2015 environmental stewardship winner

Tucked away in the foothills of southern Alberta, the Bar S ranch owned by the Chattaway family encompasses 20,000 acres of some of the most unspoiled grassland in the country.

In 1886 Walter Skrine homesteaded the Bar S along with his Irish born wife Moira O’Neal. O’Neal was a well-known poet both in western Canada and Ireland and in those days a female poet was referred to as a bardess. That is how the ranch got its name. 

Roderick Macleay purchased the ranch in 1919 from Pat Burns. His daughter Maxine, and her husband George Chattaway, took over the reins in 1954 and along with their son Clay, grew the land base to what it is today. Over the years, they added both lease and deeded acres and bought shares in the Waldron Grazing Co-op in order to increase their cow numbers.

Not long after Clay took possession in the early 1970s, the Hereford cow herd began to change color.

“My family has always been open to new ideas. Once Beef Booster hybrid bulls came onto the market, my dad began purchasing bulls from the multiple strains. He believed that a cross-bred animal would increase hybrid vigor. Today our cow herd is an Angus-base and there are a lot of red and black baldies,” says Clay’s son Morgan. 

“We still use Beef Booster bulls and our cow numbers are around 1,000.”

It’s been a tradition in the Chattaway family to take post-secondary education.  Clay’s mother, Maxine was the first woman to graduate from the University of Alberta in agriculture. His father George graduated from the same university and Clay took a two-year course at Olds. Of Clay’s three sons, Scott followed his dad to Olds. Chris earned a BA in range science at Montana State University and Morgan obtained a BSc at MSU as well.   

Book learning was one thing, says Morgan, but he believes growing up on the ranch and studying their grandfather and father paved the way for the boys to want to return home.   

He says that when the Alberta Beef Producers came to the ranch to observe what the family had done to improve their environment, the family simply replied, “We’ve always looked for new ideas to improve grass and cow management, and we’ve never grazed down to the dirt.”

 “In the 1980s, when we were dry, we bought a cat to build dugouts and develop a number of springs. They are gravity fed and run year round which helps with winter grazing and provides easy access for the cattle to water. We added sheep to graze encroaching poplar groves and other undesirable plants for a period of about ten years,” says Morgan.

In the early part of the 90’s, Clay attended a Ranching for Profit course and liked the ideas it had to offer to improve the operation. The boys have each attended their own Ranching for Profit courses to keep up with efficient and effective ways of running cattle.

Over time, recognizing that calving cows on grass is the most cost-effective, the family moved their calving dates from late March and April to May.

The pastures have been divided into 150 to 200 acre paddocks and the cattle are moved regularly during summer grazing. The cattle are run in three groups –  the main herd, first calvers and the yearling steers. The steers are moved every four or five days.

“Using electric fence, we’ve tripled the number of fields on the ranch at a reasonable cost. Moving cattle regularly allows ample time for vegetation to recover and in some cases we can graze a paddock multiple times. We leave plenty of cover with more than enough forage to share with wildlife,” explains Morgan.

“Feed being the biggest cost in any cattle operation, Ranching for Profit teaches that you can’t increase profits by cutting off tiny branches – you have to cut off limbs. Grazing paddocks has been part of the plan to increase grass production and at the same time increase rate of gain. But extending winter grazing, along with later calving has had even more impact on the bottom line.”

“We usually hay for close to three weeks but only put up the minimum amount of hay we think we’ll need for winter. We purchase hay off ranch if we run short. Our cow herd maintains itself during the winter on grass and we add a mineral supplement.”

The winter feeding program depends entirely on the amount of snowfall. Two years ago, there was no snow. Last year, there was an over-abundance of early snow and they had to begin feeding hay in February.

The Bar S sells its calves in the fall to a Joint Venture (JV) owned by Clay and the three boys, Scott, Chris and Morgan. It was a way that Clay could bring his sons into the operation and help them learn more about the business side of ranching.

Under this business plan, the Joint Venture rents grass from the Bar S and the yearlings are sold in the fall.  

The family started a bred heifer program a couple of years back and sell these females in the fall bred to calve in March. The heifers are run off ranch in the Waldron Grazing Coop and the bulls are pulled two weeks before the ranch needs them for their own replacement heifers.

Dry cows are sold in the spring, while open cows and first calf heifers are sold in the fall through the Highwood Livestock Auction at High River.

“With such high calf prices our bred heifers aren’t getting much of a premium. So next year, depending on calf prices, we may decide to retain them, calve them out and sell them as two-year olds,” says Morgan.

Extra help is now coming from the fifth generation of Chattaways. Scott’s daughter Jessica graduated this year from high school and worked on the ranch  full-time last summer. Scott and Chris’s older sons Jackson ages 14, Quinn 15 and Wyatt 16 have all become good hands on the ranch.

The family is registered with the BIXS program but hasn’t yet used it to their advantage. They are hoping that there will eventually be a print out of how the herd grades on average and an opportunity to compare those grades against other commercial herds.

“We have been in the Verified Beef Program since its inception and we believe that programs such as the Environmental Farm Plan will go a long way in securing loyalty from our customers. We are also involved in the sustainable beef roundtable. We participate because all those at the table aren’t directly involved in the industry, and producers need to educate them about our sound production practices,” suggests Morgan. “We do things right for both
the land and the animals and we need to tell that story to the opposition voices.”  

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