More than 50 years ago, Tom and Mary (Hallet) Biggs claimed a piece of grass land south of Coronation and north east of Hanna and called it TK Ranches. There, they learned how to encourage a living from the endangered Northern Fescue Grasslands or prairie wool. They raised a British based herd with mostly Angus and in the late 1906’s added Charolais and Simmental through AI. The Simmental experiment was short lived but Tom stuck with the Charolais. In the early 1970’s, they added Gelvieh and Brown Swiss to the herd. They raised five children – Ralph, Dylan, Andreas, John and David. Even then, the family had the mindset and heart for alternative ways of managing the land that enhanced the grasslands and biodiversity.
The second generation
After attending Olds College and the University of Lethbridge, son Dylan returned to the land in the mid 1980’s to begin his own search for new ways to care for the land and cattle. It was at a Western Stock Grower conference where he first heard the names of Allan Savory and the Holtman brothers and their alternative grazing methods. In 1986, Biggs went down to Casper, Wyoming and took a week-long holistic management course from Savory.
“I looked at things differently when I returned home,” says Biggs. “The overriding philosophy of looking at the cattle business from a triple bottom line based on environmental, social and financial sustainability made perfect sense. But in the beginning, I was probably more enthusiastic than I had a right to be.”
“It took years to figure out the best application of time-controlled grazing practices suitable for our environment. We initially incorporated a lot of temporary cross fencing, increased stock densities and shortened grazing periods. We learned that our grasslands are arid but not brittle and applying high density, short duration heavy grazing was risky at best and could result in long periods without any re-growth.”
In 1990, Dylan, now president of the Centre for Holistic Management in Canada, was invited to speak at a Nature Trust of Alberta meeting. That is where he met Colleen Nelson, his future wife.
Nelson’s story did not in any way parallel that of her future rancher husband. By the age of 16, she had joined the military, but two years later she was diagnosed with cancer without a good prognosis.
“I was raised in the city on a diet which included a lot of processed foods. While fighting for my life, I was introduced to an alternative macrobiotic diet which suggested a link between the use of artificial growth hormones in meat production and cancer. I became a vegetarian and eight months later went into remission.”
At the age of 22, Colleen attended the University of Alberta graduating with a degree in Recreation Administration known today as an Environmental Sciences degree. While at university, she taught back country survival which would eventually help prepare her for the difficulties of ranch life.
Nelson became involved in a new organization called the Nature Trust of Alberta which worked with producers to leave green space as wildlife corridors. It was at one of these meetings that she met Dylan Biggs.
“University taught me integrated resource management where parts of an ecosystem are isolated and then integrated back into a management plan. This did not always work and ecosystems were damaged and species lost,” remembers Colleen. “I found Dylan’s idea of managing the health of the land from a whole ecosystem approach and using cattle as a tool, very refreshing.”
In 1990, Master Corporal Nelson married holistic cattle rancher Dylan Biggs.
Changes in land and cattle
The ranch added more cross fencing to their pastures but didn’t go highly intensive. They began to focus on long rest periods, moderate grazing and seasonal deferrals. Their growing season grazings ranged from 7 to 10 days and dormant season grazings ranged from 15 to 30 days depending on the available grass. They began to utilize their pastures more evenly without overgrazing or over-resting. The payoff was an increase in plant diversity and better drought carrying capacity and resilience.
“We learned that if you hit a piece of grass hard with big animal impact and high stock density in this country, it might not rain for years and you would have nothing to go back to,” says Dylan.
“Our type of cattle changed in response to this thinking. I liked the idea of ‘sunlight to solar dollar’ with not much energy input. I downsized our genetics taking the focus from a finished product to a maternal product to rebuild the cow herd differently. We tried some Tarentaise and Gelbvieh but have since added Red and Black Angus and moved the cattle to a more moderate framed size.”
While the Angus genetic base has grown considerably, the Biggs found that with a bigger choice comes some inconsistency. Running a small purebred Angus herd alongside their commercial herd, they’ve raised their own commercial bulls since 1995 and closed the purebred herd eight years ago.
“Some guys might argue with me, but I feel that to reduce my genetic risk and create more consistency, I needed to raise my own bulls,” says Dylan. “All our bulls are semen checked before the breeding season. We select bulls out of our good cows and look for structural soundness and high semen quality which usually translates into good breeding behavior. We only breed the females for a period of 42-48 days.”
Times were tough
In 15 years, the family only cut hay a few times. The spring moisture necessary for native grass was below par. The market crash in the mid 90’s, instantly reduced their debt/equity ratio. The years of drought and grasshoppers took their toll and the family was forced to reduce the 400 head cow herd to 250. BSE didn’t help. You can only sharpen your pencil so much before you run out of lead. In 1995, with three young girls under five, the couple had to find a way to increase their income.
“Packing groceries in town wouldn’t even pay for child care and Dylan needed to run the ranch,” says Colleen. “We decided the only way to stay on the ranch was to add value to our beef and market a grass finished beef program. We didn’t use implants to finish our cattle and we had already moved away from mass antibiotics. It took more than a year of cold calls and kicking tires to get the first 25 head of cattle sold.”
“In 1995, direct marketing beef or selling an integrated pasture to plate beef product wasn’t an easy sell. Health Food stores were more inclined to lean towards a vegetarian diet and there wasn’t any meat protein in these stores.”
With three car seats in the extended cab and frozen samples of her dry-aged beef Colleen made the rounds to various hotels and restaurants.
“I found a chef that was willing to compare my beef to that of his usual supplier. He cut both the same and cooked them. Our beef shrunk 12 percent while the supplier’s beef shrunk 18 percent,” says Colleen.
“The grain of the meat was different and the flavour too. He ordered immediately. It’s a small community among chefs and before long we were able to sell all the primals we hand on hand. But we still had thousands of pounds of hamburger to sell. Luckily it was a cold winter and we were able to keep the hamburger frozen on our deck. March came quickly that year, but Earth Harvest, a health food store in Calgary, decided to give our hamburger a try and we sold out.”
Finding a processor to cut to spec, growing their customer base and making a profit has taken years. Today they are able to sell all the beef they can produce for a premium, but there were many lessons learned along the way. Incidentally, Colleen began eating beef shortly after moving to the ranch.