You know a winter range is excellent grazing land when a cow will cross every fence she can to get there.
Mike Roberts, manager of the Waldron Ranch Grazing Co-op, pointed out a herd of cows grazing in low-lying pastures while hosting participants of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s pre-conference tour in November. This particular pasture is generally saved for one producer whose animals can’t wait to arrive.
“After he weans his cows, he has trouble keeping his cows from coming to the Waldron,” said Roberts. “He had an old cow one year. He cut her back, and she forced her way through every fence in her way. He thought she was too old to do it one more time, but she was determined to come, so she was crawling fences until she got here.”
When you stop to drink in the stunning foothills scenery, it’s easy to understand that determined cow’s motivation. The Waldron Ranch, south of Longview, Alta., sits 4,300 feet above sea level, the same elevation as the summit on the Rogers Pass. Roberts noted the boundaries of the 65,000-acre ranch, from the hills along the eastern skyline to a particular peak crowded among the mountains to the west. The pink light of the sunset over the Rockies lit the chinook arch on fire.
“That’s what enables us to ranch here,” he said.
The major temperature changes that come with chinooks don’t seem to phase the cattle, nor do most winter nights.
“When it’s cold, the cattle here will climb those high hills and sleep right up at the top,” he said. “There might be five degrees difference between down here and up there, and they know it. You’ll see in the evenings big long lines — two, three hundred cows marching up the hill, way up to the top to sleep under some trees.”
This has been a cattle producer’s paradise since 1883, when Duncan McNab McEachran established the Waldron Ranch. At the time, it was home to 8,500 head of Angus and Hereford cattle on 260,000 acres. The ranch maintained its vast holdings until before the turn of the previous century, when the 21-year grazing leases that allowed for the establishment of enormous ranches in southern Alberta were cancelled to open land for homesteading.
In 1908, the Waldron stopped operating and its herd was purchased by Calgary packer and cattleman Pat Burns. Parts of the ranch were later leased or sold to other local cattle producers. A new chapter in the Waldron’s history began in 1962 when a group of 116 southern Alberta beef producers created a co-operative to buy the ranch’s remaining 45,000 acres for $1 million.
Part of the present-day ranch encompasses land once owned by two eccentric characters of foothills lore, Harold and Maurice King. The two brothers came to the area as teenagers to homestead, living in a log cabin nestled in a coulee that receives no sunlight in winter.
“They never spent a nickel,” Roberts recounted. “When other homesteaders wanted out they went to the King brothers. They had the money and they’d buy them out, and that’s how they accumulated land.”
After the King brothers passed away in the 1990s, their 14,000-acre ranch eventually sold, and several years later an opportunity arose to help the Waldron acquire that land. The Nature Conservancy of Canada approached the ranch about setting up a conservation easement on its deeded land. The majority of the shareholders agreed to the proposal after a year of negotiating. The easement ensures that no development and cultivation will take place on deeded land and in return the ranch received $37 million in tax credits and $15 million in cash. The latter was used to purchase the King brothers’ ranch.
This story has a personal connection for Roberts, whose father had cattle on shares with the King brothers in the 1960s, something they did for other producers at a time when it was hard to borrow from banks.
“I remember as a little kid coming down here to the King brothers, and old Maurice was about five-foot-eight at the most,” he recalled. “As soon as he’d seen us kids, he’d go back in the depths of the cabin there and he’d come out with Jersey Milk chocolate bars for each of us.”
Life eventually brought Roberts back to this historic operation, where he has been the manager for 10 years.
“I actually grew up just south of the river, about 15 miles away from here. My life kind of took a big circle and I landed back here,” he said. “I’m one of those lucky people (for whom) any given day is not a day of work.”
In the business of grass
The Waldron Ranch Grazing Co-op is made up of 70 shareholders, 40 of which are active. The remaining 30 rent their shares to active shareholders. Shares are a hot commodity, with a waiting list for any that become available. Shareholders pay a grazing fee to cover costs such as labour, medicine and taxes.
“It’s a big saving for the ranchers,” said Roberts. “The cost per day in winter months is about $0.83, so if you can feed a cow for $0.83 a day, your chances of making money are a lot better.”
In total, 13,000 head of cattle will graze there throughout a 10-month period, arriving and departing between the beginning of June and the end of March. The goal, Roberts explained, is “to complement the shareholders’ own ranches.” While no calving or branding takes place on the ranch, many shareholders will send bulls along with their herds during their breeding seasons.
Each share is equal to 4.2 pairs per five months, depending on when you bring cattle to the ranch. As they prefer not to have too many cattle arriving in June, shares only count for half for producers who bring cattle then. Shares are par if arriving in July and August, 1.25 if in September and October, and 1.5 in the winter months.
“That is to encourage people to come later in the season when the grass has had a lot of time to grow and the root system is really strong and actually most of the grass has already matured.”
Grass is the lifeblood of the Waldron. The growing season, generally between 60 to 90 days, varies depending on rainfall, temperature and frost-free days.
“We try to never fight with nature because we’re going to lose every time in this environment, so we always try to work with nature,” Roberts stated in a presentation at the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s 2018 conference. “We manage for a dry situation, which is more likely the norm, so then when we get a wet year it’s a bonanza.”
The necessity of proper management of native grasslands is illustrated by a small square of land fenced off within one pasture. As part of research conducted with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, this rough-looking patch of grass hasn’t been grazed in 30 years.
