Southern Alta. ranchers told to use Mother Nature’s ‘unfair advantages’

FORT MACLEOD, Alta. — Country singer Corb Lund, who grew up in Alberta, knows the difficulties associated with raising cattle in the chinook country of the south.

He sings about it in Long Gone to Saskatchewan, a song about moving east to avoid some of the costs and consequences.

Of Alberta, he sings:

Well it’s a hell of a battle to try to raise cattle

In the prettiest place on the hoof

Oil refiners and lot sub-dividers

Got land prices right through the roof

They got values distorted and my brows all contorted

With the words that the banker just wrote

Me and the missus, we love the cow business

Took jobs just to keep us afloat …

I like Alberta, but dang ain’t ya hearda

How much it can cost to buy oats?

I’ll always love her and think kindly of her

But I got no money left over for smokes

Cattle rancher Jim Bauer, who operates Anchor JB Ranch near Acme, Alta., acknowledged the truth in Lund’s song during a recent winter feeding workshop organized by the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association.

But Bauer also encouraged ranchers to use their advantages — what he called the “unfair advantages” compared to other parts of the province — afforded those who graze cattle in Alberta’s south.

“Some of us have better unfair advantages than others,” said Bauer, listing land prices, climate and relatively low costs of feed.

Higher land prices in the scenic south are an asset because sellers can buy more land elsewhere for the same money.

Winter chinooks can expose pasture grass and their related warmer temperatures also reduce cattle feed intake. Rainfall, fertile soils, the opportunity to use cheaper byproducts from grain production, higher heat units and irrigation are also on the list.

Given those advantages, winter grazing is both possible and cheaper than hauling feed to the cattle all winter. Bauer listed the following risks to winter grazing:

  • snow
  • fire
  • wind
  • water
  • wildlife

“To me, snow is the main one because we can get shut down by snow,” he told a full house at the workshop. Fire is always a worry, depending on conditions and location, and as for wildlife, “I know guys who have quit swath grazing because of elk.”

Bauer advised ranchers to manage grass in strategic areas for specific events including calving, weaning and wintering. Consider where and when the grass will be needed and what type of livestock will be using it, as well as availability of water and shelter.

Having grass available in the shoulder seasons of fall and early spring can lower the costs and the number of days when feed may need to be hauled.

Bauer also suggested that a combination of pasture grazing and swath grazing can be an option.

“It really works nice in combination with some grass,” he said about swath grazing. “In most years, I like to have a piece of pasture beside a swath grazing field. (The cattle) seem to like the combination.”

Bale grazing requires little labour, said Bauer, and the level of waste can be controlled with portable electric fencing. Cow temperament must also be addressed.

“You’ve got to have enough feeding days so that the timid cows can get their fill too,” he said.

As well, “a cow that’s already in good condition in the fall is a better candidate to winter graze than a thin cow.”

Feed rationing is needed to get the most out of winter feeding strategies, said Bauer. Shorter grazing or feeding periods are better than long ones to better preserve the plane of nutrition for the livestock.

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