B.C. cattle producers resettle in Saskatchewan

On the Farm: Family wanted a place with good water, close to a major centre and near other young ranching families

MORSE, Sask. — Trading the mountains of British Columbia for the rolling hills north of Morse, Sask., represented a huge opportunity for Erika and Cyle Stewart.

They and Erika’s parents, Bill and Terry Strande, relocated Pine Ranch to Saskatchewan in 2017 because urban pressure near their Merritt, B.C., operation made expansion difficult.

“It was getting tricky,” said Erika. “It was hard to manage our cows how we wanted to.”

They looked at places in Saskatchewan for three years before settling literally at the end of the road near Morse; the Strandes are just about two kilometres south. They were happy to find a place with lots of springs and good water, relatively close to the major centre of Swift Current, and near lots of other young ranching families.

They moved their herd, which quickly adapted to fewer trees, and settled in.

Their ranch includes 34 quarters, 20 of them deeded and 14 leased, all in a block and obtained over two years.

They run about 300 Horned Hereford-Angus cows and last fall kept 140 calves to background. Because the market wasn’t strong they kept all their heifers in 2019 and will sell them either open or bred. Steers are sold through Balog Auction Services in Lethbridge.

Cyle, who spent time in the logging industry and in rodeo, said ranching in Saskatchewan has proved easier in at least one respect.

“We had 150 sections of government ground and it took a month to six weeks to bring the cows home,” he said.

All their work is done on horseback, and having their ranch in a block much closer to home has been a benefit.

They stockpiled native grass for winter grazing and put up silage. They have also been able to buy some standing peas, barley and wheat.

Calving in Saskatchewan begins April 1, compared to Feb. 1 in B.C. The earlier date was necessary, Cyle explained, because of their confined, intensive feeding system in winter and the need to get the cows out to pasture.

April calving hasn’t come without its consequences. They were among ranches hit with a late snowstorm that killed calves already out on the grass.

“I was out in ski goggles on horseback trying to find them,” Cyle recalled.

There are other differences ranching in another province. In B.C. they had 200 acres of irrigated land to grow silage and were able to take off three cuts.

“We bought 90 percent of our feed last year,” said Cyle.

A river of clean mountain water ran through the Stewarts’ summer range and home property in B.C. Here, they have to monitor their water quality all the time.

“That was weird to us,” said Erika.

There, they went out into the bush on their property and cut rails to build corrals, and heated all their buildings with wood stoves.

However, they’ve found it is much cheaper to build fences here with four-strand barbed wire.

Herd management is easier in Saskatchewan. For example, it’s easier to pull bulls at the right time because they can find them.

They can graze until mid- to late-January before they have to start feeding, whereas in B.C. because they had to bring the whole herd home to only 200 acres, they fed from fall to May. That increases cost-of-production significantly.

“You have to adapt to where you are,” said Erika.

Their move also came with some personal challenges when their daughter, Macy, was diagnosed with a rare cancer in the summer of 2017, and passed away in 2018 at age three.

Last fall, Erika took on the role of provincial co-ordinator for the Verified Beef Production Plus program. It is a natural extension of her post-secondary education as a teacher. After the school she was at closed she went to work on her dad’s ranch full-time and participated in the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program.

She spent three years working as a beef educator for the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association and she and her mentor, Erika Fossen, blogged about ranching in B.C.

Now she is educating ranchers about how to earn premiums for their beef.

“I believe in the program,” she said, bouncing nine-month-old Hazel on her knee. “If we can improve as a whole industry it will be beneficial.

“It’s a nice fit to still be working in the beef industry but also have the flexibility to work from home.”

Stewart conducts producer training sessions and has done about 60 audits since starting the job Sept. 1. She said many producers are already doing what the program requires but have simply not undergone the audit, possibly intimidated at the thought of a stranger assessing their management.

But there are financial credits to be gained. VBP+ audited producers who participated in the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration program at Cargill’s High River, Alta., plant saw premiums of $18 per head in one quarter of the pilot.

“We have to keep gaining momentum and hopefully more processing plants come on board,” Erika said.

Meanwhile, the Stewarts will work to improve their herd and facilities. They curl and play hockey and have adapted to their landscape and lifestyle.

“Here we can spend an afternoon and see every cow,” said Cyle.

“I kind of miss the wildness of the cattle,” added Erika. “But we don’t have to rent a helicopter to find them.”

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