The Power Grazer fits with Norm and Donna Ward’s emphasis on enhancing the local ecosystem and rebuilding the soil
NANTON, Alta. — Norm and Donna Ward are practical environmentalists whose lifelong careers as Alberta ranchers encompassed a holistic approach to protecting ecosystems, rebuilding soil and producing beef.
Ranching on 7,500 acres in the Alberta foothills, Norm was an early adopter of new grazing techniques and became an inventor to make his job easier. He needed more fences to divide up his pastures, but that could be labour intensive across native range covering hills and valleys.
“There are big landscapes that need to be managed and there wasn’t anything there, so we decided to make something for ourselves,” he said at the Nanton area ranch where they moved in 2014.
Nine years ago he built his first fencing trailer to make it easier to manage cattle and the land.
Called the Power Grazer, the unit is a self-contained trailer with storage for 100 tread-in posts and electrified reels of rope that can be released with the push of a button.
It is towed with a quad or a small tractor and contains everything needed to string an electric fence across all forms of topography from rangeland to riparian areas. The trailer also holds a toolbox, large solar panel and a seven-joule energizer to power up to 55 kilometres of fence.
Nine steel wires are embedded in the rope, which is about the size of a small finger and smooth to the touch.
With automation and all the supplies on hand, a quarter section can be fenced in less than three hours.
Ward welded together his first prototype but now employs a neighbour who is a journeyman welder to assemble the trailers on site. The finished product weighs about 1,000 pounds.
Like many people in agriculture facing a challenge, Ward was spurred by necessity when developing his invention.
At their Granum property they had 40 paddocks on 7,500 acres of mostly native grass on rough terrain. About 600 acres of the ranch had been farmed at one time.
Year-round grazing was the plan with the initial goal to put weight on the cattle but later to enhance the local ecosystem and rebuild the soil.
The land was probably surveyed in the late 19th century and permanent fences were built, but their placement was not always practical and there was plenty of maintenance.
He eventually sold the cow herd and switched to running about 2,000 yearlings for up to six months of grazing.
“We really needed some portable fence at that time because we needed to rotate,” he said.
“Through May to the end to the early part of October we would move 75 times through the paddocks.”
The paddocks were reduced in size with electric fences.
“That gave us a lot of control and management with the grass. We had control of the cattle and the cattle became a tool to manage the environment.”
They were running about 100,000 pounds of animal per acre.
The system on the tame pasture allowed the alfalfa to recover and thrive.
“The more we grazed the more alfalfa we got. Every year we had more and more alfalfa,” said Donna.
The techniques worked for them with the greatest benefit being greater grass production and healthy soil that improves every year with more fertility and water holding capacity.
A representative of the former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration ran tests on their property, and a sensor sunk a metre into the soil revealed significant water storage capacity.
They already suspected that a large community of microbes and fungi had developed to contribute to nutritional benefits in the soil as well as water holding capacity.
“We were starting to see some significant changes. We were changing the microbe community in the soil,” Norm said.
When they were running steers they wanted weight gain, so only the tops of the plants were gone before they were moved.
“We were after that very succulent, high protein stuff,” he said.
Dry cows often went on the paddocks in December and January. They turned the steers out as soon as the grass greened up in early spring.
“Early in the spring we would move very fast. Fast growth on the grass meant fast moves,” he said.
On the Nanton ranch they graze cow-calf pairs using the same techniques with some added technology to help plan.
A pasture map app for a smartphone is available that shows a satellite image of the land, and from there grazing paddocks are created. They are not necessarily neat tidy grids but instead follow the topography and plant community.
“We were fencing toward the plant community and this gave us another lift up because we could really get serious and we could control the animals,” he said.
“Once you can control the time, then the animal becomes a very useful tool.”
It sounds labour intensive, but with good planning it is not.
The cattle are quickly trained and understand the system within four or five moves over the course of one or two weeks.
When he arrives about 5:30 in the morning, the cattle are waiting for him for the next move.
The added benefit to this system of grass management is seeing the benefits to what lies beneath.
He envisions an agriculture revolution in which old knowledge is revived and livestock, cover crops and grain land become an integrated resource.
“We are starting to see cattle back into the rotation because they are after the soil changes and they are after the water and between the two they are reducing their fertilizer bill. They are seeing more organic matter and more water storage,” he said
“I truly think we are at the start of another ag revolution, and it is unbelievable what has been accomplished.”
International research is being conducted on these theories, and there is shared knowledge among those involved in intensive grazing.
It is also a lifestyle choice that they prefer.
“We sometimes call ourselves lazy ranchers,” Donna said.
“We didn’t work that hard calving in the sunshine. The cows move themselves. It is not like a job when you are out in nature.”
For full details visit, www.rangeward.ca.