If you wanted to get a well-rounded view of what it’s like to ranch in virtually any part of the country, you’d be hard-pressed to do much better than Williams Lake, B.C.
Nestled in the central interior region of the province, the city is square in the middle of one of the most diverse environments in Canada. Within a 30- to 45-minute drive, you can see heavy rainfall to the east, abundant grasslands to the west and arid country to the south.
These are the surroundings where most students of the Applied Sustainable Ranching program (ASUR) — headquartered at Thompson Rivers University’s (TRU) satellite campus in Williams Lake — learn and ply their trade.
Going into its sixth intake this September, the two-year diploma program is set up to help students learn about and tackle just about every necessary skill needed in ranching today. Its three main teaching tools include online learning, in-person seminars with industry experts and a practicum where students get real-life ranching experience on area operations.
“Nobody is really on campus most of the time,” says Gillian Watt, program co-ordinator. “The students are all out on farms and ranches. They’re really getting a very diverse education.
“A concern when we started the program was that we didn’t want to be graduating students who had no practical background or experience. That’s why students are on the host ranches for the full two years.”
Emphasis on business skills
The ASUR program emphasizes assignments and group projects ahead of exams, says Watt. Developing good business management skills — along with attention to soil health and applied skills — comprise the “three legs” of the program.
An operational business plan is one of the key goals for students. Whether they’re building a hypothetical plan for their host ranch or farm, home ranch or an entirely virtual operation, the program breaks down everything they need in that plan (nutrition and marketing, to name two examples) into separate modules.
“Every week they are applying their skills into developing a tool that can be used in a business plan or in an operations plan,” says Watt.
The program receives crucial input from a board of industry advisors. One of the priorities the board “was very vocal about” was teaching students how to diversify their income streams.
One way the program does this is by separating every facet of a ranch operation into “enterprises” to help students understand how each component feeds into another. By doing this, Watt says students learn how to decide which enterprises on the ranch are the most profitable, giving them a tool to decide where to focus their management. An operation’s forage production, for example, is looked at as a separate enterprise which sells hay to the same operation’s cow-calf enterprise.
It’s a new way of looking at ranch management which can help students profit the most from what they or their land do best, says Watt.
“We keep it separate so once they look at their gross margin from each enterprise they can start making decisions. Maybe they’re on some really great hay-growing ground. Maybe in that case they should be selling more hay and having less cattle, for example.
“A lot of times people just list all of the expenses under the cow-calf enterprise, so they don’t break out their hay costs per tonne. But with a haying enterprise that’s separate, you do that. You have to make sure your numbers work.”
Students frequently get good advice from host ranches and other on-ranch program associates, she says.
“One of the ranchers we work with recently told the students, ‘When your gross margin projection looks good, divide that number by two and if it still looks good you might have something’.”
Program enhances student’s passion for ranching
Dezmond Allen is a second-year student in the ASUR program. His passion for ranching started on his grandparents’ cow-calf and hay operation located in the mountainous regions of Lillooet, B.C., in the southern interior of the province. It’s in those rugged, irrigation-dependent ranching conditions where Allen cut his teeth.
“The area is really hot and dry. It’s home to sagebrush, rattlesnakes and ponderosa pine. Ranching there is pretty tough; without irrigation it’s pretty much a desert.
“The cattle range consists of small meadows hidden up in nearly vertical mountains. It’s straight up and down with a few flat spots where you can actually graze. That adds quite a big challenge to managing your cattle out on the range.”
Despite those challenging conditions, ranching got into Allen’s blood at a young age. “I started spending summers at my grandparents’, started with picking rocks and moved my way up to moving irrigation lines, making hay and eventually going for horse trips into the mountains to check cattle.
“That just really cemented it into my blood. The lifestyle that ranching entails — being connected to the land, the animals, the water and the community is why I really want to become a rancher and raise my family in that way.”
For Allen, the ASUR program has been a great fit, with his host ranch experience taking him out of his comfort zone. Although his host ranch was only an hour’s drive away in Spences Bridge, he found the management intensity quite different compared to his grandparents’ operation.
“It was a nice change from my family’s operation. My family has about 80 head and a really relaxed management style. The guys in Spences Bridge have a little over 300 head of cattle and a very intensive management operation.”
Allen enjoys the variety of farming and ranching — such as organic vegetable farming and regenerative agriculture — the program has exposed him to.
“It’s good because a lot of this farming and ranching, you can read about it and talk about it but you need to get hands-on and learn that way. I think that’s one of the really big highlights of the program.”
Framing the future
So where does a graduate of the ASUR program typically end up? Some work on ranches and farms throughout B.C. and Alberta, often with management plans in mind, says Watt. Some return home to their family ranch or work in resource or lands management or economic development, while others start their own businesses. Others go on to get a degree through Olds College, where they can transfer into the bachelor of applied science: agribusiness program.
“We have a really close relationship with Olds College,” she says. “Our graduating students, providing they achieve a minimum GPA, can ladder right into the third year of their program. It’s a really wonderful degree with a very good reputation because the students come out of there with real thinking and problem-solving skills.”
Beginner ranchers face all kinds of challenges today including climate risk, fluctuating commodity prices and rising input costs. But one of the biggest on the minds of many students — especially those hoping to pursue primary ranching as an owner and manager — is how to get into the business in the face of high land values and limited availability.
ASUR tries to be realistic with its students in this regard, says Watt, and one way to do that is to offer a historical perspective.
“People don’t realize today that a lot of our historical ranching families started out leasing land or managing a ranch in partnership with the owners. People sometimes think that everybody has just had a ranch handed to them. I encourage students to look at leasing opportunities because there is a lot of land that is underutilized or may be vacant with foreign owners, for example.
“I always encourage them to do that — at least to begin with — and move on from there.”
Allen hopes to be hired onto an existing ranch as a manager in order to get real-life management experience and hopefully apply the kind of management strategies he would like to employ.
“There are going to be a lot of people getting older that need managers — people who are young and energetic and motivated to get out and do these things.
“(I’m trying to) develop my skills enough so I can be employed as a manager of a property because I think that’s as close as I am going to get to owning my own place and managing it the way I want.”
Editor’s note: We were wondering how the pandemic has affected TRU’s Applied Sustainable Ranching program, so we reached out to Gillian Watt in early May. She said because the program is flexible and host farms and ranches are still happy to have students, the pandemic hasn’t created disruptions.