Farming with the land
By Tim Kalinowski
“The water on our land is so much cleaner, and it’s almost like a whole circle that goes around and around,” says Tom Thompson, owner of Winding Creek Angus Ranch near Mayerthorpe. “Like all these little pieces that fit into a puzzle. If we look after the land and the animals, they will look after us. It’s basically working with nature and understanding plant growth.”
Winding Creek Ranch is the 2017 winner of the Alberta Beef Producers Environmental Stewardship Award. Since 2003 Thompson has made league-spanning strides to turn his 1,200 acre ranch into a model for sustainable agriculture and animal well-being.
“I was unhappy with some of the results that were happening around here, and I wanted to do a better job,” remembers Thompson. “In 2003, I got a little pamphlet in the mail about our local forage association having an AGM, and I went to it. There was a speaker there named Kit Ferrell from Cheyenne Wells in Colorado, and he was explaining about the three keys to cattle ranching. It really made sense, and I started going to workshops, and learning about in different courses on water systems, grazing… And that’s how it all started.”
Thompson has introduced short duration grazing on his land using electric fencing wire and solar panel batteries to move his herd daily to preserve his forage. He has created a 10 metre buffer zone between the creek which winds through his ranch and his 200 head herd by utilizing a mobile watering system. He has moved to 365 day a year grazing. But the biggest change he has made is to his calf birthing times.
“First of all, with the animal welfare we have changed their calving dates, so calves are born at the end of May,” explains Thompson. “Calves aren’t born with a winter coat; that has to be developed. When we can do that, we can winter all the animals out on the land. The best way to rejuvenate your land is to winter livestock on it.”
Short duration grazing is the centrepiece of his stewardship efforts, and it is not as hard as people think it is, says Thompson.
“Once you are properly set up, this is not expensive or time consuming. You can move a herd of hundreds of animals in a minute once you are set up. Just like anybody, the cattle like a fresh meal every day and a clean plate.”
Thompson admits it is easier for a smaller scale operation like his to adopt these recommended sustainability and animal welfare practices, but the accessibility of advanced technology today makes it possible for any cattle operation to introduce some of these elements, no matter the size.
“The technology we have with power fencing and pumping water is so good now we can manage animals and water like we never could before,” Thompson says. “We can run power fencing out in the middle of nowhere and pump water with just the sun.”
According to Thompson, sustainable farming really just comes down to working more closely with nature and the elements to enhance your land’s productivity and viability.
“You can get anywhere from 50 to 200 per cent more grass by doing these techniques. Well, who wouldn’t want that once you explain it to them?
“What we do here is all about harvesting sunlight, and harvesting as much sunlight as you can by moving the cattle off and leaving leaves on the plant. Those are actually the solar panels for the root system, and that’s what we are managing for.”
Thompson says he often encounters resistance to these ideas from his fellow ranchers. He doesn’t understand why this is the case, but suggests those coming out to lectures or courses on these management practices listen more and talk less.
“You are always asking: Can we do a better job as a rancher? We are always searching for answers, and, as the old saying goes, when you are ready to learn, the teacher will appear.
“But it’s hard to learn anything when you think you know it all already.”
Thompson says once you decide to make the change in your cattle operation toward greater sustainability there is no possibility of going back once you see the benefits in action.
“You have to be dedicated. You have to have a passion for what you are doing. It’s not really work because you don’t have to pry yourself out of bed every morning. You want to get out there and do a good job,” he says.