Ranch strives for environmental balance

Alberta’s Shoestring Ranch was founded on the philosophy of year-round grazing where the cows do the work

ACME, Alta. — Continuous improvement is the philosophy at Shoestring Land and Cattle Company Ltd.

Owned by Ian and Carman Murray and their children Ty, 12, and Amber, six, the family was named Alberta’s environmental stewardship award winners as early adopters of techniques that protect the land and the water.

Over time, the ranch near Acme, Alta., has become a special place where people and livestock work with nature.

Detailed annual grazing plans have rebuilt the soil, encouraged the grass to grow even in the dry years and left more time for planning and goal setting.

“The cow herd generally takes care of itself. I spend more time out there weighing and tagging and doing data management,” Ian said.

Grazing plans for the year start in February or March with enough flexibility to adjust when required.

The plan also includes building a forage inventory. There is always feed available as the cattle move through a rotational system. Small paddocks are grazed once, half are grazed twice and the other half are usually left to regrow and stockpile for first grazing the following spring.

The Murray ranching history goes back to 1883 when Ian’s family came cross-country by wagon and settled in the Jumping Pound area west of Calgary. They soon left the area and started ranching at Olds.

Changes in the family resulted in Ian’s father, Bob, eventually moving to Calgary but he retained his ranching roots and the family was able to establish at Cochrane. Ian took over after his father’s death and following the advice of mentors and experimenting, he built his own path.

An innovative attitude helped Ian and Carman build a direct marketing program where they sold all their beef at the Bearspaw Farmers’ Market. Their natural product was an easy sell to the residents of Bearspaw, a wealthy community west of Calgary, but it was also a lot of work.

“We didn’t quit because it was unprofitable, but it was taking up too much time,” Ian said.

They eventually decided to get involved with Prairie Heritage Angus where they followed a strict health and growth-hormone-free program and gained European Union certification.

They retained ownership of their calves and were paid on the rail by Prairie Heritage, which has since been bought by One Earth Farms.

Today, they generally send their 950 pound yearlings to a feedlot that finishes cattle for One Earth. They have maintained their natural beef program and EU certification.

Real estate speculation and development pressures in the Cochrane area made them reconsider their future in the foothills and they started to look for a new place to expand.

“I decided we had to sell this place. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep going with what I was doing down there,” Ian said.

They found their new ranch near Acme in 2007 and were able to set up the operation to fit in with their philosophy of year-round grazing where the cows do the work.

“We came here when it was 20 C below and two feet of snow,” said Carman.

The place had good buildings and a house that was remodelled in 1986. Ian set to work seeding cropland back to pasture and set up fields for swath grazing.

Ian signed on to the verified beef program and was the seventh Albertan to become a certified producer. They have been with that program for 14 years. At the same time, they adopted an environmental farm plan.

A member of the Foothills Grazing Association and former chair of the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA), Ian was quick to try new concepts. He was interested in year-round grazing and turning cows out on swaths was an ideal way to keep winter feed costs down and keep the herd healthy.

He started with a barley and oats mix but crop disease forced him to rethink it.

He wanted to avoid using chemical treatments as much as possible to protect beneficial insects and soil microbes.

Now the cows are offered a spring triticale-oats mix. He has tried adding clover and Italian ryegrass but due to last year’s drought, there was limited success.

“We will try again this year,” he said.

Corn grazing was a limited experiment where the weather worked against him and the crop did not offer enough grazing due to losses from early frost and high winds.

Ian has learned swaths cut in a herring bone design seem to better preserve the crop’s nutritional value and green colour.

“We do a feed test on it every year to know what we have got,” he said.

Working with a nutritionist, mineral supplements are based on the feed tests. The soil is also occasionally tested.

The herd consists of about 180-200 Angus base cows. A quiet set of cattle, they have been trained over the years to graze and are ready to move every three days to fresh feed.

“These cows are to the point if I go out there on day three, they are heading to the corner of the paddock,” he said.

“We are pretty good at assessing how many cow days per acre that crop has yielded for us and adjust it accordingly as to whether we have got more crop or less crop,” he said.

With each move, he assesses the grass they left behind and what is available in the paddocks they are moving to. He checks the water and adds some mineral. Since he usually works alone, he finds this system also saves him time.

“Rather than putting them on 20 acres and moving them every three or four days and checking them as they walk through, I would spend more time if I turned them out on a quarter section for two weeks and had to ride across the whole quarter,” he said.

The grazing plan also shifted his thinking on calf production.

The calves are born on grass in May and June. They stay with their mothers over the summer on green grass and follow them through the winter grazing plan.

He has observed the cows train their calves to graze the swaths and that knowledge is retained from one generation to the next.

They are removed from their mothers when they are about nine months of age using a low-stress fence-line weaning approach.

“There is a lot of companionship going on but not a lot of nursing,” he said.

In the spring, those calves are turned out on fresh grass before moving to a feedlot.

During the dry years, they may be shipped early to the feedlot to free up grass for the cows.

Overall, this is a low-cost operation. On swaths, the cows cost about a dollar a day and the calves are about half that.

“We are able to get those calves through three-quarters of the winter on 50 cents a day,” he said.

There are six dugouts and a creek. The dugouts are fenced and solar pumps move the water to troughs in the paddocks.

The creek is meandering so instead of fencing, they keep the cows away 11 months of the year and allow only restricted grazing of the riparian area.

Water also turned out to be an issue.

“We had more health issues around here than we should have that we couldn’t explain,” Ian said.

Some cows started to sicken and lose condition. Some detective work showed there were high sulfate levels in the groundwater supply. At the same time, the swaths included a brassica mix and combined with the water the cows were taking in twice the recommended level of sulfates.

A well and a dugout filled with groundwater were the culprits. He elected to have the dugout pumped out and refilled with clean water so the cows have returned to a healthier state.

While the children are still young and Carman works as an elementary school teacher, the farm plan is expand. Their hope is as more older farmers in the area retire, they can get more land and build for the next generation.

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