Charlie Lasser has been farming since he was 15, and he’s learned a few things over the decades.
Today he ranches in Chetwynd, in the Peace region of B.C., but he started out in Powell River, on the coast, where his parents had a small acreage and a few milk cows. In 1940, the family moved to a small farm in the Fraser Valley.
“When I was 14, I bought a work horse and the next year finished Grade 9 and bought my second horse, an old Frost and Woods four-foot mower and an old dump rake and started contracting to put up hay for neighbours. I also worked my horses, plowing and pulling wood out of the bush during winter,” says Lasser.
He made enough money with his horses that when he was 16 he bought his first truck to haul hay. His family bought a 120-acre farm at Pitt Meadows, B.C., in 1949 and milked cows.
He soon heard about a girl from a ranching family nearby. “I only went out with girls who had the same background, because I wanted a wife who would understand what I wanted to do,” he says.
Lasser met Edith Howe after befriending her brother. They were married 62 years; she passed away in 2016.
“When he introduced me to Edie, the first thing I thought was that she would be the mother of my children. Edie knew as much about cattle as I did. We made a wonderful team,” Lasser says.
Together, they had three children: Sheri, Don and Bob. Sheri and her family live in the south Okanogan. Bob lives on the ranch, trucks and runs equipment on the ranch. Don has a shop adjacent to the ranch, where he does auto repairs.
Every Sunday, Lasser and his sons have breakfast together and discuss the ranch operations.
“I want to keep them informed, so that if anything happens to me they’d be able to continue on.”
Moving into beef cattle
By the time Lasser was 19, his father had given him power of attorney so he could do all the business and banking for the family farm. His father passed away in 1960 and Lasser bought out his brother. He sold his dairy cows in 1963 and bought beef cattle.
“I’ve never bought a heifer or a cow; I raised my own. I’ve had 50-plus years of a closed herd, and the cows pass their knowledge to the next generation.”
His cows are well-adapted to his ranch and easy to handle. They come up to the fence to greet him.
Originally he bought 40 cows: Hereford, Angus and Angus-crosses. He used Angus bulls and a few Limousin, to gain the advantages of hybrid vigour. He buys only virgin bulls to avoid bringing in any diseases, and has no neighbours with cattle, so there are no other cattle adjacent to his ranch. This year he plans to try some Simmental-Angus cross bulls.
Lasser’s father immigrated to Canada from Switzerland in 1910, and the family’s experience raising cattle stretches back generations. “In Switzerland, our family had Simmental for hundreds of years.”
His cows start calving mid-April and calve through June. He breeds his first- and second-calf heifers to bulls that sire small calves.
“A small live calf is worth more than a dead big one. Once they’ve calved twice they don’t have any problems, and go into the main herd, where I use bulls that sire big calves,” he says.
He feeds them in the evening and they calve during the day. “We don’t check the cows at night anymore, but we do check the heifers because they tend to calve any time.”
When weaning, he uses fenceline weaning and babysitter cows with the calves. These are gentle cows that are too old to sell.
“I keep them until they die here on the ranch; they are very useful as role models for the weanling calves,” Lasser says.
Lasser finishes his yearlings on grass, with no grain. He markets the beef as natural and his cattle are also certified as organic and as raised humanely.
“We are the largest cattle operation in Western Canada certified by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” he says. He adds that he’s sold a load of cull cows and heifers, and fetched close to $3,000 per heifer.
The feeding program
Land was becoming expensive in the Fraser Valley, so Edie and Charlie started looking for a new home.
“There were too many things happening there, and we wanted our kids raised in a farming area — not an urban environment,”he adds. In 1974, after 20 years in Pitt Meadows, they moved to Chetwynd, in northeastern B.C.
On the Chetwynd ranch, Lasser rotates between crops and pasture. Building the land up with cattle allows him to grow excellent crops, he adds.
The soil is very fertile because it is an old lake bed; all the minerals over millions of years washed into the lake, and now the silt is four to eight feet deep. About 1,400 acres is in hay. The rest is 45 individual pastures ranging from 10 to 200 acres, with a water source in every pasture.
“We move cattle constantly. They are so used to these rotations that they are always ready to move.”
The Lassers grow all their own feed. When the Lassers bought the ranch, there were many weeds but grazing and harvesting before they go to seed has eliminated most of the weeds.
This winter he fed 800 head — 300 cows plus their calves and last year’s calves — but they graze for part of their diet. Ordinarily they’d need about 10 large bales per day, but they grazed forage from areas that were too wet to cut last year. That allowed Lasser to cut down to three bales a day.
Last year they made silage from 600 acres. “I made my first silage in 1951 and have been making silage ever since. If you make it properly, it keeps a long time and is like money in the bank. In a drought, I can use silage rather than buy feed.”
Lasser also accesses feed you won’t find on the Prairies. Last fall he sent a load of cattle to Edgar Smith, his buyer on Vancouver Island, and the trucker brought seaweed back. Smith gathers and dries the red seaweed, which is high in minerals, and has previously fed it to cattle.
“I sold him two loads of 900-pound yearlings last spring and one load he fed seaweed to. Within 10 days their hair was starting to change. Within a month they fattened right up; he said it made a tremendous difference.”
Lasser is feeding it to his calves, to help convert methane into energy, as well as boost weight gain and finish better. Dr. John Church at Thompson River University in Kamloops has been studying the seaweed’s potential to curb bovine methane emissions.
“If it works it will be very beneficial. Many of the things I’ve done have not been my ideas; I pick other people’s brains. I talk with other ranchers and subscribe to nearly every agricultural newspaper and magazine. I also get on the phone and talk to people to ask questions. You don’t have to be all that smart yourself, if you know who to go to for information.”
Lasser chops and feeds the seaweed to his calves either free choice or mixed with silage, at a rate of two ounces per day per animal.
“We have 250 calves, so we picked out 50 and divided them into two groups of 25. There are truck scales two miles from the ranch, so we took the two groups to the scale and weighed them before we started our test. Now we’re giving one group seaweed, and will weigh the groups every month, to see if there is a difference in how they gain,” he says.
Lasser plans to follow the calves to slaughter to see if there are any differences in the meat. After Smith finishes Lasser’s animals, the meat is sold to specialty shops in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island. Lasser says they hope to be able to advertise it as higher-quality meat, along with being environmentally sustainable.
“The important thing in raising cattle is not what the rancher wants, but what the consumer wants, and we need to let the consumer know what we’re producing,” says Lasser.
Smith sells into a chain of Vancouver stores that sells a high proportion of simulated meat.
“The fellow who buys meat for these stores told Edgar that if we can prove that our meat is healthier, we can get that market back. Edgar told him it will be more expensive, and the buyer said he didn’t care. He’s willing to pay extra because people will want it if they know the difference. Our cattle are not only organic but also raised humanely, and this is what people want.”
Lasser is 88 and says his goal is to keep ranching and retire when he is 100. He is still clearing more land for pasture, although he’s upgraded from the horse team he used in his youth.
“I don’t do as much physical work anymore; I clear the land with a Cat.”