A walk across the historic A7 Ranche, west of Nanton in southern Alberta’s foothills, reveals a land rich in native grasses and wildlife. Cattle and deer graze the hills, keeping the land healthy, as the massive herds of buffalo did more than a century ago. Standing belly-deep in grass is A7 owner John Cross, the grandson of Alberta ranching pioneer A.E. Cross.
John Cross inherited the 13,000-acre ranch from his father, John Munkland Cross, who for many years sprayed the area’s thistles, allowed cattle to roam along the creek where they over-browsed the willow bushes, and grew a hay crop as winter feed. “My dad had a big war on weeds. He spent a lot of money on pesticides and there was no progress,” says Cross.
Many ranchers still manage their rangelands this way. Dylan Biggs, an east-central Alberta rancher, says producers tend to hide their heads in the sand, continuing practices out of a sense of tradition, because “that’s the way my grandfather did it.” Many are also restricted by financial and time constraints, overwhelmed at the thought of building miles of fences, managing a herd intensively and installing remote watering systems. And most ranchers cringe at the word “environmentalist.” They resent how so-called experts come and tell them how they should run their business.
But things are changing. Around 300 Alberta ranchers are now practising holistic management, due in large part to courses Biggs has taught. Biggs served as president of the Canadian Centre for Holistic Management from 1987 to 1992. In 1997, his family’s TK Ranch began certifying other farm and ranch operations to grow natural beef, pork, lamb, turkey and chicken.
Biggs learned holistic farming techniques from Allan Savory at the Holistic Resource Management Program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Behind Savory’s techniques is the idea that ranges should be managed to mimic natural conditions. Until recently, many rangeland specialists believed that areas of sparse vegetation and exposed soil were the result of overgrazing. Savory determined, through various studies, that the opposite may be true: grasses can be weakened by too much rest. Years ago, grasslands were grazed by large herds of bison, elk, deer and antelope. Their hooves churned the ground, making it porous and thereby allowing water to penetrate the earth and seeds to germinate. The animals rejuvenated the grass- lands by consuming dry and dead matter and allowing sun- light to reach new plant growth, and once they fouled the area with their manure, they moved on, allowing the area enough time to recover before the next grazers moved in. Without thorough grazing, rangeland suffers. The soil hardens and forms an impermeable cap, and the dead grass eventually chokes the new plants, weakening their roots until they die. Savory’s program teaches ranchers how to strike a balance between grazing and rest through intensive pasture rotation.
Biggs rotates his cattle through 50 permanent paddocks (75 in the growing season) using time-controlled grazing. He also pipes his water from dugouts to troughs, ensuring his stock are not standing in the water they are drinking. Biggs is predator-friendly, recognizing that coyotes help control gophers and other burrowing rodents, and he is careful with antibiotics—any sick animals treated with antibiotics are pulled from the program and sold on the conventional market.
“Holistic management has definitely been beneficial,” says Biggs. “It’s increased the biodiversity of our land. We have so many more species—legumes, forbs and different grasses.” Living in a portion of Alberta which hasn’t received substantial rainfall since 1995, he credits holistic management for the survival of his grass, much of it native rough fescue. “We’re doing okay, but there are other areas around us that just got hammered, totally destroyed.” And Biggs is finding a market for his holistic livestock. TK products are sold in health food stores and retail outlets throughout the province, including Co-op and Canada Safeway. “It’s no longer a niche market,” says Colleen Biggs, Dylan’s wife. “We’re now targeting Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Oregon and California.”
Not all producers care as much about biodiversity as the Biggses do. According to John Kolk, who grows forage crops and runs poultry, cattle and feedlot operations north of Picture Butte, in southern Alberta, there are two types of farmers. “There are those farmers who want to do the right thing. They want to know they have reduced their risks,” he says. “And there are those who now recognize they have to clean up their act. Things like dust, air and water pollution are high on the public agenda. They want to buy food from people who have taken good care of the land.”
