Everyone in eastern Alberta knows Tom Osadczuk and his sons Dan, Mark and Justin and daughter Gina. Why Tom even went to school with Happy Campbell’s kids.
Tom is a horseman, a cattleman, father, grandfather and a man committed to the land and his life. He has chosen well over the years and despite incredible adversity has persisted in building his ranch, his dream. It is one of the finest cattle operations I have ever seen. The Rafter T Cattle Co. Ltd. is a lot like the Imperial Ranch, but honestly, like a beautiful woman, it really cannot be compared with anything. It stands alone as one of the finest tracts of native prairie grass in western Canada.
Tom wanted to be a rancher early on in his life. He bought his grandfather’s land (seven quarters) for $5000. He made 10 payments over ten years with no interest. And ever since has operated with little or no debt. That has been his mission in life: ”If I have no debt, I can sleep at night.” Tom adds, “Jack, Don and I were born three miles away. So I’m living now, not far from where I got my start in life. I always got along with my father. I just never needed his help to get a start.”
Tom’s boys Dan and Mark are partners in the ranch. Justin works the oil patch in Brooks. They grow their own feed (oats and barley) and put up 10,000 tons of silage this year. The family instead reckon they have enough feed to last two, perhaps three years if there are tough winters or another dry spell. Dan was hauling in some of the 4,000 big round bales to the farm the day I was there. The Rafter T runs 800 Angus cows on about 36 square miles of grass and land. The farm is at Iddesleigh and the grasslands are to the east at Buffalo in the hills where the herd is summered. It is a tract of 21 sections of native grass and is a stockman’s oasis.
Tom notes, “It’s been 12 years since we had an open winter. We pull the cows back home from Buffalo in December/January as conditions warrant. All the calves we background here at home and in the spring dollar them out to buyers. Those cows calve in the open, there’s no shelter here. Come April, May when the feedlot thaws it’s time to sell and then clean out the pens. The herd calves close by the house so we can tend and feed them. Though we don’t pull calves or assist them in April as for the most part those cows take care of themselves.”
Tom and his sons have culled the herd well over the years. The black commercial herd is young on average and you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad udder in the entire herd. Tom says, “The Angus is a complete commercial cow. They have great calving ease and along with their carcass merit and easy-keeping attributes, we have no sunburned udder or pink eye and the dark color and size makes them hardy in this climate. We don’t have any natural ground cover out here so they need dark coats and they have to be thrifty in this climate.”
Deer River Angus has played a significant part in the herd’s breeding program along with stock from the Pahl’s of Medicine Hat. Tom finds “Easy calving, low birth weights, great udders and a shorter gestation time come from Deer River’s heifer bulls. All in all, we are happy with where we’ve taken the herd over the last 50 years. Fraser and Hudec’s Hereford bulls work with some of our cows in the community pastures.”
Tom talks of Sandy Sunstrum flying into his branding. He asks how Cindy Conley is and where she’s at. And we reminisce about the Jenner ferry man, Ira German, of long ago (1953-54) and the rutted dirt road that used to lead north from Jenner to Youngstown and Hardisty: and how things have changed, and as wife Pat says “No, not always for the better. The 40’s and 50’s were good years. They were hard but somehow we were happy having far less than we do today.” They knew Alan and Joy Young and Leonard and Dorothy Leroux. Progress and happiness cannot always be measured in wealth, acres or cows. Inner peace and joy cannot be equated with things. Pat and Tom, Dan and Lorna, Mark and Deb love their work, their ranch and the community they live in. They all have made a big commitment to working hard to make the ranch stable and successful. A home for their families.
Dan hauls hay and tends the cattle; Mark is the mechanic and keeps the entire bunch of machinery operational and that is no small job as they have an vast arsenal of machines including a grader, tractor trailers, stock and gravel trucks and farm equipment. Mark is also a cattleman too, it’s just that he enjoys vehicle work. He tweaked the engine of one farm truck so it delivers a smooth and fast 430 hp in a quiet, quick burst. Tom and I did some low flying to Buffalo, though I won’t mention a word about going over 100 kms an hour. The rest you can imagine. There were no county mounties around.
