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ABP’s 2014 Environmental Stewardship Winner

Round Rock Ranching 

Being able to marry sound production practices that affect the bottom line and improve the environment are pillars that uphold the long term vision for Round Rock Ranching at Vermilion. Since 2006, the fifth generation McGrath family including Sean and Tanya McGrath and their three young children in partnership with Sean’s parents Fred and Anne, have operated under the vision statement, “The best beef in a better world”.

“My dad has always been an early adopter of new ideas. He allowed us kids to try different management approaches as long as we were willing to do the work,” says Sean.

“After high school, I went off to the University of Saskatchewan and got a degree in Agriculture with a major in Animal Science. I didn’t come back to the ranch until almost ten years later in 2002.”

McGrath says that there have been many pivotal decisions made over the years that helped to steer the ranch toward sustainability, profitability and improved environmental stewardship.

“We put up electric fence in the early 1980’s and could immediately see the benefits for more selective or intensive grazing. The drought in ’02 was probably one of the biggest blessings we’ve had. When BSE hit, we had already culled our older cows,” remembers McGrath.

After the drought of 2002, the family moved their calving dates from March/April to May/June for the 200 head Angus-based cow herd. Young cows are bred Angus using AI, and Angus bulls turned out immediately after. This group of cows supply the ranch replacement heifers which are DNA sire verified and BVD PI tested using DNA. Older cows are bred Simmental and all sires are selected using EPD, ultrasound and visual appraisal. All processes are recorded under the Verified Beef Production Protocol.

Looking back, another pivotal decision was when McGrath took an executive development program with Agri-Food Management and chose the farm as his “business case”.

“From a business perspective, creating a business plan and a vision for our operation was probably the biggest catalyst for change over the years,” says McGrath.

“Our vision statement, “The Best Beef in a Better World”, drives all of our short term and long term decisions. We analyze our every move accordingly. If something doesn’t make our world better or our cattle better – then it’s off the table in short order.”

Focusing on more summer and winter grazing strategies has dropped the ranch production costs dramatically. Also, aligning the grass management with nature has provided exceptional monetary and wildlife habitat dividends.

Grazing of the approximately 3,000 acres of owned, leased and rented land is carefully controlled using adaptive grazing methods, and tracking results through a combination of various record keeping programs that look at both production and impacts. With 80 percent of the home ranch native rangeland, deferred grazing of this range has increased production. It has also removed most of the livestock pressure during critical times for nesting birds and the deer population.

Some years, winter grazing costs including mineral and labour have dropped to under 35 cents per cow per day.

“We’ve found that bale grazing is more expensive than swath grazing. We cut and bale hay on shares and bring in about 800 round bales. These bales also bring added nutrients and we position the bales in the pasture in the fall. It saves us about $15,000 a year in equipment and fuel costs and labour. We have also seen production increases ranging up to 600 percent,” says McGrath.

“We can place 600-800 bales in about six hours and it only takes a few hours to put up the wire. We grazed 300 head on these bales last year and our chore time was about three hours a week.”

The use of portable wind fence, and fuel efficient vehicles for daily operations have all helped to improve the margins.

Round Rock Ranching uses several winter feeding strategies including grazing stockpiled native range from November to January/February; swath grazing in from January to April; bale grazing November to April and grazing rake bunches from January to April.

Rake bunching is new to the grazing plan. “We usually graze an area once or twice and then cut it with a haybine and pull it into bunches,” explains McGrath. “We use an old steel wheel dump rake we bought in the 1950’s, and it makes a bigger windrow making the pile more accessible to the cattle through the snow. We’ve found the feed quality to be as good or better, than any bale we’ve made. We’ve run our replacement heifers all winter on these bunches and our costs including raking and cutting at custom rates, labour and mineral dropped to 25 cents per head per day. We plan to increase our raked acres next year.”

By moving to winter grazing, much of the native rangeland has increased its carrying capacity from 0.25 animal unit month (AUM) to one or better and shifted the species mix from Blue Grama/June grass dominated to rough fescue/wheatgrass dominated mixes on much of the operation.

The ranch is heavily invested in forging partnerships that benefit the environment. It includes working with various industry groups and offering ranch resources for research. Work includes bale grazing studies by AESB (PFRA), range quality assessments with Alberta Environment and rangeland and riparian monitoring with Cows and Fish.

“There have been so many good opportunities for our family to be on the front line of research and become early adopters,” says McGrath. “We’ve hosted many producer tours on the ranch and given presentations to elected officials and the general public.”

“We were the first to sign a Conservation Agreement in a pilot project with the County of Vermilion River’s Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS). The ALUS projects included fencing off of riparian areas, restoring a small acreage of native rangeland and establishing shelterbelts.”

“We’ve also implemented a land EKG in the last year. It’s a formal grass monitoring program and we have grass cages and transects in different pastures. There are photo points that allow us to document exactly what is going on from an ecological grazing perspective. It provides solid numbers to work with. We do clippings and measure and weigh litter – so we know the grazing impacts.”

Today, Sean and his dad meet daily over coffee to discuss the work.

“We’re on the same page most of the time, but debate like any other father/son team when it comes to some of the decisions. I think one of the marked differences in our relationship is that dad has been willing to let go of some of the reins. While he still works fulltime on the ranch, he has taken on more the role of advisor than that of a controller.”

But the conversation has changed. Instead of saying the grass in one particular pasture looks good, they now talk in terms of that pasture has 2400 lbs. of litter and 1800 lbs. of production.

Same conversation but the frame of reference is totally different.

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