The Canadian public began asking questions about the safety of its water and food about five years ago, after the tragedy in Walkerton, Ontario, says Colleen Biggs. At least six people died in Walkerton from drinking domestic water tainted with E. coli, which was linked to a nearby farm where manure run-off entered a well supplying the town’s water. That awareness is now heightened since the recent discovery of an Alberta cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (bse), or mad cow disease, an ailment that can kill people who eat infected meat.
As suspicion of post-war farming and ranching practices grows, so do incentives for producers to improve their practices.
Canadians are also concerned about livestock operators’ use of growth hormones and the possible links between their prophylactic use of antibiotics on livestock and antibiotic resistance in humans. Growth hormones, which are used to increase muscle growth before slaughter, were first introduced to the livestock industry in the 1960s; antibiotics have been used for about 50 years. Industry officials argue there is no scientific evidence suggesting that antibiotics or hormones, if administered properly, are unsafe, but health activists believe otherwise. Pesticides, which have been applied to farm lands since the Second World War, are believed to cause cancer.
As suspicion of post-war farming and ranching practices grows, the market for products raised in an environmentally responsible manner is expanding, giving producers financial incentive to improve their practices. Kim Whitehead, of Alberta Agriculture’s food safety division, explains that the province’s livestock industries are gradually adopting on-farm food safety programs that require producers to comply with international standards on food safety and such procedures as manure handling and storage. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency expects individual producers to apply these critical controls, known as haccp (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point). While not law, haccp certification may become a prerequisite for international trade, Whitehead says. “Buyers will only purchase haccp-certified products, so producers who are not involved in the program may be left out of business.”
The green ranching trend will likely gain momentum with Alberta’s recently launched Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) program. The program is run by an independent not-for-profit company, with a board of nine representatives from agricultural and environmental agencies, and receives its funding from the provincial and federal governments. Modelled after initiatives in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, the program encourages farmers to develop action plans to reduce the impact of their operations on soil, water and air. Program director Therese Tompkins says that though producers initiated the pro- gram, it is a result of consumers demanding safe food raised in a clean environment. About 500 Alberta producers are expected to enroll in the EFP program this year, with an additional 1,000 to 2,000 producers signing up each subsequent year. “We’re hoping by 2008 to have 6,000 to 7,000 producers participating,” Tompkins says. (Approximately 25,000 farmers participate in Ontario’s program, which began 11 years ago.)
It won’t be easy for the program to get producers to make changes that require large investments, says Alvin Kumlin, a rancher and a delegate with the Alberta Beef Producers, an organization that represents the province’s 35,000 beef ranchers. “Most producers know this work has to be done. But it’s a case of what’s idealistic and what’s realistic. The timing is tough, considering so many ranchers are in a tough spot, with three years of drought and the high cost of feed.”
In the long-run, however, environmental planning may save producers money. “It can help reduce your costs on medications, equipment and feed, so it can be a win-win situation,” says Dylan Biggs. “The producer wins, the environment wins and the consumer wins.”
John Kolk says the EFPs will work because they don’t have environmentalists telling producers what to do. “Nobody’s coming in and telling you how to run your operation. Farmers are being given the tools and information to help them make an assessment and do an action plan,” says Kolk, who was one of 75 producers who participated in the EFP pilot project and is now chair of the board.
Under the new EFPs, officially launched in February, producers will attend workshops to learn how to assess their practices. They will evaluate their operations on such issues as soil and pasture management, water sources, manure handling and storage, use of fertilizers and pesticides, and biodiversity. Then they will develop action plans for the next three to five years. In implementing his EFP, Kolk has improved his soil management by keeping exact records of how much manure he has spread and testing the nutrient levels of his soil. He has also made changes to his water wells to prevent contamination, and he has long-range plans to increase the buffer area along a drainage ditch to prevent sediment and contaminants from reaching waterways.
Despite the resentment producers often feel for environmentalists, many are now working in concert with conservation groups, recognizing it’s good for business. Producers whose land includes waterways and boggy areas often work with the Cows and Fish program or Ducks Unlimited, and the number of these partnerships will grow as the EFP program expands.
