On the Farm: Tamara Carter helps run a cattle operation and grain farm and works for the Nature Conservancy of Canada
Tamara Carter didn’t really need another full-time job.
She, her husband Russ, and their three children run 250 head of cattle near Lacadena, Sask., and also have a 4,000-acre grain farm north of there at Plato.
But the position of director of grassland conservation for the new Weston Family Foundation initiative at the Nature Conservancy of Canada seemed the perfect opportunity to bring her interests of grassland and cattle together.
The relationship between ranchers and conservationists hasn’t always been a good one, in spite of their shared goals to preserve native grass, but Tamara hopes the five-year Prairie Grasslands project will strengthen ties and lead to new partnerships that benefit both.
Her passion for grassland began when she and Russ established Carter Cattle Co. in 1996 on 7,000 acres of native grass that lies along the South Saskatchewan River at the mouth of Lake Diefenbaker. About two-thirds of that land is leased and includes designated wildlife habitat land that can never be sold.
About 30 kilometres to the north is the family’s grain farm where Russ grew up. The Carter family has farmed for more than a century and his dad also had cattle and a feedlot there.
Russ attended the University of Saskatchewan and obtained a vocational agriculture diploma before returning.
“I always had a desire to farm. My grandparents on my mother’s side had a ranch at that time and I liked the animals as well as farming,” he said.
He and Tamara met at the Calgary Stampede and they agree he courted her for a while before convincing the city girl with an English degree and a commerce minor that her future lay on a Saskatchewan farm.
“It was a gigantic learning curve, trying to learn about the industry and the community,” she said.
But Russ describes his wife as a quick learner who spends a lot of time researching.
She attended conferences and developed a passion for grassland. The Bud Williams stockmanship course led her to develop handling skills and design fence projects on the ranch. She is also a master gardener.
Looking for more information on forage led her to the Saskatchewan Forage Council, where she is currently chair, and introduced her to knowledge about other sectors such as bison and dairy. She developed links to the research community, and sits on the strategic advisory board of the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence.
All this makes her a good choice to bridge any divide between the ranching and conservation communities. She said she was intrigued by the job posting and the fact an eastern-based family deemed grassland preservation a worthy cause.
Tamara said working more directly in conservation has been another huge learning curve. The Weston project is different in that it focuses on stewardship rather than land purchases.
“Instead of the idea that it’s going to be sort of four fence posts dropped around a piece of land and it’s bought and kept off limits…it’s being able to integrate and work closely with the ranchers, understanding that without them on these working landscapes the landscapes probably aren’t going to be able to (thrive),” she said.
The goal is to make the land more productive and protected.
Ranchers are doing what they can, she said, but pressure caused by declining cattle prices while canola sits at more $20 a bushel increases the risk of conversion for some farmers.
“There’s a deep history and deep connection that goes beyond dollars and cents,” she said.
Tamara also said there will be a strong educational component to the NCC program, which will allow ranchers to learn from their peers.
In May, the dry conditions are already stressing grassland stewards. Even though native grass is resilient ranchers are watching the sky for rain.
“An inch of rain is what we need,” said Russ, as he and son Brandt prepared to treat seed a few weeks ago.
Brandt is the couple’s oldest and with a degree in agriculture now farms some of his own land and is taking on more responsibility at the family farm where they grow grain, oilseeds and some feed.
“I think the day we finished buying Russ’s parents out we already turned around to Brandt and said, OK, let’s get cracking,” Tamara laughed.
The succession plan is still evolving but she and Russ said having open discussions about what works for everyone is critical.
Brooklyn has studied nutrition and taken equine and cow-calf green certificates and is likely to be involved more on the cattle side.
Tiana is just finishing high school in Swift Current.
The Carters run a commercial herd based on Black Angus genetics for their strong maternal traits. Calving begins April 1 and lasts to the end of May.
“We have backgrounded calves,” said Tamara. “We usually keep our heifers. We try to be sort of fluid. Drought really changes things in a hurry too. If you don’t have the resources and the forage base to support developing heifers and keeping them over, then everything might go to market.”
They have several dugouts and drilled a number of wells over the years that provide excellent quality water. They use a solar watering system on a winter feeding site that offers protection from the wind.
There have been changes since they began 25 years ago.
“Originally our family used to send cows to PFRA so they were bred earlier and we used to calve quite early when we first started so we weren’t calving during seeding,” said Russ. “We have a horse barn, but we don’t have a calving barn or much for facilities, so it was kind of out of necessity that we had to back it off to work with Mother Nature more.”
They used to feed silage but an economic analysis found it wasn’t the best use of their land.
Genetic changes have resulted in cattle that better suit the environment and can be handled calmly and safely.
The herd is certified through Verified Beef Production Plus.
“On the farming side it’s changed from a half and half approach — half summerfallow, half seeded — to zero-till continuous cropping,” said Russ. “Our seeding program, all fertilizer is put on in the spring, mid-row banded, our fertilizer goes down, our nitrogen goes down, so we’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint as much possible.”
Tillage is limited to smoothing out some water runs on their heavier clay land.
“It’s mostly one pass and we’re done,” he said.
Both Tamara and Russ say outside pressures on beef production are stressful for them.
“We need to be able to get the truthfulness of the impact and the benefits that working landscapes can actually have for the environment out there,” Tamara said.
“A lot of that grassland where we’re running beef, you cannot farm that land,” added Russ. “It’s sugar sandy land some of our ranch. If you broke it up about all it would grow is Russian thistle. That’s what flourishes. It’s made to grow grass and it’s made to run beef cows on and that is what’s best for the environment.”
Some of their lower land is regularly taken over by the river, making about 2,000 acres inaccessible for a time.
Russ said the changing water line right at their location makes irrigation impossible although a neighbour just a few kilometres away has pivots that he can see across the river with envy.
In this dry spring irrigation would be a great option for the hay crop. After decent snow cover the windy dry weather has taken much of the moisture.
“An inch of rain is what we need,” he said in early May.
Russ added that the farm does have to expand if it’s going to support more families, but the cattle operation is limited to where they are now.
He expects that through Tamara’s new job they will learn more about getting the most out of their grass.
“I think I’ve learned as much from her as maybe she ever learned from me,” he said.
“I’m pretty happy with the way my life turned out. I couldn’t be happier, actually.”