CLARESHOLM, Alta. — Cows, calves and crocuses dot the hills around VXV Farms, where Gerald and Patricia Vandervalk ranch with Gerald’s parents, Jack and Merry.
Their homes are nestled in a valley formed by Lyndon Creek, which runs through part of the Porcupine Hills west of Claresholm.
About half the 400-head cow herd had calved by early April, and the cows with their babies were busy grazing native grass on the 4,400 acre spread.
Another 300 yearlings also make use of the grazing system, but some of those will spend part of the season at the nearby Waldron Grazing Co-operative.
VXV Farms won Alberta Beef Producers’ annual Environmental Stewardship Award this year for its system of rotational grazing, riparian area protection and side businesses involving recycled materials.
Gerald and Jack make stock water troughs from old tractor tires and fibreglass fence posts from oilfield sucker rod.
Gerald said it has taken cattle ranchers years to figure out the best use of available grass, and there is still more to learn.
“My grandpa liked equipment and he liked feeding hay, so he probably thought we were doing good,” said Gerald.
But now the Vandervalks make no hay, instead using a system of rotational grazing and judicious use of tame and native pasture.
“One of the things that has changed in our operation in the last five years for sure is the amount of electric fencing we’re doing,” he said.
“A field that’s a section and half big, I don’t feel the cows can utilize the grass effectively. They pick their favourite spots and they camp there. With the electric fence, we’re forcing them to eat some of the less desirable stuff, and the desirable stuff does not get camped on. Our grazing patterns have changed drastically.”
Gerald remembers making a lot of hay on the ranch as a youngster. The family has been in this spot since 1956.
“We would make hay all summer and the cows would graze the native grass all summer and then all winter we would haul it out,” he said.
“That’s been a big change in the last few years, where now we make hardly any hay. If we have to, we’ll buy hay.”
The Beefbooster cattle seem to get what they need by grazing tame hay fields two or three times per season and then grazing native pasture in fall and early winter.
“That’s what’s really good about this area, is all of our native grass. It cures on the stem and it holds its value.”
Jack and Merry feed the cattle in the morning, or have been doing so lately while the land wakes up to spring and starts producing new grass shoots.
Jack, 77, is fully involved in the operation but now has the freedom to travel when the mood strikes.
“My father, he’s really hands on,” Gerald said.
“He doesn’t really worry about the marketing. He doesn’t worry about, say, branding or anything like that, but he likes to do projects, so he’s always involved.
“His help is greatly appreciated, but if he wants to go away, we’ll figure something out. And when he’s home, we do extra projects that we can’t do when he’s gone. I think it works really well for both of us ”
Gerald and Patricia have four children: Ryan, 20, Joel, 18, Danielle, 15 and Nathan, 13.
They met when both were attending the University of Alberta, where Gerald obtained a bachelor of science degree in agriculture and Patricia became a veterinarian.
“I would say it has come in handy,” said Pat about her veterinary expertise.
“But Gerald has a lot of experience after being on the farm for this many years, so he actually is a better vet with large animals than I am.”
Pat has home-schooled the children for the last while, which has allowed her and the kids to be more involved in day-to-day operations.
However, she isn’t sure if the kids will take over the farm, nor is it a concern for her and Gerald.
“You never know. We give our kids the freedom to make those decisions,” she said.
“I think we’ve tried to teach them that (work is) their responsibility, and what they have off-farm is because of the farm. All of them do work, whether it’s making fibreglass fence posts or going tagging with Gerald or fencing or processing cows.”
Gerald is president of the Waldron Grazing Co-operative and has also been involved with the Lyndon Creek Conservation Group, which represents area ranchers who have undertaken riparian protection projects.
Despite all that, Gerald describes himself as “ambitiously lazy. Someday I’m going to become lazy, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
The water trough business at VXV Farms fits nicely into that conservation theme. The Vandervalks buy old mine tires, cut out one sidewall and fit them with pipes and a frame cast in cement for easing moving.
Their fence posts are made from sucker rod with the ends sharpened for easy installation.
“It’s probably been 15 years since we’ve bought a bundle of wood posts,” said Gerald.
The sidewalls have been used to build a wind fence that shelters the cattle.
“Nobody’s ever counted, but there’s probably over 1,000 sidewalls in there. It makes a good wind fence and it’s a little bit rough so they like to scratch on it.”
ABP made a video of the Vandervalk operation as part of the environmental stewardship award, which can be viewed at www.albertabeef.org/page/esa.