Couple likes low overhead, low risk approach

Grassroots approach | Management decisions are made with pastures in mind, allowing bale grazing for most of the year

LAKE ALMA, Sask. — Ross Macdonald grew up the son of two lawyers at Radville, Sask.

But he didn’t get the legal genes because blue jeans are more his style.

“Their friends, their clients were generally agricultural producers,” Macdonald said.

“And my dad instilled in me an appreciation for grass and native grass specifically.”

He recalls going to the Circle Y in the Big Muddy, where he learned to ride and rope as part of a saddle club.

“Those were the guys who were role models to me in a lot of ways,” he said.

Macdonald studied animal science at the University of Saskatchewan and in 1998 left Canada to obtain a masters in animal and range science at Montana State University.

“That’s the year I decided my path and I don’t ever regret it,” he said.

He is sitting at the kitchen table of 98 Ranch Inc., about a half-hour’s drive from where he grew up.

The rolling landscape he, his wife, Christine Peters, and their two-year-old daughter, Mesa, call home is named for that pivotal year.

He considered a job at a university ranch in New Mexico but soon discovered a Canadian wasn’t likely to get the job so he returned home.

“I was looking for something and trying to figure my life out,” he said.

Macdonald initially worked with the Saskatchewan Wetlands Conservation Corp. before moving to the Lake Alma property in 2002.

“This place had a great yard and a really functional setup,” he said. “The design was to service the debt with cattle and have other income to keep everything else going on.”

Peters, who grew up in Alberta and then Abbotsford, B.C., where her family raised hogs and broilers and boarded horses, studied agriculture at Olds College and Lethbridge.

She met Macdonald at Canadian Western Agribition in 2003, while helping a friend show cattle.

In spring 2005, she moved east and took a job at the Lake Alma elevator.

More recently, she has worked as an appraisal agrologist with Sask-atchewan Assessment Management Agency in Weyburn.

Macdonald has always worked off the ranch, including for the former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. He is currently working on contract with the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency.

The off-farm income the couple earns is key to the ranch operation. Macdonald and Peters agree on using their grass efficiently and at minimal risk.

“When I first got here I had two horses, a dog and my truck,” Macdonald said.

They now have a land base of two sections at home and three sections near Goodwater, Sask. The latter borders a federal community pasture where they are sending some cows this grazing season.

The ranch began as a custom yearling operation, which grew as the land base grew. Then came BSE and Macdonald decided on a slow, low-risk approach when buying cattle and building a herd.

The couple retains their calves and runs them as yearlings through the summer. The herd spends the winter at the home ranch.

The 98 Ranch commercial herd is Hereford and Angus based, with Macdonald currently evaluating a small purebred Hereford herd.

About 120 cows are calving this year, and they are running about 90 yearlings and 250 custom yearlings. At one time, the custom cattle totalled nearly 600.

They have a dozen chickens laying eggs and 40 Targhee ewes close to the yard.

“The idea was to graze them,” said Peters. “But I like to keep them closer because of the coyotes.”

Macdonald said the management decisions are all made with the grass in mind, and they bought cows that would be efficient, able to graze through an extended season and calve in late spring.

“Once you calve at this time of year, you realize how crazy it is to calve at any other time,” he said.

Calves are weaned and usually sold in Weyburn, Sask. In the future, the couple hopes to be able to fill a liner lot and list online.

The cows are out on stockpiled native grass usually by mid-March. Macdonald said they manage for 10 to 11 months of grazing but usually graze for about nine months. They bale graze in winter, with springs providing water year round.

The couple’s strategy is to run a low overhead operation. They haven’t invested a lot in infrastructure.

Peters said they don’t see how investing in more equipment and facilities to keep more cows through the winter makes financial sense.

For now, the couple can handle what they have and say they enjoy what they’re doing.