TESA 25: Soderglen South receives environmental award from Alberta Beef Producers

Soderglen South received the 2021 Alberta Environmental Stewardship Award.

The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Since 1996, TESA has been recognizing beef producers from across the country who go above and beyond standard conservation practices to care for their land and environment.

Each year, producers are recognized at the regional level. A national TESA winner is then chosen from the regional recipients. This year the national winner will be announced during the Canadian Beef Industry Conference, slated for August 31 to September 2.

Watch for a feature about TESA's 25th anniversary in the August issue of Canadian Cattlemen. In the meantime, we'll be featuring the regional winners on the website. This story was originally published by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and is republished with permission.

It sounds daunting: raising cattle on an expansive land base stretching from Fort Macleod to Cardston, Alberta. But don’t let the large spread fool you – Alberta’s Soderglen South runs like a well-oiled machine.

The operation focuses on cow-calf, purebred and hybrid genetics. Indeed, Soderglen South is one of the largest seedstock cattle operations in Canada, and the company’s land base has grown to include ranches southwest of Fort Macleod and southeast of Cardston. The ranch raises a variety of beef breeds – including two they have developed – concentrating on genetics of the beef business and outstanding customer service.

Soderglen South began life in 1996. Its south operation includes separate ranches, totalling approximately 12,000 acres of native pasture and tame grass, and it maintains a cowherd of 1,500 mother cows of five seedstock lines.

According to Elan Lees, the ranch’s main focus is grassland production and sustainability of its ranges and providing drought tolerance and production stability.

“This is important to us because that is what gives us financial stability,” says Elan. “As well, it protects the ranch’s value from an equity standpoint – always improving the grass keeps us sustainable.”

The Cardston and Fort Macleod ranches are located in the foothills fescue subregion, with the annual average precipitation at 500 millimetres. The ranches are comprised of primarily native grassland with numerous wetland basins, and the ranch’s cowherd winters on native foothills fescue and then goes to bale grazing and traditional feeding until May when calving starts. Elan notes that the conservation of these natural green infrastructure components (i.e., wetlands and grasslands) are particularly important in these regions, especially since much native prairie and intact wetland basins are constantly at risk for loss or alteration in favour of annual crop production.

Soderglen South management goals in terms of conservation are to continue to improve the grasslands for its cattle operation as well as for the benefit of wildlife. “This helps improve grass quality, eliminate weeds and non-native invasive species, and protect the quality and health of water and riparian areas,” says Elan. “Environmental stewardship is about sustainable agriculture modelling. If we do it right, we will be here for a very long time.”

Soderglen South has a long history of partnering with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) on a variety of initiatives. These include a conservation agreement to maintain native prairie and wetland habitat, as well as to convert some cropland to perennial forage cover on the Cardston ranches and a conservation agreement to restore historically drained wetlands and protect existing wetlands forage cover; a 10-year lease agreement on 2,465 acres of DUC-owned land adjacent to the Cardston ranch for the mutual benefit of wildlife/waterfowl habitat; and partnership projects with Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). Soderglen has also set aside access to land for pheasant habitat, which has helped establish the pheasant population during the last 10 years in the St. Mary’s River Basin.

Soderglen uses watering systems – both static and portable systems – to discourage cattle from watering at wetlands and dugouts to help improve water quality and riparian health. The static troughs are filled via wells and the portable troughs are filled via water pumped from fenced dugouts or wetlands and follow the cattle as they are rotationally grazed. The ranch has installed more than four miles of water pipeline on these locations as well.

The ranch uses cross-fencing, both permanent and portable electric, to support its rotational grazing plan and improve cattle distribution. This grazing strategy maintains healthy and productive grasslands which supports wildlife/waterfowl habitat and consistent weight gain amongst the livestock. Hay is usually cut after July 1 which minimizes disturbance to nesting waterfowl and increases nesting success as well as improves grass cover for other wildlife.

Soderglen South initiatives in pipeline water systems, solar systems, and reduced use of river water and riparian area grazing by about 70 per cent has improved the overall grass production by distributing the cattle away from the St. Mary’s river system that goes through the middle of its operation. Indeed, these conservation efforts have created a working and productive ranch while protecting sensitive places such as river valley and riparian areas. It has also provided a home for wildlife such as deer, elk and grizzly bear as well as a large population of upland birds, Sandhill cranes, burrowing owls, horned owls, hawks and eagles.

“All of these things have allowed Soderglen South to also protect different species, increase our output and establish a habitat for both ducks and pheasants,” notes Elan. “We create and provide habitat for virtually every species of animal and plant in the food chain. A healthy environment makes for a productive ranch.”

Both Elan and Scott have been willing participants in communications and marketing efforts that help promote the cattle industry’s role in environmental stewardship and in helping to address current issues, such as climate change, habitat loss, etc., that are having an impact on the cattle industry, the environment and overall global health.

“The message we would like the public to understand is that ranchers and farmers are the custodians of the land,” says Elan. “Well-managed lands have a positive value to both the owners as well as the public.

Elan adds that environmental stewardship is a way of protecting the environment and investment at the same time. “It’s critical for the sustainability and health of our industry, our environment and way of life in the long run,” she says. “The efforts we have made in building this ranch will continue long after we are gone. Some of our conservative agreements with NCC as well as DUC will continue to protect these lands from development in the future.”

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