Couple shows ranching’s younger side

The Groots had limited experience but a willingness to learn when they took over the family ranch in northern B.C.

TOPLEY, B.C. — Roger and Lana Groot became full-time ranchers in 2011 with limited experience but plenty of willingness to take over the family operation at Topley.

Located on Highway 16 about 275 kilometres northwest of Prince George, Hatch Creek Ranch is a showplace with a newly renovated house, tidy landscaping and neat corrals.

The Groots are part of a youthful demographic in an area where there are few farmers and even fewer young people.

“Around here there are not many young farmers at all,” Roger said. He is 36 and Lana is 31.

Nominated as outstanding young farmers for B.C. by their local cattlemen’s association, they did not win but have already had their names submitted for a second round next year.

It is a busy place where they calve out about 350 commercial cows and about 20 purebred Polled Herefords. They also have four young children, Lily, 8, Corbin, 6, Bryce, 4 and Brody, 1.

Roger’s grandparents came to the area in the late 1930s and grew grain, cattle and vegetables.

His father, George, and uncle bought the present operation in 1981 but they were involved in the timber industry and did not actively farm it. To prepare himself to take over, Roger earned an agriculture production diploma at Alberta’s Olds College.

Lana came from nearby Smithers, B.C., and was a health-care provider in a long-term care seniors centre.

“I grew up on five acres and a handful of chickens. I didn’t know anything about farming,” she said.

They bought out the uncle and work with Roger’s father, George, to rebuild the herd and the land with the help of an enthusiastic hired hand who helped get them certified under the Verified Beef Program. The next step is developing an environmental farm plan.

Signing on to these programs showed they were already doing many things correctly. Calves are tagged at birth and records are entered on computer.

“It wasn’t much change for us. We kept track of what vaccines and drugs we used,” he said.

However, both wonder if there is going to be a financial reward for the added paperwork.

“Hopefully, we will get paid for it. I think it is the wave of the future and they are going to put more pressure on us,” he said.

“I wonder if this is the age of paperwork. You don’t get paid for that stuff and the government wants farmers but it doesn’t look great for the next generation of cattle farming.”

Nearby ranch land has been sold and leases were not taken up when their neighbours sold off their cattle.

The ranch is located on fertile land near the Bulkley River at about 2,500 feet elevation.

This is timber country and precipitation is variable. The soil is sandy loam but they do very little farming other than what is needed to grow silage on about 100 acres.

They plant an oats, barley and peas mix. This spring they are experimenting with a new forage mix planted into about 20 acres that includes brassicas, kale and hairy vetch as well as other grasses to see if it can grow here.

They run mostly Angus bulls with a mixed cow herd of Hereford, Charolais and Angus. They also started a purebred Polled Hereford herd thanks to Roger’s friendship with the folks at Harvie Ranching at Olds, Alta. while he attended school.

“I was out there pretty well every weekend and they would put me to work,” he said.

Cole and Scott Harvie taught him how to groom and show cattle and he was able to attend big shows like Canadian Western Agribition in Regina and Farmfair in Edmonton. That experience gave Groot a taste for exhibiting their Herefords.

It also helped teach him how to upgrade his own herd.

When they bought into the ranch there was an existing herd and over time it has been turned around to a more productive group.

They ranch in forested areas with rough ground and they have learned Herefords do well in this region.

“They are probably lower maintenance than other cattle and they handle the mountainous terrain really well,” he said.

Ranching in northern B.C. is different from what Roger witnessed in the Alberta prairies and foothills.

“It was a different world. You can’t compare farming on the Prairies to here,” he said.

Cattle are turned out in May to crown rangeland and return in October. The steers are sold at Vanderhoof, two hours away, in the fall. They keep about 100 heifers and overwinter them. Replacements are selected in the spring.

Their purebreds calve in the middle of February and the commercial herd follows in March. In the beginning, they calved the whole herd in February but weather conditions made them rethink it.

“We had frozen ears all the time and having calves in the basement to keep warm was too much,” Lana said.

In the future, they hope to develop their herd to the point that buyers come direct to them. One of the reasons for joining the verified beef program was to offer a better product with complete records.

They joined the industry when calf prices were at record levels, but for added protection, they buy calf price insurance.

“We might never make much on the insurance but it spreads that risk out. You might only collect one in five years but that one in five years will probably pay for all your other years. You spread out the loss instead of having one year where you take a big hit,” he said.

Their environment also presents different challenges.

They draw water off a creek from the mountains and try to water cattle off site. They are also involved in a restoration project to prevent erosion on the Bulkley River.

Predators like wolves and bears are common so they rely on good fencing and a Pyrennes guard dog.

They also face the daily stress of possibly losing their 50,000 acres of rangeland because the area is part of a native land claim negotiation that has stretched out for five years.

“We have beautiful rangeland and it is all native grass,” Roger said.

Added Lana: “Our grazing licence makes this farm,” and she worries they could lose their tenure.

While Roger worked in the logging sector for a time, they want to farm and earn their income from the cattle.

“Our goal is not to work off the farm and have someone else run it.”

They also like to get involved in their community, including their children’s school.

“With us being so young, they are pushing us to take over more roles,” Lana said.

A few years ago, Roger became a director with his local stockman’s association.

“It is our voice to the government and getting issues to the higher ups is a lot easier than one person can,” he said.

The cattlemen’s association has been able to help them work through native land claims questions, as well as provide education on risk management, marketing and improved ranching practices.

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