Purebred cattle cornerstone of Alta. ranch

Merle Morton, Darcy Olesky and Blake Morton are partners at Shiloh Cattle Company, which won the purebred Red Angus of the year award last year. Located between Drumheller and Hanna, the ranch is more than 100 years old.  |  Barbara Duckworth photo

100-year-old Shiloh Cattle Co. in southeastern Alberta has evolved from a commercial herd to purebred Red Angus 

CRAIGMYLE, Alta. — Blake Morton and Darcy Olesky are dedicated to their art.

The art in this case is the pair’s dedication to producing quality purebred cattle at Shiloh Cattle Company in southeastern Alberta.

The fourth-generation ranch was established in 1909 by Blake’s great-grandfather, Kingsley Morton. It evolved over time from a commercial spread to a purebred Red Angus company.

Located in the Hand Hills region of Special Area 2, the ranch is unlike some other parts of the region where precipitation is hard to come by and the land is dry. The Shiloh Cattle Company ranch is blessed with grass and good water.

When Kingsley first arrived in Alberta, he went as far as Beiseker, north of Calgary searching for a place to homestead.

“They passed up the good land because it was all gumbo. They went past that and came here,” said Merle Morton.

Over time the operation expanded.

In 1959, Blake’s parents, Merle and Irene Morton, bought the original home quarter along with the rest of the ranch from Kingsley and combined two ranches to create Shiloh Ranch, about 3,500 acres of deeded land.

Mother Mountain makes up part of the ranch, rising 185 metres above the surrounding landscape. It is the highest northern geographic point between the Rocky Mountains and the Canadian Shield.

The ranch originally had Herefords and Shorthorns but Merle gradually shifted it to a commercial Red Angus-Simmental operation.

In 1996, Blake Morton had about 30 commercial cows but he dreamed about raising purebreds.

Olesky joined the operation that year and he and Morton bought some registered Red Angus cows and a few bulls in 2004.

The cows were accustomed to lush, green grass and had to learn to forage on drier, native grasses.

In normal years, they can turn out the cattle to graze in April and bring them home by Christmas.

This year, heavy snow in November forced the cows to come home earlier than usual, but despite that, the added moisture was welcome after last year’s drought, which forced them to sell some cattle.

Looking back, Morton said Angus was an easy choice.

“I liked them because they cross with anything.

“You have a consistent product no matter what you do. They are really good mothers,” he said.

Olesky said his favourite thing about Angus is how quickly the calves get up and suckle after birth, often in three to five minutes.

The ranch’s 2018 calf crop started to arrive in mid-January. Currently, 180 purebred cows are delivering new calves. Already seven sets of twins were born by Jan. 23. The ranch’s 60 commercial cows start birthing in March.

Morton grew up on the ranch but left and became an industrial millwright, working at the Sheerness generating station, a coal-fired power plant in nearby Hanna, Alta. Three years ago, he accepted a severance package so he could ranch full time.

Olesky was a truck driver and industrial parts man who grew up near Carbon, Alta. He did not come directly from a farm but his uncle was a rancher and when he visited the farm he often climbed into the cow pens because he wanted to work with cattle.

The ranch has been through some lean years because the volatile nature of cattle markets. The ranch was able to absorb the heavy blows caused by the market collapse that followed the May 20, 2003, discovery of BSE in Canada. They had been selling heifer packages in a sale run by a Red Angus colleague.

“That year, we were going to make our land payments. We topped the sale and BSE hit three days later. We would never have been able to make our payment that year,” Olesky said.

They were not over-extended and were not dependent on the sale of cull cows for extra cash.

In the purebred business, presentation and marketing are key.

Morton and Olesky work steadily to maintain relevant and fresh genetics. It is a long-term process because it is at least two years before they see if their breeding decisions were correct.

“A lot of time it is the game of trying to bring in new genetics because you have to keep it rotating for your commercial customers,” Morton said.

The pair began showing cattle in 2012. They have won five consecutive Canadian Angus Association national Red Angus calf championships, including two champions in 2016.

Also, in 2016 the Alberta Angus Association named Shiloh Cattle Company Purebred Breeder of the Year, and the Hanna Chamber of Commerce recognized Morton and Olesky with a Spirit of Agriculture award.

Last year, the Canadian Red Angus Promotional Society named the ranch Red Angus Breeder of the Year.

Morton also became president of the Alberta Angus Association in 2017, which means more time is devoted to promoting, showing and breeding cattle.

Shiloh Cattle Company enters at least five big shows a year, including the Olds Fall Classic, Red Roundup, Lloydminster Roundup, Edmonton’s Farmfair, Canadian Western Agribition in Regina and the Canadian Bull Congress at Camrose.

Morton and Olesky enjoy the Lloydminster show for the fun, but appreciate Farmfair because of the large number of international visitors looking to do business.

In addition, Olesky and Morton stage their own production sale on the ranch. They offer about 40 bulls and packages of replacement heifers. Crossbreds from Angus cow-Simmental matings are included among the bulls.

Most customers are commercial operators from across Western Canada so Morton and Olesky developed a star system to rank bulls for use on heifers compared to those that can serve mature cows.

“The first year we had our sale here, we were so nervous. An hour before sale time nobody was here and I was sick. People said calm down,” Olesky said.

Just before sale time, the field was full of vehicles and 200 potential buyers packed into the new sales barn.

This year’s sale is scheduled for March 24.

Shiloh Cattle Company also has a Facebook page, which Morton and Olesky say has led to more business than any other venue they have tried.

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