CL Ranches, with its swift running creek and dark red cattle moving through sweet smelling prairie grass, is a portrait of what an Alberta foothills cattle operation should look like.
But like many modern operations, this 1,750 cow outfit needs new and creative ways to stay profitable.
Located just south of the busy TransCanada Highway that carries vehicles to Calgary and Banff, the 18,000 acre operation comprises deeded and rented land in the Jumping Pound area, including leasing agreements with several First Nations reserves.
It employs nine people and is owned by Marshall Copithorne, son Ryan and daughter Sheri Copithorne-Barnes.
The ranch was established west of Calgary in 1887 by Richard and John Copithorne, Irish immigrants from County Cork.
“They felt this was an area as close to Ireland as they had seen. We have been ranching here ever since,” Copithorne-Barnes told a recent tour group.
The brothers started a mixed farm and eventually built up the ranch with Durham cattle. Their first brand was a lazy J, and Richard registered the present day CL brand in 1895.
The ranch has developed its own composite herd with a Hereford base infused with Brown Swiss, Simmental and most recently, Sussex, a red wine coloured breed from England.
“The herd has a tremendous amount of hybrid vigour,” Copithorne-Barnes said.
Marshall Copithorne was a founding member of Beefbooster, raising one of the maternal lines on the ranch. However, the family decided to go their own way more than 20 years ago because at 1,800 pounds, the cows were too big for their operation. Returning to medium sized cows reduced feed costs by about $150 per head.
The 800 pound calves are sold to Spring Creek Natural Beef. No hormones or antibiotics are used. If sick cattle need to be treated, they are separated, treated and sold into the commodity market.
“The welfare of those animals is just as important as the natural beef component,” Copithorne-Barnes said.
Each animal wears a metal tag with an individual number and year letter (2012 is the letter Z), and a plastic dangle tag that matches the number on the metal tag.
Animals also wear the official Canadian electronic tag. All information is computerized.
The cattle are raised on grass, and with careful management the ranch can bank enough forage for grazing until mid January.
Sixty-five percent of their range is native grass and the rest is tame pasture they renovate every seven to 10 years.
“We find that is about how long it takes for the grass to wear out and not be sufficient enough to keep up a good stand of a mixture,” she said.
“As our farming technology has increased, we are getting more and more (information) from GPS. We are going more with site specific fertilizer and varieties.”
The ranch elevation ranges from 3,800 to 5,200 feet, so management is diverse. The growing season is about 90 days so crops such as canola must be carefully selected to fit into the short frost free period.
They also fight timothy in their pastures and struggle with a variety of noxious weeds such as scentless chamomile, caraway, tansy, thistles and leafy spurge.
The ranch is also home to a large population of wolves, coyotes and bears as well as a herd of 1,500 elk that raid feed supplies.
Environmental stewardship is paramount to maintaining their heritage and earning a living.
The Jumping Pound Creek moves through 18 kilometres of their property, and they joined their neighbours to form a watershed partnership when a major flood in 2005 caused erosion, built up ridges of gravel and wiped out bridges.
“When you get the environmental pressures that agriculture is taking too much water, we are able to show down to the minute droplet how the water in this creek is being managed,” she said.
The creek is sourced in the mountains and is a major tributary of the Bow River, which supplies water to a large part of southern Alberta.
The watershed is 604 sq. km and 68 percent of its flow comes from groundwater.
The family had the creek assessed with help from the riparian management agency Cows and Fish.
It was rated at 40 percent healthy and the rest was healthy with some problems. Some areas had less green mass, fallen trees or other man-made influences such as cattle crossings or too many weeds, said Kathryn Hull of Cows and Fish.
That rating indicates a high level of purity because among the 2,000 sites that Cows and Fish has assessed in Alberta, about one quarter are ruled as unhealthy.
The assessment found the creek is a major spawning area for trout and has 18 fish species. It is also part of the trumpeter swan’s migratory path. Ten percent of this watershed is wetlands, which is higher than normal.
A watershed management plan was written, which has resulted in more willows and brush that stabilize creek banks.
CL Ranches did not fence off the creek banks because of the length and topography.
Instead, it watched to see where the cattle went for water and created easy access points for them by opening up trees and adding hard gravel spots to reduce erosion.
“If you are watching how those cattle are approaching the water, they themselves will pick spots,” said Copithorne-Barnes.
“We all know cows are intrinsically lazy and they will go wherever it is easiest for them to drink so it is just making sure their access points are clear, open and unrestricted.”
Besides maintaining the ranch to the best of their ability, they have also sought new ways to bring new businesses and ideas to the operation.
Copithorne-Barnes has been an appointed director of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency for the last three years. As chair of the program services committee, she oversees the granting of $40 million per year.
“It has allowed me to be a conduit of information,” she said.
Two other business ventures help pay the bills.
A large gravel pit was developed to supply local industries. It is monitored by Alberta Environment.
Another venture is maintaining a movie set offering a complete town with a hotel, sheriff’s office, undertaker and smithy.
Most of the buildings are shells but the hotel has a fully furnished bar interior. The sheriff’s office has a jail.
The set was built in 1991when film producers were looking for locations close to Calgary and the mountains to shoot the Lonesome Dove television series.
The views all face west looking into Kananaskis country, where there are no residences, power lines or lights. Underground electricity and internet service are provided. A private, fenced off road leads into the property.
A television production means 100 people per day are entering their property. A large movie crew could see 400 or more people entering the site.
Shanghai Noon starring Jackie Chan was the largest movie with a massive production crew.
“You can imagine the environmental impact that kind of crew would have on a place like this,” she said.
The family does not have to maintain the town because each production dresses the set to suit their particular needs. The Copithornes repair the boardwalk and keep the weeds under control.
“Other than insurance, there really are no capital resources that you have to put up, and that has been a saving grace,” she said.
“The good thing about the film companies is they come in and they build it. We don’t have to do too much renovations.… It is up to them to use the buildings as long as they don’t destroy the foundations that are there now. They can use it any way they need.”
Calls come in every week from movie producers all over the world looking for locations.
If the film work should ever dry up, they might offer the site for weddings or corporate retreats. Copithorne-Barnes was married on the site 15 years ago, and her sister was married there this summer in a small church on the outskirts of the town.
Their cattle have appeared on film a few times, but usually production companies work with professional local wranglers who supply trained livestock and western gear.