The southern Alberta foothills back of Nanton have long been known as prime ranch land, distinguished by productive clay soils with great water-holding capacity, plentiful springs and a reasonably amicable climate.
That’s just part of the story behind why you’ll no longer find hay on A7 Ranche, now in the hands of the third and fourth generations of the Cross family, John and his daughter, Tanis.
As Cross says, the story is written on the land. It starts in 1886, when his grandfather, A.E. Cross, a veterinarian from Montreal, recognized the attributes of the area and began purchasing land from homesteaders to raise quality cattle rather than going the big-lease route. He registered the a7 brand symbolizing himself and his seven siblings.
Cross’s dad, John, began managing the ranch as he and his two brothers took over upon their dad’s passing in 1932. They expanded through to the mid-1960s, when his dad bought out his brothers and continued to add to the land base. In 1986, his father split the ranch among John, his brother and sister, each of whom continue to ranch today.
So it was that 100 years after his grandfather set down roots, John acquired the home place that comprises A7’s 13,000 acres today. Never one to shy away from trying new management strategies, his tenure has been marked by innovation.
It began with a thistle problem. Experience had tilted his dad’s management strategy to the conservative side, he explains, and selective grazing had led to thistle infestations that proved difficult and expensive to control with herbicides of the day.
Cross’s search for an alternative steered him toward holistic management, which in 1990 was new in Canada and quite controversial, largely because the fundamentalist view shunned modern science.
“Range science is an important component of total ranch management,” Cross says, “but how do you put all of the pieces together to manage a ranch? What’s the complete picture? With holistic management, there’s lots of good information out there, but how do you make it work on a large scale?
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“I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to own and manage this land. I like to experiment with new ways of managing the land and when I was first learning about holistic management, I was, to quote Dylan Biggs, ‘more enthusiastic than I had the right to be.’ For that I apologize. I’ve recognized since then that holistic management doesn’t need to be at odds with any other types of management practices. The most important part of holistic management for me is the value of a good-quality thought model that, if used in honest ways, helps me make decisions on where to go. With limited resources, where do I spend the next dollars?
“What I am working on at my place is a combination of experimentation and research and I would in no way want to suggest that what I do would apply to anyone else’s place.”
First “next” dollars
The first step was to build more permanent fencing to gain control over the grazing of riparian areas and make better use of upland forage, with the goal of maintaining open grassland with clean water in very healthy riparian areas. This alone gave him a 20 per cent increase in grass production.
Adding a year-round pipeline supplied by an upland spring and further subdividing pastures with temporary fencing bumped up efficiency by another 20 per cent. A lesson learned with that exercise was to design the water system before building the fences.
By understanding why and when to move cattle, he has improved the quality of the landscape and ranch profitability. He now carries more cattle on his land than when he used to have an additional one-third interest in another range.
Today, the herd grazes year-round with the mature cows in one group and the first- and second-calvers together. In February, the weaned calves form a third group that’s marketed off grass sometime in summer.
The yearling program gives him the option to quickly de-stock in dry years and, because the cows winter the calves very economically, the margin is good — an evolution from his forefathers’ days when finished steers were marketed as four-year olds, he adds.
Two grazing seasons; two planning seasons
“I saw I always had stockpiled grass and the opportunity for grazing it,” he says. “At the same time, I always had an inventory of hay that was adding up year after year and its quality was lower than the stockpiled grass.”
The new opportunity was to let the cows do the haying as needed through the winter.
The wild card was snow. On average there’s 30 days of snow cover, but sometimes there’s none and other years the hills are blanketed for three months.
Cross’s solution when the snow gets too deep for the cows to graze through on their own is to plow off an area that gives them a day’s worth of grazing at a time. Any more and the uneaten grass will crust over. He found that out by experimenting a little each year with this idea, until he gradually phased out hay altogether.
Temporary wire is used to control winter grazing using remaining litter cover as a guide to when he should move them to another pasture.
Plowing alone can control grazing when snow builds up to a good two feet because the herds tend to stay put in the cleared area. If they look full at the end of the day, he knows he’s given them enough; if not, he’ll clear a larger area the next day.
Snow removal might sound like a lot of work and expense, he says, but it’s proven to be more efficient on both accounts than putting up hay and feeding bales while losing the litter cover and feed quality over time.
He’s found that grazing stockpiled forages works well on tame pasture dominated by Kentucky bluegrass, creeping red fescue or meadow brome, but not as well on smooth brome and timothy regrowth. One drawback is that grass quality can be quite poor if there’s much precipitation before freeze-up.
A protein energy supplement appropriate for the class of cattle and end market is fed daily from December 1 through mid-April.
“Our growing season is only about 90 days, so the goal for summer grazing is to try to clip everything so it stays more vegetative to end up with good-quality stockpiled forage for nine months,” Cross explains.
Growing season planning revolves around timing, not forage height. The general practice is three to five days on a pasture and 90 days off. The reasoning is that healthy plants start to regrow about three days after they’ve been nipped and grazing the new growth without giving the root system time to catch up weakens the plants. The 90-day recovery period has proven to be best for maintaining productive pastures on his place. The only time he considers shortening it is on tame pastures if a grazing would improve quality for dormant-season use without compromising plant health.
Winter dormancy doesn’t count as part of the recovery period therefore pastures grazed toward the end of a growing season, when plant growth naturally slows, need to be given the remainder of the 90-day recovery time at the start of the next growing season.
Likewise, grazing stockpiled forage in winter doesn’t count as a grazing if the plants have already recovered from the graze the previous year. With strong root systems they’ll regenerate quickly in spring.
He is now trying some dormant-season strip grazing. Stockpiled grass contains small amounts of high-quality grass and large amounts of lower-quality grass. The idea is to increase grazing intensity so that the animals consume a better balance of feed on a daily basis to promote rumen function, he explains.
It’s taken some experimenting as well to establish a production cycle that complements ranch resources.
The traditional April-May calving period was often riddled with spring storms. He pushed it back as late as July-August only to have problems with dehydration and scours in the calves and conception rates fell, likely due to the nutrition available at breeding in late fall. Not wanting to lose the genetics he had developed through the years, he started a slow progression back to settle on calving from mid-May through June.
Marketing is a moving target
Direct marketing grass-fed beef remains a small part of the program for open two-year-old heifers. Finding that direct marketing wasn’t scalable for an operation his size, he now works with Rachel and Tyler Herbert of Trail’s End Beef, who run the program.
“Direct marketing was a very valuable learning experience because it taught me that we have to produce what customers want,” he says. “To move forward as an industry, we have to produce what customers require. If they want something different, we can provide it, so let’s just do it.”
To position A7 Ranche to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, he uses age verification, good animal health protocols and the recognized Herdtrax management program. He’s also completed a formal environmental farm plan and taken the Verified Beef Production program.