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It’s Time To Go Home

Jason Pollock started the new year with an announcement that he would step down at the end of this month after four years as CEO and general manager of Canadian Western Agribition (CWA). His decision didn’t come as a surprise to the board members of the annual livestock show — they knew his tenure would be year-by-year and that his career path would someday lead him back to the family ranch near Maple Creek, Sask.

In fact, an earlier decision to earn his Masters degree in business administration and pursue a career in business rather than education was part of this same long-term plan. The degree plus his business experience provided the foundation to eventually run a consulting business on the side when the time was right to return to the ranch.

He began his career in 1998 as business supervisor at Coronach with SaskPower, later moving to the Regina head office for a position in business planning. Except for a brief stint when he left to restructure a small manufacturing company, he remained with SaskPower until 2007 when he was appointed CEO of Agribition.

His connection to Agribition came through his time on the rodeo hobby, college, semi-pro and pro circuits that led to a term as vice-president of the Canadian Cowboys Association (CCA) and later a contract as the association’s general manager. In that position he was instrumental in negotiations to move the CCA rodeo finals from Saskatoon to the Agribition grounds.

Under his leadership, Agribition developed a strategic plan to synchronize all sales, operations and business cycles, as well as a facilities plan, which involved creating a close working relationship the Regina Exhibition Association, landlord of the Evraz Place grounds. A new six-rink complex annexed to the Credit Union EventPlex and Queensbury Centre was completed last year and the trade show has expanded into four of the new rinks. A plan for replacing the old Agribition barns is in place and a funding proposal is in front of multiple levels of government in readiness for when the economy is right to proceed.

“As an organization, we’ve asked the tough questions — who are we and what do we want, and are now willing to look at a host of options.

“Fundamentally, that’s the core of business planning because it takes a long time to see the changes,” says Pollock.

“It will take two, three, maybe four years to see the difference the changes we have made will make. It would be great to be able to be here, but, at the same time, family needs are more important.”

His family — wife, Angela and children Wade, 8, Taylor, 10, and Chance, 12 — is a major motivation behind making a permanent move to the ranch that has been in his family since 1883. But it’s not the only one.

Over the past 15 years he’s maintained his ties to the community and the ranch, by returning to help out at home during the busy times. “The key turning point was when I thought about what ranching is really about. It’s about living with and on the land, but it’s so much more when you think about what you can give back to the industry and your community,” Pollock says.

He readily admits he has very mixed feelings about leaving Agribition. It’s been a rewarding experience with the opportunity to work with great people and travel the world marketing the industry and Canadian genetics. But it’s time to go home.

The ranch

The Pollocks currently run a 150 cow-calf and yearling operation located on the north slope of the Cypress Hills along the highway to the historic Fort Walsh site southwest of Maple Creek.

The family maintained a closed herd of commercial Horned Hereford cattle for many years, placing a strong emphasis on docility, calving ease and weaning weights, particularly the calf weight-to-cow weight ratio. They purchased Hereford bulls from one supplier for nearly three decades until he went out of the business. When they started looking for another breeder with bulls that would fit their program and increase efficiency in preparation for future growth, they decided to branch out with some polled Hereford and Angus sires.

“The ranch has been in the family for a long time and for that to continue, significant growth is required,” says Jason. “The land base will have to grow, the cow herd will have to grow and we will more than likely have to diversify into other aspects of the industry to make it all work,” Pollock says.

“The industry is changing rapidly and our ability to adapt and be willing to try new things will go a long way to sustainable success. I want to be able to include our children in the operation if they desire and that means thinking about 20 years from now, not just tomorrow.”

The family has mapped out a plan for slow but steady expansion to minimize the debt load they will have to carry to pull it off.

The first step is to add grazing capacity by rejuvenating their current pastures to support doubling the herd to 300 head as quickly as possible. The larger herd would in turn make better use of 400 acres of tame alfalfa-brome haylands and trim the fixed cost each cow must carry. These acres already produce twice as much hay as they need, thanks to a gravity-fed irrigation system designed by Pollock’s great grandfather that utilizes runoff. They are also looking into adapting this irrigation system to some grazing land that floods pretty regularly.

All of the hay is stored in a compound enclosed by 12-foot high paige wire to protect it from the abundant wildlife in the area, including a couple of very large elk herds that wander through from time to time. Swath and bale grazing are too risky so the bales have to be rolled out as needed on the haylands. They usually feed from December through March, though the cows still graze a lot in winter.

Calving starts the middle of April and they wean in January.

Some of the cows will graze pasture Jason and Angela already own around her hometown of Watrous along with some good grassland they will rent from her mother. The satellite operation makes full use of the land they already own in a location where family can help mange the cattle. It also spreads out the weather risk in times of drought or excessive rain.

“The industry seems to be at a bit of a tipping point in terms of operating size,” says Pollock. “Operations are growing bigger and fewer. This consolidation represents opportunity if you have the correct formula and are poised to move when the time is right. A lot of land will change hands in the coming years and our hope is to add a significant amount of land that is regionally and economically diversified to our portfolio to control risk.”

Going forward he hopes to incorporate as much of his past experience as possible into their future operation. One example would be in the building of business relationships. Pollock is convinced there would be some advantage to marketing the reputation of Cypress Hills ranches for raising hardy, healthy calves and yearlings. Fortunately they have wonderful neighbours who already work well together and are open to new ideas

“Each ranch is unique, but there is a common thread in the community that binds us together,” he says.

“I am looking forward to becoming part of that community and doing whatever I can to promote, grow and sustain the industry that for more than a century has made my family what it is today.”

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Going forward he hopes to incorporate as much of his past experience as possible into their future operation

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