The Cows and Fish program is a riparian management initiative that helps ranchers understand the importance of protecting stream banks. Working with Cows and Fish and Trout Unlimited, Ann and Alvin Kumlin reduced the impact of their beef operation on the Jumping Pound Creek, which runs through their Lazy J Ranch, west of Calgary. A water quality analysis and fish count conducted in the early nineties by the University of Calgary and Trout Unlimited indicated that the creek is one of the cleanest in the province and is second only to the Kananaskis River in terms of rainbow trout numbers. Sixty per cent of the trout spawn within the ranch property. “Those studies really got me thinking about how important it is to take care of what I have,” says Kumlin, who now uses electric fencing and mechanical waterers to keep his herd away from the creek. And, to keep beavers from killing mature trees, which help stabilize the stream banks, the Kumlins and Trout Unlimited wrapped the trunks with wire. Alvin also feeds his wintering cattle from portable feeders, which he moves around to prevent manure build- up. “Watershed protection doesn’t just happen along the river. Grasslands are a natural filtration, so a healthy grass- land means a healthy watershed,” he says.
Ducks Unlimited shows farmers how to convert the marginal crop land produced by drained wetlands into duck-friendly habitat. Thanks to the co-operation of individual farmers and the province’s irrigation districts, the province boasts 80,000 acres of wetland, says Jerry Brunen, communication and education coordinator with southern Alberta’s Ducks Unlimited. “Without these areas, southern Alberta would be a desert. There would be no ducks.” Kolk believes this kind of co-operation is vital for producers and environmentalists. “It’s this non-aggressive and partnership approach that makes DU and the Cows and Fish programs so successful,” he says.
The funding for Alberta’s EFP program is substantial, in part because the program dovetails with the federal government’s $3.4-billion Agricultural Policy Framework. Announced in 2002, the APF includes national environmental farm plans as a key initiative. As a result of the APF, Alberta will receive approximately $48.8-million over the next five years to be used for environmental projects in the agriculture industry. That federal funding will be matched with about $32.5-million of provincial money. Most of it will be used on the EFP program, says John Tackaberry, Alberta Agriculture’s director of resource management and irrigation and the provincial chair of the APF’s environmental chapter.
Cash incentives of up to $4,000 (to be used for environmental improvements) will be available for each farm participating in the program.
While incorporating environmentally sound practices into their operations, many ranchers and farmers are also starting to become environmental activists in their communities. Recognizing the importance of water management, producers throughout Alberta are joining watershed groups. Through educational programs, groups such as Crowfoot Creek, which also includes town officials, area residents, conservationists and recreationists, promote water conservation and protection through responsible practices. The Crowfoot group, concerned about the water- shed of the creek (which flows through an area of high- intensity agriculture and drains into the Bow River east of Calgary) have spent the last five years educating local residents and establishing demonstration sites, such as solar water pumps as an alternative off-stream watering system. “Initially there was some hesitation in getting the communities on side,” says Phil Boehme, co-ordinator of the Crowfoot Creek and Rosebud River watershed groups. “But we’re gradually getting all the groups to shake hands rather than point fingers. Communication is now a lot more open between the different sectors.”
Despite resentment producers often feel for environmentalists, many now work with conservation groups, recognizing it’s good for business.
Ranchers are also fighting resource development, fearing the effects of industrial activity on native grasslands. Two years ago, a group of ranchers formed the Pekisko Land Owners Association to fight resource development along Alberta’s foothills from the Oldman River in the south to the Highwood River in the north. Much of the land has never been ploughed or fertilized. They describe the area as one of North America’s largest remaining tracts of native grassland, and they argue that oil and gas drilling will introduce invasive weeds that will crowd out indigenous plants. Last fall, the Pekisko group and the Alberta Wilderness Association opposed an application by a Calgary-based oil company to drill on rangeland south of Longview. A hearing scheduled to go before the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board was cancelled when the oil company withdrew its drilling application. The Pekisko ranchers are now lobbying provincial and municipal politicians for a moratorium on foothills exploration until practices to protect native grasses are developed. “The oil and gas won’t be lost. It will still be there,” says rancher Mac Blades, chair of the Pekisko group. “But if we lose the native grasses, we lose them forever. There’s no example of native grass ever being restored after it’s disturbed.”
