Stephen Hughes’ family has operated the Chinook Ranch near Longview, Alta., since the late 1940s. It consists of 5,000 acres, roughly half in Crown lands, and most of it in tall grass prairie to carry 500 cows year-round plus 500 yearlings in the summer.
It was a traditional operation, raising hay to carry the cows through the winter until about 20 years ago when Hughes began grazing cattle through the winter with hay as needed and various forms of protein supplementation, depending on the age of the cattle.
“The calves we keep are fed hay and pellets, but they are out on pasture rather than being confined in pens. They are healthier, and get part of their diet from grazing.”
“The key to all of our winter grazing is protein supplementation,” says Hughes. Cattle on dry forages need adequate protein, to utilize forage and ferment it in the rumen.
“Microbes in the rumen must have protein to do their job and it must be a compatible protein for the bugs that digest the so-called low-quality roughage. There is nothing low-quality about it, except to a nutritionist who says it’s low on protein and energy.”
Cattle do very well on this forage because with protein supplement the rumen microbes can break it down and convert it to energy.
“Buffalo survived here during winter without inputs, so we’ve gone that direction with our cattle. Range management and grass is our main focus since we are not doing any farming or haying. This has improved our grass management and increased the cattle numbers we carry in summer. Our ranch management is now very simple,” says Hughes.
The cattle are rotated around to different grazing areas every two to five days, using portable electric fencing. Solar panels generate the power to pump water for the cattle from underground springs. The short rotations have improved the range condition. Healthier grass means more cattle can be run, with less input costs.
In 2003 the Chinook Ranch received the Alberta Beef Producers Environmental Stewardship Award for commitment to sustainability.
In 2011 the 2,600 acres owned by the family were preserved by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to keep the grazing and wildlife habitat from being broken up by future development, as had already happened with some neighbouring ranches.
Grazing instead of hazing
Shifting to a grazing operation had the added benefit of reducing input costs.
“We cut out a lot of machinery,” says Hughes. “We don’t do any haying now, but I rent a farm nearby and have that hay put up with custom work.”
Aside from providing feed for the calves and calving heifers, the hay provides a backup supply for the cows should the weather turn really ugly.
Initially, when he moved to winter grazing, he bought hay, but he feels more secure renting the hay land. “We are taking the risk of putting up bad feed, depending on the weather, but it’s always the same amount of money spent, to rent the farm and have the hay put up “
“I’d rather take a climatic risk than a price risk. We did put up a lot less this past year because of the dry spring, but we do have access to the grazing aftermath so it still works out,” says Hughes.
Aside from all that, grazing appeals to Stephen’s sense of environmental responsibility. “I was involved with the McDonald’s Verified Sustainable Beef pilot project and I look forward to seeing where the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is headed,” he adds.
“People need to remember that grass evolved under grazing. To maintain it, you do need to graze it. We’ve learned a lot about the science. The old idea that breaking the land was improving it was incorrect. Luckily, most of our place was saved from cropping due to its topography; not much of it got farmed in earlier times. Now you’d never convince me to break up native grass. The older I get, the more I embrace the environmental aspect of what we do, and promoting that. We are providing a very healthy, responsible food source.”
Summer grass management
One thing he learned during the BSE crisis has indirectly made him a better grass manager.
“We were trying to survive, economically, and started bringing in yearlings for the summer to eat the extra grass, since we were no longer haying. I learned along the way that this is what it takes to make a better winter grass supply for my cows,” he says.
Now they almost double their numbers during the summer, for about 100 days, and this allows them to keep the grass grazed down when it is growing fast. The extra yearlings consume all that growth.
The yearlings are gone by the end of August, so they don’t have an impact on the winter feed supply, but they do leave all the pastures in a more vegetative state, with green regrowth going into winter. The yearlings pay for the custom haying, and leave the home place in a better stage of growth, with more protein in the immature grasses.
“It’s management-intense during summer, with a lot of work on grazing and rotating pastures. This makes winter pretty simple, if the weather is not too tough. All we have to do is worry about keeping protein and mineral available to the cattle, and plowing through whatever drifts appear,” says Hughes.
The ranch also provides a habitat for moose, elk, whitetail deer, mule deer, cougars, coyotes, black bear and grizzlies. One year a cow moose had her calf right with the calving cows.
“I was out there on foot, and had my camera,” recalls Hughes. “I thought it would make an interesting picture so I tried to sneak up closer to her, through the trees. When she saw me, however, she charged right at me. I ran back into the poplars and she quit and went back to her calf. Twenty minutes later I saw a set of twin moose calves, and got a photo of them, but I made sure their mother wasn’t there! Both of those cows calved right in the cow herd, and I wasn’t sure whether it was because of the cows or in spite of the cows. The moose had probably spent most of the winter there, and weren’t going to move just because the cows came. The cows were there for about five days and the moose just stayed put, and calved with the cows.”