Pat is a rancher’s daughter (her father, Jim Brody ran the community pastures at Jenner). Pat grew up in the Jenner area and knows the way of cows and cowboys all too well. She is Tom’s anchor today and they enjoy their getaways to Arizona. She’s also quite a cook and Tom served up some Angus ribeye steak that could not be compared with anything this side of the Rio Grande.
So how and why did Tom get his start? He did it on his own, and he had a dream.
“I wanted to ranch and I wanted to live here. Nothing else appealed to me. I took on the job of buying the home place in 1953 because I had a dream of being my own man, having my own place. So I started at 17. I had ten payments to make over 10 years to own my grand-father’s seven quarters. I just did it. I put my mind to it so I had a mission. From 1955-59 I worked the oil rigs. And the days were 18-20 hours. From 1961-1963 I worked on the Princess Compressor Station. In 1964,
I worked at the Burstall Plant in Saskatchewan. Then I quit. I was making $1000 a month, that was big money and it cost $100 a month to live. So I got ahead and got my place paid for. It was the only way to do it and keep out of debt. Interest payments are the enemies of happiness and sound sleep. I’d drive school bus, I did maintenance work and I was a heavy equipment operator. Three jobs were what I had and on top of that I operated the farm and took care of the cattle. This place did not fall into my lap.” Long days in the sun, grit and determination were part of the story.
Tom has always been a doer. And he’s never looked back. He has friends everywhere. He and Lee Beasley spent decades hunting together and he adds, “We were best of friends, he taught me much about game during those years.” Like Lee, Tom is a quiet, kind man who does not take easily to loud, arrogant people.
Tom has served as president of the Iddesleigh and Jenner Gas Co-op; he’s served as a director of the Western Stock grower’s Association; he built the Jenner Community Hall one winter with two other men; he founded the Table Rock Roping Club in 1976 and since 1962 has been on the board of the Special Areas with only six years off during difficult times with ranch commitments. He adds, “I was lucky I never got stuck with 24% interest rates in the mid 60’s and 70’s. I had a mission. I completed it. Then I got to the business of growing the herd and the operation.” Mark says they still have Tom’s pay stubs to this day from those early working years ($3.50/hour was pretty good money at the time).
And today, at 77, Tom has no regrets. He notes the 1980’s were trying times with having to move the entire herd to Buck Lake for grass. “The mid ’80’s saw us truck the herd up there as we were burnt off here at home. It was depressing. But we had fun and the change was good for us. But even though we had no grass or water, the drought cleaned up a lot of weeds like thistle here at the ranch. It brought hidden blessings after the fact, though we couldn’t see it at the time. Every calamity has a silver lining of some sort if you look for it.”
This is a great year at the Rafter T. It is one of the best grass years on record with 16-20 inches of rain in the rainy hills at Buffalo. Springs flow out of the hills, ponds and dugouts are full and all nature is rejoicing at the bounty. The cattle shine, they are in excellent condition with big calves at foot. The grass blows knee deep in the wind. Along with rare birds; elk, owls, coyotes, rattlers, eagles and deer, the Rafter T grasslands at Buffalo host just about every original grass species ever found in Western Canada. Deer and elk can almost disappear in the grass when they lay down. Words pale when it comes to describing this rare piece of land. Stone cairns are on top of some hills which used to mark the way for early settlers coming into the North West territories. Ancient Indian camps abound in the hills.
Tom and I stood among the stone cairns during a storm. We looked east to Saskatchewan; north to Reg Howe’s land, Majestic Ranches and Happy Campbell’s turnoff. We talked about Stan Krause’s berm around his house during the flood. Tom said, “They’ll have to drag me off this place with a tractor and a chain around my legs. It’s home and the most beautiful place to ride a horse on this planet. Whaddya think about what you’ve seen.” I looked at the October thunderstorm storm pass over; listened to the wind play with the native grass; deer were running across a coulee below and to the right a coyote saw us and lit off over a hill. The cattle had just hit a spring for water and were off to graze a coulee bottom. And I knew that I had just seen something very rare and beautiful. Tom found a little known cowboy oasis and is tending this vast tract of land with care. A network of water pipes extend the grazing to most areas of the grass lands at Buffalo; and the land handles the vast numbers of elk, deer and cattle with ease. In 2011 Tom and his family were recognized with the Farm Family of the Year Award by the Bank of Montreal and the Calgary Stampede. That was a good thing for Alberta.