Other ranchers are more concerned about residential development. The Prairie Crocus Ranching Coalition is fighting alongside environmental groups to prevent the development of ranchlands just outside Waterton Lakes National Parks. “Ranchers and conservation groups are coming together and putting their differences aside,” says Craig Smith, head of the coalition. “They’re realizing they have so much in common.” Kevin Van Tighem, a parks biologist who spent several years working in the Waterton area, says the ranchers have helped the region’s wildlife. “If it wasn’t for the ranchers, you wouldn’t have so much wildlife inside the park. Wildlife wander back and forth across the park boundary all the time. The ranches give them the space they need.”
Some producers are protecting wildlife habitat by placing conservation easements on their property. The easements, many of which are held by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, protect in perpetuity the conservation value of the land by forbidding activities such as wetland drainage, subdivision or cultivation. In Alberta, the NCC currently protects about 70,000 acres of ecologically sensitive land, much of it foothills rangeland.
The concept of ranchers as environmentalists isn’t a new one for John Cross. He grew up surrounded by family with conservationist views. In 1987 and 1996, his uncle and aunt, Sandy and Ann, donated 4,800 acres of their ranchland on Calgary’s southwest limits to form the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area. Passionate about the wildlife he saw crossing his pastures, Sandy was determined to protect the land from an ever-expanding Calgary.
John Cross considers himself a grass farmer who raises beef as a by-product. Watching his father use pesticides and fertilizers to no avail made him interested in holistic farming, and learning Savory’s techniques got him started. Studying his land—a wrinkled quilt of creeks, meadows and uplands—Cross discovered areas displaying symptoms of both over-grazing and under-grazing. Willows in the streamside areas were over-browsed by wintering cattle, but other areas were suffering invasions of brush and trees, signs of too much rest. “My dad stocked it fairly conservatively, so in some ways, the land was in too good shape,” he says. Effective range management involves knowing when to graze certain areas and for how long, says Cross. He divides his land into 40 pastures, increasing that to 120 during the growing season. By pumping water to his upland pastures, he restricts grazing along the creeks. The willows there are now filling out, and their roots are stabilizing the creek’s banks.
Once the cattle have grazed between 25 and 50 per cent of the grass, Cross moves them to another area. It’s labour intensive—the cattle must be moved every three days—but it keeps the brush at bay and maintains the grass as winter forage. By not haying and storing feed, Cross avoids using large gas-guzzling machinery and eliminates spraying and fertilizing costs. If the snows are deep, he ploughs back the snow so the cattle can still graze. Much of his land is wild with fescue, a native grass that cures with as much as 7 per cent protein on the stem—a valuable winter forage for cattle, deer and elk.
Since Cross began practising holistic management, his pastures are more vigorous, allowing him to increase his stocking rate by 50 per cent. With fewer input costs, he also improves his bottom line. Because he does not use chemicals and his cattle are raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, he can sell his beef to such up- scale Calgary restaurants as the River Café, Teatro and The Ranche.
Cross also sells his beef in person at the Millarville Farmers Market, explaining to customers the story behind his grass-fed cattle. Consumers who care about the environment tend to be the same customers who care about the quality of their food, he notes. “You want a clean product, you want clean water, you want a clean environment.”
Farmers and ranchers are making the connection that winning consumer confidence means acting out of environmental concern, says Cross. “The issues go beyond just financial ones. Ultimately, it’s all about living in harmony with the ecosystem.”
Wendy Dudley is a freelance writer living in Millarville. Her first book, Don’t Name the Ducks, a collection of stories about living in the foothills, will be published this fall.