Malcolm Miller, pasture manager at the Pembina Provincial Grazing Reserve (PPGR) and his team prefer to manage their pasture the cowboy way, using stockmanship and horses instead of quads.
“We endeavour to handle our stock quietly and without stress,” said Miller. “By using horses, we can do that, two people can do all the riding and move the cattle quite easily. We work our cattle and get them trained.”
The reserve has two full-time staff and three who work on call.
The PPGR is a community pasture where about 19,000 acres are being actively grazed. Community pastures are a practical and attractive option for people who don’t have enough pasture available for their own grazing needs.
While Saskatchewan and Manitoba former PFRA community pastures were scheduled for closure in the recent federal budget, Alberta’s pastures have always been under provincial control. Prior to 1996, the provincial grazing program was managed by government, but by 1999, operations of all 32 grazing reserves had been turned over to grazing associations across the province.
There are about 1,400 cow-calf pairs and about 260 yearling heifers on the reserve, grazing from late May to late October.
The PPGR is located in the heart of oil and gas country and co-operation between the energy companies and the reserve is one of the challenges the Pembina Grazing Association (PGA) faces.
“When you put in a road or wellsite, it results in a loss of grass if it’s on pasture,” said Stewart McKay, assistant rangeland manager and supervisor for the southwest area of grazing reserves with Alberta Environment. “You lose that area, or a part of it.”
Oil and gas activity increases traffic in the pastures, and problems can be encountered if oil workers forget to close gates. “It’s a busy area and there’s a lot of activity out there,” said McKay.
Any rancher who wants to use the grazing reserve must become a member of the PGA. Patrons have to apply annually to graze their cattle.
The reserve charges its patrons $16.50 per animal unit (cow-calf pair) per month. Miller said this is low compared to the cost of grazing private land, which costs around $18 to $20 per animal unit per month.
A board of directors is appointed to run pasture business. All of the grazing reserves work independently and set up their own fee structures and guidelines. Most of the grazing reserves in the province, including the PPGR, are self-sufficient, though they often make use of government programs for activities such as spraying and fencing.
Cattle in the PPGR are divided into five different herds and rotationally graze through five or six pastures.
“Our main goals are maintaining the health of the cattle and treating the grass as a sustainable, renewable resource,” said Miller. “We try to manage for the long term.”
There are cattle from all over the province in the PPGR. Ranchers from Vulcan, Blackie and Delburne transport their cattle to the area, while other cattle hail from Big Valley, Innisfail, Drayton Valley and Tomahawk. Cattle in the grazing reserve have to be branded, dehorned and have national ID tags. Cows from multiple patrons are mixed together and cleanup bulls occupy some of the pastures.
The PPGR has fenced dugouts with water pumped by solar units to 50 steel tanks around the reserve. The pumps can be moved, but tank locations are permanent.
Using the tanks keeps the cattle out of the dugouts and ensures clean water. Miller said the clean, fresh water use may be one of the reasons why the cattle in the grazing reserve remain so healthy.