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Health is a shared responsibility on this co-operative pasture

The BT usually grazes 800 pairs on 27,000 fragile, sandy acres

The BT Grazing Co-operative is the oldest of its kind in Alberta, dating back to 1952 when local producers formed a co-operative to take up a private grazing lease on 27,000 acres of provincial Crown land in the sandhills, about an hour north of Medicine Hat. Native prairie grasses and shrubs cover the rolling terrain that plunges into the basin of the South Saskatchewan River separating the lease from Canadian Forces Base Suffield to the west.

BT president Barry Fischer, who has held the post for 23 years, says there are 17 members today. Most run mixed farms and many rely solely on BT for grazing.

BT is always open to accepting new members, but according to the bylaws, they must be from the designated local area to buy shares in the co-op, graze cattle, vote at the meetings and, of course, help with the maintenance that goes into keeping the pasture running. The maximum is 80 shares per member and members have the option of selling their shares back to the co-op when they get out of cattle, or sell their farm holdings.

The co-op owns all of the infrastructure, more than 65 miles of fence, most of which has been replaced in recent years, bull wintering facilities in the yard along with a house for the manager, and an array of livestock watering systems.

Manager Clint Linford has been with BT for seven years. He is the only full-time employee and other riders, including his wife, Tannis, are hired from time to time to help out with moves and sorting. With pastures ranging in size from two to eight sections, a crew of five seems to work well for gathering, sorting and trailing herds out of the larger pastures, he says.

Take-in can be any time from mid- to late May when the tame crested wheat grass is ready to graze on the 10 quarters purchased by the co-operative in 1990 for the purpose of providing early-season grazing.

The native grasses on the lease need rain and heat to really get growing, Linford explains, putting turnout on native grass around mid-June most years, which coincides with bull turnout.

The herds stay in the breeding fields on high ground for eight weeks. Though he’d like to be able to switch it up a bit by starting the season on other fields now and again, it’s not manageable because the rough terrain in the river hill pastures isn’t ideal for breeding.

BT runs five breeding fields: heifers, Charolais, red Angus, black Angus and red Simmental, along with a season-round quarantine field added two years ago when some community pastures had trouble with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like trichomoniasis and vibriosis.

A co-op bylaw restricts entry to cows with their own calves at side, which is a good indication that the cow isn’t harbouring any STDs, Linford says. The challenge was finding a way to accommodate members who want to bring in purchased cattle or females not bred by a BT bull and still safeguard the rest of the cattle.

“New cattle go into the quarantine field for the first year and at the end of the breeding season we test the bulls again. If they are still clean, then the cows are clean and they can come into the regular herd with their calves the next season,” he explains.

The quarantine field is a mile from the closest breeding field and, as an added measure, all of the cattle going into it are tagged with pink dangle tags for quick identification if any do get out.

A problem with perforated ulcers, as confirmed by autopsies on the calves, seems to have been cleared up by setting out lick tubs containing diatomaceous earth for the calves at the salting caches, typically stocked with blue salt and trace mineral blocks. At least there hasn’t been a case in the two years since they’ve started with the tubs.

All doctoring, checking and moving cattle is done from horseback using quiet stockmanship techniques so that the cattle remain calm and approachable. The Linfords rely a lot on the cattle’s natural instinct to remain with the group.

BT usually takes in approximately 800 pairs and requires one bull for every 20 to 25 cows plus spares in the event of injury. They know they will lose about 10 per cent to the semen test before turnout. This year’s bull battery stood at 42.

BT takes care of the health and testing program for the bulls, but members are responsible for looking after cow and calf health programs for their own herds in whatever way they deem necessary while the cattle are at home.

The president and the directors form the bull-buying committee. They look for ranch-raised bulls conditioned to rugged pasture terrain. Through the years, they’ve developed a list of breeders with a proven record of supplying bulls that work under these conditions.

After the bulls are pulled, the females in each breeding field are sorted according to how they will leave at the end of the season, by truck or trailer, and moved to the river hill pastures for the remainder of the summer.

Roundup happens when grass conditions dictate. In dry years, it can be as early as the end of breeding season, but in recent years it’s been around Oct. 20.

It takes the crew about a day to gather the cattle and another to sort them into home herds. Late in the season, if the weather turns cold, the older cows instinctively know it’s time to move, and each herd starts to gather in certain parts of the field that they know will lead home.

The members trail their herds out on the same day from the north end of the range. Those to be trucked are sorted from horseback and penned in the the yard overnight, then leave the next morning.

Range management

BT members know how easily this sandy land drifts away when vegetation gets sparse. Even a bull wallow can throw up enough sand to start slicing off surrounding vegetation when the wind is howling.

The co-op has a policy of grazing half and leaving half for next year. Alberta Environment range management specialists annually assess the pasture and set an appropriate stocking rate, typically about 33 acres per cow for the season. In dry years members cut their allotments and supplement the pasture during breeding season, or arrange to pull their cattle earlier than usual.

Vehicle traffic is kept to a bare minimum. The only time Linford drives across a pasture is to restock the salt caches. Gravel is laid on the tire tracks of established trails used by gas companies to service wells on the lease, and the grass between the tracks is mowed to reduce the fire hazard and the chance of dry grass seed building up on the skid plates of vehicles.

All but two of the dugouts have good-quality water. To replace those two and supply the house and yard, the co-op purchased two shares in a rural pipeline constructed to supply a nearby town. It provides a trickle supply that fills large holding tanks with gravity-fed waterers.

To protect the dugouts they use solar pumps to draw water into a tank. Linford says that has greatly improved the stability of the banks on their dugouts. As well, seven wells — five with traditional windmills and two with submersible solar pumps — lift water to holding tanks with gravity-fed troughs. A spring in the side of a coulee has been tapped with a culvert to fill two overflowing tanks giving time for the silt to settle out and provide clear, cool water.

— Debbie Furber is a field editor for Canadian Cattlemen at Tisdale, Sask. This article appeared in the September 2013 issue (pgs. 22-25).

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