Visiting the famous Richardson Ranch on Haida Gwaii, formerly known as Queen Charlotte Islands, off the northern coast of British Columbia has been on my bucket list for many years. I was all set to go back in 2001 when I phoned Don Richardson and he indicated that it had been raining for 40 days and not to come. So this past September I finally made it to Haida Gwaii and the Richardson Ranch at the “end of the world” as indicated on the nearby village’s tourism sign.
The ranch is located on the shores of the Hecate Strait, some 130 km west of Prince Rupert, at Tlell on Haida Gwaii’s northern Graham Island. This is halfway between Skidegate (the ferry terminal) and Masset, at the end of the TransCanada Highway on the north end of the island. It is only accessible by the B.C. ferry service.
Don Richardson, his wife Leslie, son Dane and daughter Jamie operate this remote ranch. The centrepiece of the family ranch is the registered Tlell polled Hereford herd that graze on the estuary of the Tlell river. The ranch, the only livestock farm on the islands today, has a lot of history. In 1904, Tom Hodges better known as “Mexican Tom,” and his mail-order bride homesteaded the ranch. In 1908, the Walsh brothers from Montana purchased the ranch and built a large covered barn with stanchions and space for 100 head. In addition they built a large upright wood stave silo. Don’s grandfather Eric then bought the ranch in 1919. What sold him on the ranch besides the grazing lands were the Coho salmon jumping in the Tlell river that flowed through the farm.
The climate of Haida Gwaii is very mild. The annual average temperature during winter on the ranch ranges from -2 to +7 C. Winter temperatures are moderated by the Japanese ocean currents. This makes the winters much warmer than the rest of Canada. The islands have the reputation for rain. The rainfall on the east side of the islands is similar to Vancouver and the south coast of British Columbia as the mountains on the west side of the islands create a significant rain shadow. The average annual rainfall is about 125 cm (50 inches). On the west side of Haida Gwaii, rainfall is similar to the west coast of Vancouver Island. The area has some of the highest precipitation in Canada at about 450 cm (180 inches). This region has some of the largest trees in Canada.
“However, this past summer has been very dry,” says Don. “We didn’t get any rain in May, June and up to the 10th of July. I am short of feed this year and most likely will have to purchase and haul double compressed hay bales from one of the hay processing plants in Vanderhoof on the main land 800-plus km away. These plants normally export their hay to China, Korea and Japan. The trucking and ferry costs are the real killers.”
“ I always say, we are not isolated, we are just geographically challenged!”
“Last year I got a real deal on some rejected hay. Three containers of hay had been sent back from Japan due to some quackgrass being discovered in the bales. I still had to pay big time for the freight to get it back to our ranch. I don’t think I will be getting any deals on hay this fall.”
In 1951 Don’s father Doug, purchased the first Hereford bull for the Richardson Ranch from Gerrard Guichon of the Nicola Valley in the interior of British Columbia. This is the current Lieut. Gov of B.C.’s ranch. Over the years the family had commercial Hereford cows and experimented with crossbreeding different breeds using AI.
In 1983 Don and Leslie decided to go the purebred Polled Hereford route and purchased some breeding stock from members of the Yellowhead Hereford Breeders Club and at the club’s first annual sale in Vanderhoof.
“Previously we were with the federal ROP program and by using improved AI sires from different breeds we were able to move our commercial weaning weights from 400 pounds to 750 pounds. However, when we started to move towards purebred Herefords, we had to start all over again to increase our weaning weights.”
The Richardson Ranch has a very interesting grazing program. They have a lot of little paddocks for grazing, but it is the tide that determines when the cattle are moved to a different paddock. Don feeds grass silage from November 15 until May 15 so as not to harm the land through overgrazing or hoof impact. On some of his pastures the land is so wet due to the tidal influence that Don can stick a fork handle all the way down into the bog-type soil.
Over the centuries the wave action has pushed up the land on the island. “I have about two inches of top soil on top of a solid sand and gravel base. My soils are very saline and deficient in copper, zinc, and selenium. I use lots of nitrogen fertilizer. Our pastures are based on orchard grass, alsike clover, perennial ryegrass, red clover and red top, which looks similar to bromegrass. I top-dress the pastures with forage seed and fertilizer after grazing for the next year’s growth. In my grandfather’s days, the native red clover grew so thick that it would often stall his horse-drawn hay mower.”
Don does a one-cut silage harvest on his grass pastures and he has often won first prize at the Smithers district fair for his harvested forages. He stores his silage in two shed-covered bunker silos.
His pasture rotation depends on the tide levels and he moves his cow herd between lowland tidal pastures and upland drier pastures.
As we stood in his farmyard looking at his pastures we could see the Coho salmon jumping in the tidal river running through the ranch. It was quite a sight!
Don has a log boom across the river on his property line to prevent the high tides from pushing driftwood onto his pastures. “We have had the log boom across the river for the past 50 years. Before, it would take my grandfather three weeks to clear the meadows of driftwood using the horses.”
Don is a 1978 graduate of Western College of Veterinary Medicine. His son Dane is a recent graduate of WCVM and his daughter Jamie is a graduate of Olds College in beef management. Together they operate the only veterinary hospital and beef farm on Haida Gwaii. The veterinary clinic and their large farm supply store specialize in catering to the needs of small animal pet owners and hobby farmers on the islands. They have boarding kennels, vacation rental properties and they process their own beef in a government-inspected plant in Vanderhoof. They only sell their meat in their store in Tlell as a major value-added product from their farm.
With son Dane entering the family business, they are planning on enlarging the veterinary clinic which Dane will be heavily involved with. Daughter Jamie will be moving to the Vanderhoof area to help manage a ranch.
It’s the international embryo transfer business and yearling bull sales that make the Richardson herd world famous. They have hosted an annual online web site sale for the last six years. In addition they have been selling bulls to commercial customers at the Vanderhoof and Williams Lake bull sales for 30 consecutive years. Their stock and semen have been purchased by Hereford breeders all across Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, Uruguay, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, just to name a few. They have a very interesting website that describes their ranch in pictorial detail.
The cows calve in January-March, and after calving, the cows are fed a high level of nutrition to get them cycling quickly.
Don elaborates. “I am looking at two calf crops including embryos per year. Cows are fed heavily starting in late November before calving until after calving. Our top six cows are super-ovulated at the end of March, bred AI, and the embryos are collected during the first week of April. The donors are then bred back on the next cycle to calve the following January-March. We are certified for shipping embryos to Europe and other international sales. It really helps being so isolated from other beef herds. I calve in January-March so we also can also sell purebred yearling bulls which will be a useful size and age for our commercial customers when they are turned out in June.”
We went into his barn to see some of his yearling bulls. It was like going into the show ring at Edmonton’s Farm Fair or the Regina Agribition where these bulls will be shown. The high barn walls were completely covered in prizewinning Grand Champion Bull and Premier Breeder banners from these cattle shows. His future prizewinning yearling bulls were all standing there, halter broke and just waiting for the show to begin. It was a memorable moment on Haida Gwaii. Well worth the long journey to get there.
As Canada’s most westerly and isolated cattle ranch, the Richardson Ranch has made a name for itself in the Hereford breeding business around the world.