Program educates youth about beef

Retired general manager Matt Williams and ranch hand Jake Auclair work cattle at W.A. Ranches. The operation will host a national youth program to improve young people’s knowledge of beef production. | Photo courtesy of W.A. Ranches

Canadian Cattlemen’s Foundation donates $150,000 to the University of Calgary to help launch a national youth program

Concern about a perceived lack of knowledge among young people about beef production has prompted the Canadian Cattlemen’s Foundation to donate $150,000 to the University of Calgary to help launch a national youth program.

The average person in cities such as Calgary is likely several generations removed from the once common experience of growing up on a farm or ranch, said foundation chair Bob Lowe.

It has left them vulnerable to what he called misinformation about issues such as greenhouse gas emissions from the cattle industry, which he said is being propagated despite the fact Canadian producers are among the most efficient in the world.

“And we need to get a handle on that and get ahead of it.”

Most consumers “have no idea how their food is produced, and it’s a big concern… and to me, if somebody is a vegetarian or a vegan or a carnivore, it makes no difference to me as long as you’re coming at it with education instead of it being a fad,” he said.

The national youth program will be created at W.A. Ranches, which is a $44-million commercial cow-calf operation totalling about 19,000 acres near Cochrane, Alta., west of Calgary. It was donated to the university’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in 2018 by Wynne Chisholm and her father, Jack Anderson.

It marks a new dimension for the University of Calgary, said Ed Pajor, who is the faculty’s Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare and the director of W.A. Ranches. Agriculture at the university level has traditionally been dominated in the province by the University of Alberta in Edmonton, he said.

W.A. Ranches gives the University of Calgary the opportunity to conduct unique research and education initiatives at a working cattle operation — not as a competitor, but potentially as a collaborator with other institutions, he said.

The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine will also be working at the ranch with other faculties at the University of Calgary, “and that means that we can have programs that involve, of course, animal health and welfare, but also things like wildlife interactions, regenerative agricultural practices, biodiversity, emerging technologies, innovation, entrepreneurship, etc.”

Due to the fact elementary students generally enjoy more opportunities to learn about farming, Pajor said the national youth program will likely focus on junior high, high school and university students.

They will probably include “urban youth that maybe don’t understand where their food comes from, really doesn’t understand agriculture, may or may not even understand that agriculture is extremely diverse and maybe an opportunity for careers in that area.”

These can range from jobs in veterinary medicine to research involving aspects of agriculture such as the environment or developing cutting-edge technologies, he said. The program could help “expose them to that — (it) all of a sudden opens the door to new opportunities for them.”

Many Canadians don’t realize the economic importance of agriculture, including beef production, said Lowe, who is also president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

“Agriculture itself is the second biggest industry in Alberta, and I believe it’s (among the biggest) in Canada as well, so yeah, there’s a lot of dollars, and if you split up agriculture in Alberta, it’s a toss-up between canola and beef as to which is more dollars depending on the year and the prices.”

Student Jackie Elgert works on calf research at the ranch. | Todd Korol photo

Pajor said another group that will potentially be targeted by the national youth program is rural youth who aren’t directly involved with agriculture. Meanwhile, a third group from farm families will likely undertake a separate set of activities to enhance their skills and knowledge, he said.

As part of the overall initiative, several pilot programs will potentially be developed at W.A. Ranches, which will then be applied nationally through other organizations across Canada, he said. “Who they are and what that would look like, I’m not 100 percent sure yet.”

Besides hiring a co-ordinator, the faculty must first put together an advisory committee to help guide the development of the initiative, said Pajor.

Plans for a community teaching and outreach centre at W.A. Ranches, including everything from classroom space and a lecture hall to labs and offices, were approved about a year ago, he said.

However, it depends on funding from several levels of government at a time when Alberta has been slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a downturn in the oil and gas industry.

Ed Pajor, a faculty member at the University of Calgary’s veterinary medicine school and director of W.A. Ranches, says the ranch allows the university to conduct unique research and education initiatives at a working cattle operation. | Jager & Co. photo

Although portable classrooms could be used until the money can be secured, even that step depends on raising some cash, he said. “There are no plans right now, other than to continue searching for potential donors and potential dollars to help create those types of structures.”

The pandemic has also limited things by forcing W.A. Ranches to restrict the number of visitors, said Pajor.

“We are slowly starting to plan on opening things up (with) the rest of the province and the rest of the university, and we hope to have more students coming out and more visitors coming to the W.A.”

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