Stampede ranch promotes conservation

OH Ranch | Calgary Stampede offers educational opportunities at a 130-year-old ranch protected by an easement

LONGVIEW, Alta. — The unbroken landscape of the OH Ranch reaches from rolling grasslands to foothills to blue mountains.

It’s a typical landscape in the Alberta foothills, and one that the Calgary Stampede promised to maintain when it was given the 8,000 acre 130-year-old ranch two years ago.

Calgary businessperson Doc Seaman bought the working ranch in 1986 with the intention of preserving it.

In 2008, he arranged to have the property protected under a heritage rangeland designation and conservation easement managed with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

When he died in 2009, local rancher and oilman Bill Siebens was determined to protect the land, so he bought it and donated it to the Stampede in 2012. The gift was worth $11 million.

The Stampede has since developed a broad management plan to preserve the land and water, including an education component in which elementary schoolchildren may visit by appointment.

A day-long field trip to a working ranch with cattle, horses and expansive grasslands is a unique experience for many city-raised children. Most know nothing of food production and have never visited a farm or seen animals up close.

“We are catering to quite a broad mix of individuals,” said Sharon Lightfoot, the ranch’s educational co-ordinator.

The Stampede hired Lightfoot, a former teacher, to develop a curriculum to mesh with the Grade 4 to 6 social studies and science curriculum. The children can study geography, water systems, land use, local history and cultural heritage.

She worked with teachers, local historians and school boards while developing the program.

It can be altered as each group visits to make sure children get a full experience.

Teachers receive videos about the ranch so they can continue the learning experience in the classroom.

School group tours are limited, but Lightfoot’s date book was filled to capacity when she spread the word about what was offered. Ten groups will visit this fall and 10 in the spring. The intention is not to disturb daily operations at the ranch, which is home to about 220 black and red Angus commercial cows.

“This is a working cattle ranch, so we don’t want to interfere with calving season and so forth,” said Lightfoot.

The OH is not a dude ranch or a tourist attraction, said Bonni Clark of the Stampede.

“This is a living legacy where heritage and tradition meets best every day practices. Often those things are not the same,” she said.

“Managing the land, the ecosystems and the watershed are what ranchers have done for 100 years, so to have 8,000 acres in one parcel that is a legacy property really showcases that for the ongoing benefit of all Albertans,” she said.

The Stampede also owns a 20,000 acre ranch near Hanna, Alta., where its rodeo stock is born and raised.

The OH will be maintained as a commercial cow-calf operation that sells cattle on the open market to offset costs. About half the land is deeded and the rest is crown lease land.

Ranch manager Ken Pigeon said the Stampede wants it managed as an agricultural operation where the landscape is improved and the cattle herd expanded. He has worked at the Bar U Ranch national historic site and the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch near Banff, Alta., so he has experience meeting with the public on a working ranch.

Two herds of Black and Red Angus were bought from local ranches, so the animals were already adapted to the area’s grasslands and rough terrain.

The ranch was analyzed and a management plan written before the new herd was moved onto the property.

It is home to nearly 70 wildlife species as well as diverse plant life. Both native grassland and tame grass grows on the ranch.

Overgrazing, spreading of invasive weeds and poplar encroachment have occurred on the lease. Canada thistle is a major menace.

“We do have expectations of improving the land. I have that expectation myself,” Pigeon said.

The grazing plan is part of a larger management plan to protect riparian areas and the overall ecosystem.

The herd could expand to 300 cows if there is enough grass. Replacements will be raised on the ranch. Cows receive the OH brand and are vaccinated and treated as necessary.

The rough topography, which includes steep hills and outcroppings of rock, means much of the cattle work is done on horseback. However, modern farm equipment is used when needed.

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