Cool Running: Ranching in Alberta’s Cow Country
Three ranchers explain why horses work better than quads, it’s better to let nature run its course and bigger isn’t always better.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
A pasture sits empty, virtually devoid of anything living, unless you count the grasses, which went dormant months ago as winter set in. While it’s –16 Celsius—a relatively balmy winter temperature for Northern Alberta—the wind is howling at about 50 kph and shooting cold like darts into any exposed skin.
Even the cattle up here don’t venture into the open. They choose instead the shelter offered by a sizable stand of poplar and spruce trees. That is, until they hear the tractor.
Like some sort of dinner bell, the sound of the engine bounces off the frosted landscape and calls the cows from the bush. They stream out of the woods faster than one would expect in this kind of cold, only to turn back when the wind hits them.
It’s only a temporary delay, though, as the herd waits for the two tractors to begin spreading oats and shredding hay. And when it’s time, they—some 600 cows and a few calves—barrel forth and line up, with rears facing the wind. As rancher Chris Sloan says, “Our cows are pretty hardy. Smart too.”
Chris, along with his brother Frankie and their father, Frank, run Sloan Cattle Company, a cow/calf operation north of St. Paul, Alberta. With some 30,000 acres owned or managed by them, they believe their ranch is among the 20 largest such concerns in Canada. Of those 20, they’re among the farthest north.
Started by Frank’s father in 1940, the ranch began with just one quarter section, a few hogs and dairy cows. Over the years, the family switched to beef cattle, growing from about 1,000 heifers in the mid-90s—around the time Chris and Frankie joined their father full time—to today’s count of about 6,000 breeding cows.
The Sloans’ pastureland is spread over some 130 km, while the land on which they grow hay—producing as much as 35,000 round bales in years past—is as far away as 150 km. “One of the challenges of having [so many] cows,” says Chris, “is finding the feed for them. We fight as hard as we can to graze six months out of the year and feed six months. That’s why we make so much hay and bale so much straw,” as many as 1,000 bales a day, adds Chris.
According to the Sloans, they don’t use hormones, steroids or routine antibiotics on their herds, which can swell to some 11,000 head after calving season. “We try to let nature [run] its course,” Chris says, then adds, “In our bigger pastures we try to rotational graze and save grass for next year. You never know what next year is going to bring. It might be dry and that grass might be a savior.”
Considering the size of their operation, not to mention the era in which they work, it’s a bit of a surprise for folks not familiar with the area that the Sloans still rely extensively on horses to herd cattle. “We run cows mostly in bush pastures,” says Frank, “and you have to have a horse in the bush pastures. A quad will not work in the trees.”
Frank explains that they also use horses to sort each cow/calf pair in spring. He says the horses and cows work well together in this process—better than humans alone or on machines. “It’s way easier sorting your pairs with horses than it is with a quad.”
Having weathered a difficult drought in the mid-2000s, as well as a scare in 2003 involving BSE, aka mad cow disease, much of the Alberta cattle industry has rebounded. “Grains are lower [priced],” Chris says. “Supplies are tight on beef; our [Canadian] dollar, as we’re talking to you, is below 80 cents.” (That figure was from last February. As of October, it was even lower at 77 cents against the U.S. dollar.)
Even the price of local labor, which has experienced historically high demand in recent decades due to the strength of the local oil industry, has decreased in the past year due to the falling price of crude. In Alberta alone, which includes the overwhelming majority of Canada’s oil reserves, energy sector jobs are expected to be reduced by about 38% in 2015.
“Right now,” says Chris, “I would think that the way everything is going for the cow/calf guy, especially in Canada, is almost like the perfect storm, in a good way.” Perhaps the outlook is even better for the Sloans, who positioned themselves well in the aftermath of a downturn several years ago. Beginning in 2009, says Chris, “bred cows were very inexpensive here because of a drought, so we started buying cows then. We had enough feed and we’ve just kept expanding.”
As for what’s ahead, drought remains a frequent problem. This summer the area near St. Paul and the Sloan ranch received about 20% less rainfall than average. As a result, Chris says the price of feed has increased and the pastures, even with the Sloans’ rotational grazing practices, were running low in late September, which is about a month shy of a normal year.
Still, says Chris, “The cattle industry really seems optimistic now. I think we’re hitting a high part of the cycle, but I think we’re going to be OK for two or three years. It’s going to take a long time to build the numbers back in Canada and the U.S. to make our herds where they might get overpopulated and have low [prices] again.”
When is big too big?
In the meantime, Frank, Chris and Frankie, who recently began working his own separate cattle operation in addition to the family’s, contemplate their future and how they plan to approach it. All concede that growth has changed how they operate, especially Chris, who spends more time managing and less time in the field. “As much as I hate to admit it,” says Chris, “the business … may be getting too big. It wasn’t that many years ago … it was just Dad and one hired guy who [worked the ranch]. Now we seem to have six hired guys going.
“My favorite job in the world,” continues Chris, “is to feed cows. I haven’t fed them in a long time, just ’cause I’m too busy doing other stuff.”
Change, however, is a possibility. “We might just reduce the herd to 2,000 cows and be a lot more laid back,” says Chris, who then pauses, shrugs his shoulders and adds, “Or else it might be 10,000. I can’t tell you yet. Come visit me in five years and I’ll let you know.”
Future plans notwithstanding, all three agree they’re fortunate to farm with each other. “I love working with my family,” says Frankie. “Every day, I’m just happy to wake up and go do my job.”
Adds Frank: “I like working with these two and seeing them grow up on the farm. And it’s an awful nice sight to see 650 cows lining up, eating their oats behind a spreader. There’s satisfaction in knowing that you’ve done that … that you’ve raised that food for the whole world.”