By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Cattle producers are more aware today than they have ever been of the stewardship responsibilities they hold toward their land. However, for Jack Vandervalk, of VXV Farm located 12 miles west of Claresholm in the Porcupine Hills, greater stewardship equates to greater operational efficiency and profitability as well.
“I think most of us who came into this country here, we had a European mentality originally,” explains Vandervalk. “This place was as high as 66 sections of native grass when the railroad came in heading toward Calgary and they broke up land that should never have been broke up. They did that so they could grow oats for their horses. We have a little more than two sections that was broke up like that but the rest of the places, another five sections, was pure native grass. We did some farming and such in the early years on the farm, but we have since learned how to manage what we have better. I think we are smarter now: We do less work and make more money by managing our land.”
Vandervalk and his son Gerald use an intricate system of moving electric fences and plastic posts, supplied with water pumped a the moveable, solar-powered, watering system on their property tied into a canal, to pen and move their 400 head of cows. In this way they micro-manage their native grass resources to fullest efficiency and also protect their vulnerable Lyndon Creek riparian areas. It’s called short duration grazing and it’s really not as difficult as it sounds, says Vandervalk.
“My son probably moves the cows every two days (in the growing season),” explains Vandervalk. “I thought that was terrible when we started that to put 400 cows on a little field like that. But we have learned different. The cows get used to it and they really like it. They are easy to manage and don’t give us any trouble. We learnt as we went. We do put up some hay yet, but we find we don’t need much if we save our native grass. We try not to come back to the same pasture for 30 or 35 days, at least, in the growing season.”
Once the cows have grazed a fenced off area in the pasture, the posts and electric twine are reset a little further on, the cows are moved over, and the process repeats itself. By managing their grazing in this way, Vandervalk says they always seem to have enough native grass on hand.
“At one time we used to put up a bunch of hay, but now we don’t even need the hay because we save our native grass that cures on the stem really good in this area. All we need is a little protein in the third trimester of pregnancy; that’s when we begin to feed the cows with a few pellets. Other than that they are out 365 days; unless we get a bad storm when we are calving. Then we pull them into a three acre pasture. That’s only when the weather is bad.”
Vandervalk says other cattle operations could adopt the same type of system, and many producers have come to him over the years to learn how. However, there are some pre-conditions which need to be met.
“If you’re going to put cows in real small pastures like that you need water,” explains Vandervalk. “We have a solar-powered waterer that we can move along our canal. We are lucky that way because we have springs and well developed water works like this. You do need water if you are going to do short duration grazing. And if it weren’t for electric fence it would be just about impossible.”
Vandervalk also firmly believes in keeping his cattle out of his riparian areas and canal channels as they undermine the integrity of his creek banks and waterways. He only lets them in a few times a year for shrub and thistle maintenance.
“If you let them in there, they just love to be along the creek. The next thing you know your riparian areas are suffering. So we only put ours in for a short duration. We’ve done some experiments where the creek was completely fenced off and then first thing you know you’ve got a lot of Canadian Thistle growing and brush so thick you can’t walk through it. This way we kind of control the weeds. Some years we can only use the riparian area once for short duration; other years you can use it twice and have it re-grow,” says Vandervalk.
While a dry year can be challenging, explains Vandervalk, he has found by managing his native grass effectively many of the negative effects on his pastures can be mitigated. VXV Farm also uses some flood irrigation when the weather turns crispy.
“We have been through a few dry years, but we’ve never had to buy much hay,” says Vandervalk. “I have been here nearly 60 years and I have only had one year where the cows couldn’t get all the grass they wanted.”
VXV Farm’s lessons can be applied to any cattle operation, (even in dryland), as the fundamentals are the same, says Vandervalk.
“If you don’t look after your grass, it won’t look after you. It’s as simple as that; especially the native grass. You make sure your operation works in partnership with whatever land you have.”
In December VXV Farm won the Alberta Beef Producers’ 2016 Environmental Stewardship Award.