“There’s so much dead grass piled on there that it’s smothering out the grass, and the plants are this far apart, and in between there’s a layer of moss,” said Roberts.
“It’s not natural, because naturally it would have been grazed by buffalo and it would have burned periodically.” He added that grasslands not taken care of have no financial value to beef producers and may end up being developed.
“People who do not generate their livelihood from the land, they look at it differently. They think they’re preserving it and saving it, but they’re actually destroying it.”
About 1,200 acres of the ranch was cultivated in the past for hay, and the native grass that once supported vast bison herds — the evidence of which is found when a flooding creek washes up bison skulls — now supports thousands of head of cattle. Roberts is passionate about proper management of native grasslands.
“If it’s ever been cultivated, it just about never comes back,” he said. “It is very resilient. It can take fires, it can take droughts, it can take overgrazing and everything, but it cannot take cultivation. It just destroys it.”
Grazing the tame grasses early allows the native grasses to reach maturity before grazing. The tame grasses bounce back quickly, Roberts said, and a mature native plant can be grazed safely.
“By stockpiling grass and managing our grazing, maintaining the health of our rangeland and our native grass, we’re able to graze 10 months of the year.”
Adaptability is crucial to making this work. As the Waldron doesn’t feed, cattle are sent home if things get extremely lean.
“It’s to preserve the grass long term…because an awful lot of them rely on us. This is an extension to their ranch. If this gets abused and then they come to a year where they’ve got nowhere to go, they’re in dire straights,” he said.
“We have a few bales here in the yard for emergencies. What’ll happen to us is we can get the cows in the corral but maybe they close the highway and the trucks can’t come,” he continued, referencing the previous winter, a difficult one for many. “I’ve been here 10 years, and that’s actually the first time we had to get the cattle out of here early.”
The case for cell grazing
The Waldron is moving from a semi-rotational grazing system to a more intensive system using cell grazing. By dividing a pasture into several smaller cells, this allows for a few days of intense grazing in each cell, followed by a much longer rest period. They currently have 2,800 acres under cell grazing, and the average cell size is 50 acres. Each cell is grazed for about three days, allowing it to rest for more than 99 per cent of the year.
In addition to good performance, with heifers gaining up to 1.75 to 2.0 lbs. per day, this system has improved herd health.
“When we put them back in the high foothills we had wolves killing the yearlings. It would take us two weeks to round them up and we’re still 30 short,” said Roberts. “We would lose quite a few because of illnesses — we couldn’t check them, they were too spread out, too much manpower involved.”
Now with cell grazing, they see the cattle more frequently and can keep a better eye on any health issues. They are also getting 1.5 acres per animal unit month instead of two.
“We had 1,300 head of yearlings on our cell grazing this summer in two groups. The only time that I had to have some of my cowboys come and help me in that situation was a porcupine went for a walkabout across a cell and we had to rope three heifers and pull the quills out of their faces. Otherwise, I did it all myself.”
Their investment for cell grazing is $36 per acre, which includes labour, installing pipe and water troughs, and building single-strand electric fences. Given the initial success of this system, they plan to eventually cell graze 5,000 acres.
“Whether it’s sustainable in the long term, we don’t know, but we’re willing to try and make some mistakes and re-adjust what we do.”
Managing all aspects
Standing in this landscape, it’s easy to imagine you’ve travelled back to the late 19th century. Some practices from that time are still used regularly on the Waldron, such as the 36 horses that play a major role in the ranch’s everyday operations.
“We try to employ every new technological advance that we can,” said Roberts. “Yet we still do some things like we did in 1883 because it works. So you have to look at all the different aspects of your operation and what works for you.”
Similar to the early days of ranching in southern Alberta, the Waldron’s health protocols remain simple, with careful use of antibiotics, which is necessary given that the shareholders have a range of vaccination and herd health programs.
“Our experience is that clean grass, clean water and low-stress management reduces your need for antibiotics,” said Roberts.
“Our death loss is under 0.25 per cent consistently all the time. Our medical costs are just blanket. Everybody pays a share of the medical costs and it runs about 33 cents per head, so it’s very small… We’ve actually got six sets of corrals on the ranch. We move our handling system to that corral so that we don’t have to move the cows very far.”
Simplicity also won the day when dealing with a pasture that was constantly overrun with leafy spurge, a difficult weed to control. The ranch had spent thousands of dollars each year for decades spraying the leafy spurge to no avail. Roberts had a different approach to tackle this problem, though it was a bit of a hard sell for some of the directors.
“My family had sheep ever since I was five years old. I wasn’t scared of sheep,” he said. “We talked to the local Hutterite colony. They had 600 ewes that were desperately in need of pasture, and we made a deal. And they brought their sheep and we looked after them.”
His plan worked extremely well, with the pasture much healthier in about five years and only a little leafy spurge appearing each year.
Proper management of every aspect is vital to success here, especially when ranching in a dry environment such as the foothills.
“In our country, you don’t want to waste a gallon,” he said. “We have turned the south end of our ranch, which was at one time considered by the shareholders to be the poor part of the ranch because it was dry and the water wasn’t very good, (into) one of the most productive parts of the ranch… It was all about water and grass management, but water is key.”
With results like this, it’s no wonder this range is so good that all the fences in the foothills won’t keep a cow from getting there.