Story by Susan Hosford
Photos by Bradley K Smith & Don Forestier
The foothills on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains are home to some of Canada’s most famous and historic cattle rangelands. One of the original ranches still in operation is the Waldron. It was established in 1883 by Duncan McNab McEachran of Montreal, with financial backing by Sir John Waldron of England. The original ranch spanned 260,000 acres of land with more than 20,000 head of cattle and hundreds of horses. Today the Waldron consists of about 65,000 acres between the Porcupine Hills on the east and Whaleback Ridge on the west, running for 30 kilometers along the picturesque Cowboy Trail (Highway 22).
Over the years, different ranchers and groups of ranchers have owned the Waldron for grazing their cattle. In 1962, a group of ranchers formed the Waldron Grazing Co-op Ltd., and purchased the ranch to ensure grazing and maintain range quality. In 2014, an arrangement with the Nature Conservancy of Canada made the ranch’s grassland into a permanent conservation area.
The ranch environment combines short growing seasons, low precipitation and unpredictable winters. Most of the forage is native plants that are adapted to the environment, occasional wildfires and to grazing animals. Overgrazing, or a lack of grazing, can impact the health of these native rangelands. One pasture, fenced off for 30 years, shows accumulated, un-grazed, dead plant material that effectively reduces plant diversity, grazing capacity, and the ability of the soil to use the limited rainfall.
Today the Waldron is managed to support domestic livestock as well as wildlife. Deer and elk give birth on the lower valley ranges, then move into the higher hills for the summer. Depending on the season, rainfall and forage growth, up to 13,000 cattle are grazed over the year. Cows with their calves are better able to deal with predators (wolves, bears, cougars) and are grazed in the foothills. Yearlings are grazed on valley ranges that have been in a small part seeded to perennial grasses and legumes. Only 1,200 acres of the 65,000 have ever been cultivated. In these valleys, miles of old barbed wire fences are being replaced with high-tensile electric fences. These new fences divide large pastures into smaller grazing paddocks of approximately 50 acres. To manage the pastures, animals are moved from paddock to paddock through central watering areas. Large water tanks are supplied with fresh water from fenced-off dugouts and springs.
Waldron’s manager, Mike Roberts, continuously monitors forage growth, grazing impact and livestock. A number of years ago, invasive plant species were starting to change plant diversity and impact forage quantity and quality. Cattle, like the bison before them, prefer grass over leafy forbs, shrubs, and brush. A band of 500-800 ewes was brought in from a neighbouring sheep operation. The sheep are fully shepherded as they graze through problem areas, and penned at night to discourage predation. They have developed a taste for leafy spurge, and can be seen picking off the top blooms as they move across the ranges and coulees. Today, the leafy spurge patches are small and getting smaller.
The main sources of water on the ranch are springs in the hills. Dugouts hold water from the springs, as well as run-off from melting snow and rains. Water is gravity-fed through large black plastic pipes from the hills to the dugouts, and then to water tanks in the lower pastures.
Dugouts are fenced so the cattle don’t have direct access; this insures the quality of the water and the integrity of the dugout itself. Streams in riparian pastures are also fenced off; the pastures are still grazed, but the cattle’s direct access to the stream banks is controlled. Mike says that, given a choice, cattle actually prefer drinking from a water trough to out of a dugout, or even a stream. Cattle, like humans, love convenience.
The sheep, however, have full access to the streams for their water needs. Sheep are far more riparian-area friendly than cattle. Sheep hate getting their feet wet and usually drink from the edge and then quickly back away without ever going into the water source. Mike says the sheep never actually drink from any of the water troughs on the ranch.
The water troughs that are directly spring fed usually stay open in the winter but, if not, then the cattle have to drink directly from a spring or a stream that has open water. When there is clean snow the cattle don’t need water as long as they are grazing; they get their water requirements from the snow. Mike says that although this concept is foreign to many people, it has worked well at this ranch for over 100 years. The same applies to sheep in the maintenance stage of production.
Mike, a keen grazier, understands that grazing cattle and sheep is helping to protect and improve the rangelands to benefit both livestock and wildlife. Mike also believes that the rangelands would benefit from grazing 3,000 or more ewes.
Susan Hosford recently retired after more than 30 years with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, working with the sheep industry.