The Roots of good stewardship run deep at Shoestring Ranch

By Tim Kalinowski


Good environmental stewardship means a complete change in focus if you want to successfully produce a natural beef product in the most sustainable way possible, says Ian Murray, whose Shoestring Ranch near Acme, Alberta recently won the 2018 Alberta Beef Producers Environmental Stewardship Award. “Looking at the cattle side, where we vary significantly from the bulk of the beef industry is we don’t focus on the cows as being what we produce,” he says.“We produce grass. We are in the grass and forage business. Instead of having a fleet of air seeders and combines, we are harvesting that grass through a cow herd, and the yearling becomes the marketable product that walks off the ranch. But it is not the focus.” Murray says the health of soil underlying that grass must also be managed. “Once we have achieved healthy soil, our grass will become that much more healthier than it already is … And the cattle thrive on that healthier land base.” The Murrays moved onto the Shoestring Ranch about 10 years ago from Cochrane country, but the family has been ranching and farming in Alberta for five successive generations. The move into the natural beef market both aligned with the family’s values and created greater marketing opportunities for their small cow-calf operation. “We run a cow-calf operation consisting of about 180-200 cows, and then we have a yearling operation using our own yearlings,” explains Murray. “We have participated in some form of natural marketing with those cattle for the last 15 years … With the small herd we were running at Cochrane, and being that small-scale producer, we never felt like we had any market control when we were taking our calves to the auction mart. “We got into the direct marketing of natural products because of the opportunities that existed for that, and the consumer demand that was there,” he states. “Without getting into an argument about the positive and negatives of conventional versus natural marketing, we chose to market that way. We chose to produce that way. And it aligned with what we are doing here in terms of our values.” The Shoestring Ranch is subdivided into over 40 paddocks varying in size between 20 acres and 40 acres. The ranch moves cattle every three to five days through a 365 day cycle. “There has been a number of different schools of thought on the frequency of grazing, and moving them multiple times a day,” says Murray. “That isn’t something I have really wanted to try to pursue, but at the same token when you look at the rest and recovery period of a forage plant, you know you need to be off that paddock after four or five days when that plant starts to re-grow. You don’t want to have those cows take a second bite.” Murray says contrary to popular opinion this rotational grazing strategy isn’t too onerous as far as workload goes. “We have built up a pretty good infrastructure with permanent fencing,” he explains. “We do use some temporary, portable fencing to split some paddocks a bit further, but, in reality, if we are moving every four or five days you would want to be going out to check that cattle in that time frame anyway. “Once those cattle are accustomed to what we are doing, and once we move through that baby-calf stage, where we have probably the most trouble moving pairs from pasture to pasture, it is as simple as going to the corner of the paddock and opening up the gate.” The hard work comes on the planning side of things, says Murray. “It is in one sense more labour-intensive as far as the land management goes,” he admits. “You are moving cattle every few days and planning where your grazing is going to be. In late February or early March, I can tell you where I expect our cattle to be on any given day throughout the year. “That plan obviously gets changed depending on rainfall and growth, and how those pastures are responding. But rather than just turning some cows out for the year and gathering them back in the fall, we plan for a rest for our forages; moreso than we plan for the graze. “We generally try to focus on grazing each paddock one and a half times over, if we can accomplish that. Roughly half the paddocks will be grazed twice in a season, and others will be grazed once to set them up for some re-growth to have them in a more vigourous state for the following year.” Shoestring Ranch keeps the cattle out on perennial grasslands until early December, and then switches over the cereal swath grazing until about March. It compensates for this winter feeding regime by having calving later in the spring: Cows in late April, heifers in early May. The ranch runs a feedlot for its yearlings to get them up to about 950 lbs. prior to sale. This feedlot system also has other advantages in terms of land management. Murray explains. “Rather than setting this place up to run 300 mother cows on an average year, and some years have more grass than we know what to do with, and other years be so dry where we have to start getting rid of cows, bringing in feed or selling into a depressed market, that yearling operation allows us to have that release valve,” says Murray. “We can have that higher number of cattle through the early stages of the growing season to manage that first growth of grass, and set it up for success on the re-growth. “If we continue to have good conditions throughout the summer, we can continue to use those yearling cattle to gain here and walk them off in the form of beef come fall; or if we end up in a dry spell and start to realize we are not going to have enough grass to make it through the year, we can start making decisions on setting them up in a feedlot pen and retain ownership, or sell them. We can sell them at full value and free that grass up to keep our cow herd at a consistent size.” Besides sophisticated land management, Shoestring Ranch also engages in progressive watering to keep cattle out of dugouts and riparian areas, and practices minimum tillage practices when seeding to keep residue anchored in the soil. Murray is proud to be chosen as the recipient of this year’s ABP Environmental Stewardship Award. “I am extremely honoured to be nominated in the first place,” he says. “Another back story to this is I have always had that award on my radar. I have known a number of producers who have won this in the past. It is something I have been aware of, and something I had always hoped at some point in my career I might have been nominated to win this award. Having said that, I have not been managing this place to win awards, but because of the values we have. This award very closely mirrors those values. “I am proud of the product that walks off the ranch as far as the beef we produce goes,” he adds. “Moreso, I am proud of what we are doing as far as the land base goes, and the legacy we will leave behind with the health of the land we are fortunate enough to be managing right now.”

Photos courtesy Shoestring Ranch
The Murray family of Shoestring Ranch near Acme won this year’s Alberta Beef Producers’ Environmental Stewardship Award at the recent AGM.