Environmental winner seeks long-term impact

Rancher says his goal is to keep animals and plants healthy 
and water sources clean for the next generation

CALGARY — Tom Thompson is passionate when he talks about his Winding Creek Ranch located about 15 kilometres northwest of Mayerthorpe, Alta., near to where he was raised on his parent’s farm.

“I’ve always had a hankering for plants and animals, and growing up, there was something always pulling me into this direction, you know, being a steward of the land,” he said.

His passion was recognized when he was awarded the 2017 Environmental Stewardship Award at the Alberta Beef Producers meeting in Calgary Dec. 6.

Winding Creek Ranch is a 1,200 acre cow-calf operation but he also has stockers, which he runs on grass.

“We’ve combined them, so that we have a higher stock density and more land rested.”

The ranch is entirely hay and pasture.

“We have our grazing cells, and the other land, we cut and package it up as quickly as we can. But we never take a second cut. We always graze the regrowth, so we can recycle the plants and keep the stand stronger.”

His family, sons Cole and Cass, both have cattle in the 200 cow herd of Angus cattle, and help out when they are home. As well, Thompson said he gets help from his father, and hired hand, George Wilson.

The cattle are raised entirely on grass and calve out on the grass in May.

“We don’t have animals shut in pens anymore,” Thompson said.

He uses electric fencing to regularly rotate his grazing pastures.

“It’s all about harvesting as much sunlight as you can. So how we’re doing this is? We move the cattle off when we still have leaves there, and the leaves of the plants are actually the solar panels to feed the roots and that’s what we’re managing for, a strong root system.”

He said the technology in power fencing is so good, it enables them to manage more efficiently than ever.

“Literally, you can move hundreds of cattle in 10 minutes, and it’s allowing us to keep their nutritional plane as high as we can. So they’re gaining weight and the calves are growing. And it’s viable, and it’s wonderful.

“When the forage and the grass are growing and the animals are happy, you feel good. It’s wonderful for everyone and you will be profitable and sustainable.

“My stewardship goals are to keep the animals and the plants healthy and growing and viable. And the water, we want to keep the water sources clean, so the animals will do better.”

That is why the waterways and dugouts at his ranch are fenced to keep the animals out.

They pump the water to the cattle and have maintained a buffer strip to the riparian area, so material flowing back to the water source is filtered.

The pasture water systems are portable and operated by electrical pumps powered by solar panels.

Solar power is also used to power fences, and to heat hot water and provide hot air at the home.

“We’ve just tried to stay with the three important keys, which is matching the forage cycle with our production cycle, resting the grass during the growth cycle and trying to have a smaller, hardier animal.”

Through the years, Thompson has developed hardy forages that require little reseeding. His grass is a mix of native grasses, along with 50 percent fleet meadow brome. The mix also includes some orchard grass, alfalfa, Kentucky blue and tall fescue.

In the fall, when they can’t graze anymore, the cattle are moved onto bale fields.

“I’m very happy with what I’m doing here because I’m out in the sunshine, I’m working with plants and animals and when you have a passion for something, it’s not really work.”

He said he hopes the practices he is using today will carry on and mean something down the road.

“We’re just caretakers here and we’re only here for a little while, and we’re borrowing this land from the next generation.”

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