The landscape may be more valuable than the cattle

While growing up on a ranch/farming operation near Arrowwood, Norm Ward made up his mind that the cattle were his prime interest. After attending university, and completing a double major in grazing management and animal science, his focus changed to viewing the ranch as a sum total of its components. Soon, the environment took centre stage in his thinking. When he and his father Jack, purchased the Round-Up 80 ranch located west of Claresholm in 1980, he began to tabulate the value of the environment not only on cattle productivity, but in terms of environmental goods and services (EGS).

“It wasn’t until 1987, when I took a holistic management course from Allan Savoury, that I added yet another dimension to what I had learned in university,” says Ward. When Savoury referred to cattle as a tool to improve the land, it was an ahhah moment for me.”

“We were running 500 cows at the time and began to develop a more intensive grazing plan for the more than 7,500 acres in order to achieve increased soil health, plant diversity and increase lbs. of beef per acre. It was amazing to identify the changes that occurred because of increased animal impact.”

Running Hereford/Angus/Limousin cross cows, the family raised bulls which sold at auction, private treaty and through the BeefBooster program. They sold their calves into the fall run.

After BSE, when cull cows were a liability, Norm and his wife Donna, decided to feed out some of the open heifers and enter the gate-to-plate market. For three years, they traveled to Calgary during the Farmer’s Market season to take their beef directly to the consumer. While roughly 80 percent of the demand was for grain finished beef, the rest was for grass finished beef which was sold for 30 percent higher.

“During our discussions with our customers, we realized we were selling a healthy environment. We sold about 30 head per year this way, but the lessons learned really had a profound impact on my idea of what made this business sustainable.”

Fast forward to 2013, and during a speech to the Alberta Institute of Agrologists, Ward began to publicly discuss the idea of EGS calling the beef Functional Ecological Beef (FEB) because of its high Omega 3 value. The ecological portion was the landscape or viewscape, water storage, carbon storage, biodiversity etc. Ward believes that without the direct marketing experience, he may not have come to this conclusion.

“I think we’re at a crossroads in the cattle business. There is a new kind of rancher emerging that looks at the environment, genetics and marketing as a whole and the consumer as a partner. Bottom line, we are producing beef for our partners,” says Ward.

The family sold the cow herd about five years ago in response to their interpretation of the market signals. They believed that grassers would bring in more income with less work. They now purchase steers year round at auction and, most years, grass 2,000 steers from June until October.

“Managing steers in a more intensive grazing program opens the door to many different options,” says Ward.

“Depending on water availability, we can run the entire group as one or split them into two or more groups. The grasser program also gives us a much wider range of options to sell into peak markets.”

Ward says that his son Neil, 33 years of age, who works for One Earth Farms brings a new perspective and a new management skill to the operation at home. His off farm job is to manage the production side of the value chain.

The pivotal changes in the environment have helped the ranch achieve an even more complex ecosystem with lots of plants and animals including deer, elk and bear. The bare spaces have been replaced with many different species of grass and plants. The PFRA (now called the Agroforestry Development Centre), has produced three-years of data for the ranch documenting the water storage increases.

“It looks like the soil biodiversity is really what is adding to the increased water storage,” says Ward. “The soil is coming alive and the data verifies our management.”

In addition to running steers, the Wards have branched out into another grass-related venture established a few years ago called the Power Grazer fencing business. Initially, they built the self-contained portable fencing system to make it easier for them to divide up a quarter section of pasture. The business has grown into an additional revenue stream.

The system consists of a smaller trailer which can be pulled with an ATV or three-point hitch. A solar panel mounted on top feeds two 12-volt batteries and a fence energizer is located underneath. A large reel on the back, powered by a two-thirds-hp DC motor, can roll out up to two miles of braided turbo wire. 100 pigtail-style steel fence posts are also attached to the side of the trailer.

Ward has always found time to participate in cowboy politics and is a past president of the Western Stock Growers. He now sits as on the WSG board of governors and is active on the SWSG environmental goods and services file.

“In the past, I sat on the Property Rights Research Institute and it was a good opportunity to expand my knowledge base,” suggests Ward. “The motto of the WSG is “free market environmentalism since 1896”. We are beginning to see a market for the products that producers have always produced and we can now quantify the environmental impacts we achieve with our management.”

“With the tug-of-war for the many uses of land in this province for recreation, oil and gas, acreages, and grain and cattle production, it is important that producers keep their contribution in the forefront of the conversation. The Alberta government is doing land planning for seven different regions and in their documents there is a hint for EGS in the marketplace.”

Ward points to the recent emergency order by the federal government for a recovery plan for the sage-grouse as an opportunity for producers to become involved with the recovery efforts. Apparently, 85 percent of the sage-grouse habitat is found on provincial public lands, which are primarily held as grazing leases. While the federal recovery plan is to be implemented by Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, landowners, the oil and gas industry, conservation groups and academia, it is unclear whether the plan will intrude in current cattle grazing’s specifically in the southeastern corner of the province.

“The government knows they have to take some linear disturbance out in order to reclaim habitat for these birds, however, I’m fearful that they may deem “rest” as an action for certain areas. Rest in a brittle environment will usually drive that environment towards the dessert. In my opinion, removing the grazing animals will hasten the demise of the sage-grouse,” warns Ward.

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