It’s been 20 years since I last set foot on the Murray home ranch at Tilley. Much has changed, but much has not. Bryon has retired to Arizona. George the IV still keeps busy every day managing the Rolling Hills place, he isn’t ready to hang up his spurs. Lil (G.W. Murray’s wife) has her home next to George V and his family and she stays busy with friends and her cabin at Elkwater. Many will recall seeing her once again at the Bow Slope anniversary celebration. Unless you know them, it’s hard to keep track of all these George’s in the family. I’ve met four generations of the Murrays and ranching is in the blood of everyone of them.
Changes: there have been many. A new ranch has been added south of Tompkins, Saskatchewan in the Cypress Hills. That ranch has its own micro-climate unlike the other Murray properties. And last year the Murrays purchased the Dumaresq Bros. ranch in the Neutral hills. Anyone in cattle in western Canada knows of this historic ranch and its significance. It’s an unspoiled and rare gem comprised of some native grass, tame grass and farm ground. The various ranch locations help the Murray’s diversify their pasture and grazing risks. They enjoy the Neutral Hills and open grass on that great spread, though they know green years are often followed by dry years and that in the winter of 1906-07 two thirds of the cattle on that ranch at Consort were killed in a massive blizzard. Right now at harvest, the management of the spreads and home base at Tilley are keeping George on home ground.
With the passing of his grandfather (G.W.) George V naturally found himself at the helm of Murray Ranches. He had earned a degree in Management in New York (paid for with a hard won hockey scholarship) and he had the energy, will and ability to handle the job. Of course his dad is actively involved whether it be expanding there irrigation reservoir, picking rocks, farming or fencing he is always trying to improve the land.
Without going into too many specifics, one could say that Murray Ranches is home to several thousand mother cows, an Angus herd and back-grounding feedlots. It is not the Murray’s desire to seek attention by publicizing herd numbers or acres. One could say they run several large ranches and large irrigated cash crop farms. Wanting more diversification for the ranch after the great drought of ‘02 and the BSE debacle of ‘03 the Murray’s sought to expand their irrigation and farming base. Today irrigation pivots bring water to acres of crops including corn, sugar beets, barley, wheat and canola. They are self-sufficient when it comes to feed and sell high moisture corn to JBS at Brooks. A large work force of great employees helps out calving,branding, weaning, feeding and farming. So along with his wife Suntana (near Steinbach), George V and his father George IV manage the day to day operations. George and Suntana try to involve the kids and their horses as much as possible, wherever handling cattle as the seasons warrant.
Between paying electrical bills, pasture rotation, sorting cattle, weaning, brandings, marketing, harvest and planting there is not a lot of spare time in the day for anyone on the ranch. George’s cell phone rings all day long and he has to take the calls and make split decisions. Travel to distant ranches, bull sales, feed management and employee management make for long hours. But for George it is a passion and he does not really consider it as work. He takes some pride in what the family has accomplished over the past two decades of challenge. The family is proud of all the time, hard work and sacrifices all the Murrays before them put in to get to where they are today. He has known good years and hard years, but is content that the risks taken are worth the end: “I have children that will one day have land, a career if they want it here, I’m working for their future, not just ours.” At 40, George has accomplished much, but still has a long way to go. He’s ambitious, strong and not afraid of work. Couple that with his business acumen and you will find yourself conversing with a man who is not your average rancher: the ranch experience was his birthright, it came naturally; George is a businessman, an economist and a shrewd risk taker. He is an investor with critically important investment skills. Whether it’s buying a correct Charolais bull that fits his cross-breeding program and his cows, or buying property, George is no chum who is eager to take the poor end of a bad deal.
Everything at Murray Ranches has a place, a fit, and is part of a much larger, well put together puzzle. George said in passing, “Should we have a big drought up north at Consort or Tompkins, the cows are just over two hours by truck from the home ranches and irrigation. We have our backup in place.”
Actually, George is into risk management all year long hedging part of his crops and timing the sale of heifers and steers to maximize return. He adds, “I’ll hedge perhaps a third of our crops, but never have I gone more than 50%.” With George, even risk management has limits.
What on earth does one do with all those cattle? It’s not hard once you tour the pastures, see the calves and their mommas, and realize that hidden in the coulees on the river and in the hills in other ranches are a lot of valuable Angus cows and their calves. At this peak period in the cow cycle the Murrays are poised to capitalize on doing what they’ve always done best: sell those steers, heifers and cows as this is one payday they and everyone else have waited decades for. They took the risks to get the herd to this size at this point in time and now it’s time to capitalize on those years of work.
The Murray’s cows calve when nature intended, in April, when the first grass appears. Weaning this year started on Oct. 20. Last year George said they sold several hundred replacement heifers and normally they keep their own replacements. The Black Angus cow herd is traditionally bred to Angus bulls. However, a select portion of the herd is bred Charolais. The Angus X Char calves traditionally outsell the black heifers and steers with a sweet premium and because of the hybrid vigor their extra weight brings often 40-45 lbs of muscle. George V adds, “They are the most in demand steers we have.” One look in the pasture and you can see the performance, growth and why the buyers accept them so well.
This year the Murrays will background their own heifers and all the steers will go to auction.
G.W. Murray III was a pragmatic and wise man. He was determined, experienced and a very successful rancher. Like Archie Tateson, he had learned many of life’s lessons and rode out many storms and droughts over the years. Blizzards and droughts will come again, and George V knows this. I told George what Frank Gattey said about life in the Neutral Hills at the Cross Bar Ranch: “You know, when we have back to back wet years and the grass is long this ranch is paradise on earth, you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. But when the droughts come you wonder why you’re here and that it now resembles the a-hole of the world.” George’s ranch borders the Cross Bar.