Pasture transition proves bumpy

Lone Tree Grazing officials say uncertainty over partners was the biggest challenge in taking over former community pasture

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. — With one year of operating a former federal pasture under their belts, the shareholders of Lone Tree Grazing Ltd. are sharing their experience.

Lone Tree in southwestern Saskatchewan was among the first 10 pastures to be turned over to the province and then to patrons after the 2013 grazing season.

Ten more are transitioning this year: Brokenshell 1 and 2, Coalfields, Foam Lake, Gull Lake, Hearts Hill, Hillsburgh, Kelvington, The Gap, Royal and Usborne.

Steven Grant, secretary-treasurer of Lone Tree, said there were challenges, including dealing with two levels of government simultaneously, a lack of money for start-up and administrative overload, considering that the people involved were also operating their own ranches.

“The timelines for decisions were damn tight for us,” he told the Foraging into the Future conference.

“It’s not going to be so bad for the next bunch.”

He said the biggest challenge was not knowing who the partners would be until the final moment.

Twenty-five potential partners were originally involved, but in the end there were only 15 shareholders.

“So you’ve got guys at the table saying yea or nay, you’ve already set your future and then they choose not to be involved,” Grant said.

“But there’s no other way to do it.”

Lone Tree includes 33,000 acres of grass, 22,000 of them native.

Most of the tame grass was seeded in the 1930s and 1940s, and Grant said it isn’t that productive.

The pasture is in an area that doesn’t always get much snow or runoff. It has two water pipelines, one from the Judith River and one from a shallow well at the pasture headquarters, so there is potential to expand.

“In our country we’re always dry, just some years we’re drier,” he said.

Drought, wildfire and the invasion of crested wheat grass into native fields are perennial concerns.

Then there’s the 15 kilometres of Canada-U.S. border fence to maintain.

Grant said the shareholders don’t know exactly what would happen if cattle escaped to the United States.

“We’ve got to make sure we keep that fence up,” he said. “Most of our exterior fence, and a lot of our interior fence, is 70 years old.”

He also said the pasture location makes it hard to get contractors and service personnel on site.

“We’re not at the end of the world but you can damn sure see it from the porch,” Grant said.

He said the business plan didn’t work until the province assured the shareholders they could have a 15-year lease and would not have to buy the improvements.

“We were at $2.75 a day because we were going to have to buy 75-year-old improvements,” Grant said. “When we had the options, all of a sudden our business plan made sense.”

He said herd health should be more manageable. The 15 shareholders include 10 family groups whose cattle should not have to commingle anymore, providing grass growth is good.

However, one of the biggest opportunities Grant sees is for new generations of ranchers to get into the business. In his own case, his family has been using the pasture since 1941 and both he and his son are now shareholders.

Grant bristles at claims that ranchers won’t be able to operate the pastures in an environmentally friendly way.

“We’ve got resources, we’ve got lands branch, we’ve got a scientific community out there and we’re all born and raised in this area,” he said.

“If we run our ranch into the ground, we’re done.”

Schmidt said the first year seemed to go fairly smoothly after he familiarized himself with 210 km of fence line and the pipeline system.

There are still a few things to sort out. Lone Tree contains five quarters of non-reversionary land that has to go through the federal disposal process before it can be offered to the shareholders.

“That’s crucial to us because it’s our bull field,” Grant said.

He advised future transition teams to get bylaws in place as soon as possible because they can be amended if necessary. They should also budget high during the planning process and shadow the federal pasture managers and riders during the last grazing season to see how everything is done.

“Put together a level-headed ambitious transition team. You’re going to need them,” he said.

“Stay positive and understanding.”

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