SUNDRE, Alta. — A 49,000-acre ranch should support thousands of cattle, but it all depends on pasture and feed conditions.
For the Red Deer River Ranch, 280 to 300 cows are the viable maximum.
With 1,000 acres of deeded land, 2,000 acres of grazing lease and 46,000 acres of forestry reserve, there is plenty of property but only a portion is productive.
Even so, ranch manager Jason Bradley has big plans for the big acres. He has focused his energy on boosting yields on the most productive 360 acres of grassland.
Since fencing off the creeks, adding perimeter and cross fences and a portable water system in May, he has increased grass production 30 to 40 percent in one of the driest grazing seasons.
“Now that I have seen just over two months in, and the way I see grass coming back, and what I am learning, I am pleased with the simplicity and the production increase,” said Bradley during a tour of his grazing operation.
His changes were spurred by an Environmental Farm Plan audit of the ranch.
Bradley and his daughter, Cherilyn, took a good look at the ranch assets and weaknesses. They knew continuous grazing was not efficient, but they also realized allowing the cattle to drink and walk in Brown Creek had eroded the banks and flattened the grass.
“I never liked the look of having 200 cattle standing in the Brown Creek,” said Bradley.
The new grazing plan began by fencing off the creek, which re-quired a new water source for the livestock. The ranch has dozens of wetlands and springs so water had never been an issue before.
Bradley wanted a low-maintenance system. He dug a catchment pond for storage but still needed to get the water to the grazing area on the other side of a hill. By digging a trench through the hill instead of going around, he was able to supply water to small paddocks throughout the ranch.
At the deepest point, the four-inch water line is 14 feet below the top of the hill.
The catchment pond creates a pool where a pump is installed. An overflow area at the side of the pool allows the water to continue down the creek and into the nearby Red Deer River.
“We are only halfway through the first year. When everything worked the first week, I was like a boy with a new bike,” said Bradley.
By fencing off the creeks, he hopes the badly eroded riparian areas will start to heal and the grass, shrubs and trees will grow again.
Some of the worst overgrazed pastures have already started that process.
“This was the worst soil and the worst grass on the whole ranch. It is basically pit run. Whatever soil was there was washed away by the river,” said Bradley, as he pointed to lush grass. “When I turned cows out on there, it was dry. It looked like shredded wheat.”
Bradley estimates the entire system of fencing, water and trenching cost $32,000. Part of that will be refunded through the Growing Forward program.
Inspired by the success of the first project, he has plans to improve the rest of the deeded land so he can run more livestock.
“This is like the low hanging fruit. I have got hundreds of acres up there on the hill that is deeded land but that is very difficult to make use of. How do I make my 360 acres into almost 1,000 aces of intensive grazing where I can continue to make improvements? If I could make that work for a 1,000 yearlings, I would put 1,000 yearlings on there.”