“The Reason Why We Lowered The Numbers Was To Be Able To Operate More Like A Ranch.”
Research at Agriculture Canada’s Onefour Substation is entering a new era. With the end of the longtime cattle cross-breeding program in the late 1980s and the transfer of the cattle genomics program to the University of Alberta in Edmonton a few years ago, there are more options and opportunities for research at Onefour than ever before.
Ian Walker, ranch manager at Onefour, says the genomics program was one of the longest-running projects at the substation and the biggest change was its move to the university. Today, Walker is busy building a commercial herd to produce stock for cattle studies at the Lethbridge Research Centre.
“We’re in a transition period,” says Walker. “Cattle research here used to be strictly about genetics and genome mapping, but now as we’re rebuilding a commercial-type herd, I expect to see new programs.”
For example, there could be studies on E. coli due to the ability to sample calves from birth, or anything else that needs to be followed from birth to slaughter.
“Basically right now all the calves go to Lethbridge for its feedlot project,” says Walker. “Everything I can raise here for the next three years is already spoken for.”
The herd has always fluctuated in size, from 500 to 1,000 head, but Walker would like to maintain a herd of 550 Hereford-Black Angus and straight Black Angus cows.
“The reason why we lowered the numbers was to be able to operate more like a ranch,” says Walker. “When we had 700 head we began feeding every November and had to use stockpiled grass for winter grazing. With a smaller herd, we can keep it as low input as possible.”
When the genomics program was in place, the herd was half Charolais and half Black Angus. Eventually, the Charolais were sold because they weren’t a “great fit” for the program, despite being ranch raised, says Walker.
“We used to be totally set up to be a purebred place, with single sire breeding and small groups of cattle scattered all over the place,” he says. “Now as we build a commercial herd, we’ve had to remove fence and develop watering systems to handle larger groups of cattle.”
STRICT BREEDING CRITERIA
Despite some challenges, Walker and his crew have held fast to strict breeding and performance criteria, resulting in a superior herd that is closely genetically related. “We haven’t assisted a calving in eight years,” says Walker.
Heifers are exposed to the bulls for only 30 days, while the cow herd is bred for 45 days. Last year, the calves off the first calf heifers were born in March and April, and weaned on September 21. The calves averaged 568 pounds. “It’s a very good herd,” says Walker.
Since the Onefour herd is so similar in genetics, researchers know that the performance will be consistent, enabling accurate and repetitive studies. There’s also the flexibility to collect samples throughout the life cycle of the cattle.
This winter, researchers will be doing projects on castration stress and pain, and trucking stress according to load size and distance, with animals from the Onefour herd. The cattle are also used for a variety of grazing studies, where livestock movement and activities are monitored with satellite tracking collars. Other research projects at the substation in recent years include studies on dung beetles, liver flukes and wood ticks.
While Walker runs the cattle program at Onefour, he receives direction from Brian Freeze, research manager at Lethbridge Research Centre. Onefour represents one of the types of grazing areas for cattle operations – shortgrass prairie. The grazing land at Onefour is really the tip of the top of the Great Plains that go all the way into Texas, says Freeze.
As such, it is a valuable research site for Agriculture Canada, although one of the main grazing researchers, Walter Willms, will be retiring in the next few years and any further studies will be determined by his successor. “The future is uncertain because we’re still looking at what kind of long-term research we’re going to do there,” says Freeze.
Still, Agriculture Canada operates 20 research centres and about as many substations across the country, each of which represents a unique agricultural area. “We don’t want to lose any of them as they will all become more important in the future,” says Freeze.
As a unique example of shortgrass prairie, the substation also welcomes researchers from other institutions such as universities and Environment Canada who are interested in what the area has to offer in terms of landscape and habitat.