By Andrew Campbell
The day I went to visit Greg on his cattle ranch in Alberta could have been made into a postcard. A crisp winter morning was turning into a clear day with snow sparkling across the rolling hills of Alberta. Cows chewing calmly with their heads in the hay, and the wind so light you could hear the gentle rhythm of the herd grazing across the farm. It was so pristine, I couldn’t help but want to protect that moment. I think consumers want to know we are looking after the environment and preserving these picturesque locations of rolling foothills and the wilderness. Sometimes, criticism falls on farmers for not doing enough. It’s why with Greg, we talk about sustainability. What does it mean for him and his family? What does it mean for raising beef? His honesty and perspective is one worth thinking about.
We’re sitting in the truck in the middle of a pasture with Alberta beef farmer Greg. It’s a clear and sunny day with cows grazing hay around us. Tell me about your farm Greg and what a day looks like for you.
We raise mainly purebred Charolais cattle on our farm. Our main focus is producing bulls that we sell at one or two years old to other ranchers as breeding stock. We also have female cattle and raise calves.
Our day is spent feeding and caring for our cattle. The cows are fed once a day, and the young stock we feed twice a day just because they’re young and growing. We are also making sure they have proper bedding if it is cold and checking to make sure they are healthy.
What do the cows eat?
The cows are fed a combination of grain and pellets (which may include grains, roughage, added vitamins, minerals, fats/oils, and other nutritional and energy sources) along with their hay. This specific mix of feed is called a ration and it is balanced to meet the cows’ requirements for the particular time of year, stage of pregnancy or whether they’re nursing. After these cows have a calf, we’ll have a number of calves on the ground and a cow’s nutritional needs obviously change as they nurse their calves. Everything is balanced according to their requirements.
There’s a lot of individual care going on with the different groups of animals based on the stages.
Once we start calving, the cattle are moved closer to the buildings. We calve outside starting in the later part of February, and most of the calves are born in March. Every two hours, night and day, they get checked to confirm they are staying healthy and comfortable, and to make sure they’re not having issues as they calve. It means we don’t get much sleep through calving season, but it’s a very enjoyable time of the year. You get very tired, but the rewards are huge.
What a beautiful spot. Right off your front porch, you have a beautiful view with rolling hills. It’s got that postcard quality about it. With that in mind, one perception I hear a lot is that people are wondering if it is sustainable, particularly livestock production. Is it environmentally sustainable?
Absolutely. Most of the Western Canadian prairies and a lot of the central US was naturally grassland interspersed with bush. Large herds of bison roamed and grazed in one area and then they’d move on. What we’re doing today is very similar, except we’re using cows instead of buffalo and we’re doing it on a much smaller scale. We rotate through a number of pastures during the grazing season and allow enough rest time for the grass to regrow before we go back into that pasture again. The grass recovers completely and actually is healthier than it would be if it wasn’t grazed.
If you don’t graze grassland, it becomes stagnant and there isn’t enough light, air and moisture that gets down to the soil. You want to stimulate the growth by grazing it off, but not grazing it all the time and keeping it extremely short. We want to give it a chance to grow and then graze it and then let it regrow.
This is called rotational grazing, and it is the system we use to achieve that and make sure that we protect the sensitive areas on the property as well. We don’t allow the cattle onto the banks of the creeks to drink. The same water that I drink at the house, the cows drink in their troughs. We pipe water to the various pastures here. We buried thousands of feet of underground line here and we bring the water to the cattle and it improves production of the cows. It also is very environmentally sound because the cattle don’t damage any of the creek banks.
Do you ever get any kind of wildlife through the pastures with the cows?
We see deer, coyotes and moose here on a pretty regular basis. All sorts of birds of course, small rodents, beavers and muskrats are also in this area. There’s lots of wildlife here amongst the cows.
More and more consumers want proof or verification of production practices. Are you involved in any projects that do that?
We participate in the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef which was established in 2014. It is a system of verifying that what we do in the beef industry is sustainable long term, that it’s economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible. We use these three pillars to ensure long term sustainability.
Why do you need those three pillars (economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible) to be viable long term?
Well, the economic one is pretty obvious. If you’re not bringing in more money than you spend every year, you’re not going to be around for long, so you’re not sustainable economically. Environmentally, ranchers and cattle producers have done a really good job of working with nature over the years. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund have recognized that preserving the ranching community is a really good way to preserve some of the species that they’re trying to save. So, these organizations are working with us in a number of different areas.
Here in Alberta, there’s a lot of land that is not suited for crop production. You can graze cows on some fairly rough ground and be able to turn non cropping type land into an excellent grazing pasture for cattle. Cows, because of the way they digest their food, can handle feed that’s pretty fibrous and still do well on it. We’re able to utilize ground that is not ideally suited for other uses but is well suited for a grazing animal.
These cows are really doing us a favor in the sense that they’re eating stuff that we don’t want to eat, on ground that we can’t grow anything else on and producing a product that is nutritious.
A lot of the feed that is fed to cattle today, whether it comes from a feed mill or it is grown on your own property, is feed that humans don’t eat. For example: I’m a human, an animal that only has one stomach. I’m not going to eat that hay and do very well on it.
I wouldn’t enjoy it either, but these cows are enjoying it!
They’re utilizing products that we can’t digest. A lot of the byproducts from human food are used in livestock feed today. The feed pellets are made from byproducts of a human food, but are still a very viable and good product to feed to a ruminant animal.
Thanks, Greg for the tour.
View the full video by Fresh Air Farmer Andrew Campbell