.
Future environmental goals are to continue with protection of the ranch’s riparian areas, while expanding grazing. They would like to be able to increase the length of time for the rest-rotation strategy to incorporate a full year of rest for some paddocks. Enhancement of grounds where logging has taken place for forage establishment is also on their list.
The couple are modest about the national recognition they have received.
“We never did any of this work to get recognition,” Ricky says. “But it does make you reflect and appreciate what we have done together. We can do things that benefit the ranch, the environment and the family.”