First the cows, then the grass, and then the soil

Winner of top environmental award for cattle producers says stewardship is a journey that never ends

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‘Sustainable’ isn’t a word that finds a lot of favour with this year’s winner of one of the provincial farm sector’s leading environmental awards.

“I prefer to use the word regenerative,” Ian Murray says in a video portraying the work he and wife Carman have done at Shoestring Ranch.

“I don’t want our ranch to sustain itself and be what it is now in 10 or 20 years. I want it to be better, I want to go beyond sustainability.”

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The Acme-area rancher also views the Alberta Beef Producers’ Environmental Stewardship Award as more of a recognition of progress, rather than achievement.

“I don’t think anyone who is on this path ever gets to the end of it,” he says. “I don’t think anybody has ever won this award based on the culmination of your life’s events… It is more of a recognition for being on the path.

“I don’t think anybody who is on this path ever gets to the end of it. There’s always something more to accomplish, to make something a little bit better.”

Part of that journey on Shoestring Ranch has involved changes such as calving in May and June instead of March so cows have the richest supply of grass when lactating; fencing off dugouts and employing solar waterers; and swath and bale grazing instead of “hauling that feed around.”

But Murray’s focus is increasingly on soil health.

“I’ve dedicated the last 10 years to really improving my knowledge of grassland management. As one of my mentors told me, ‘It’s an evolution, it’s a progression. You begin focusing on the cows and then you begin focusing on the grass, and the grass takes care of the cows.

“And then you begin focusing on the soil and then everything changes.”

Two of the organizations that Murray has chaired — the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association and ARECA (Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta) — have been leaders in the province in promoting soil health.

The fifth-generation rancher — his family homesteaded in the Jumping Pound area in 1883 — runs 180 pairs and retains calves for a natural beef program on the operation that he and Carman started. The couple has two children, Ty and Amber.

The 2018 Environmental Stewardship Award video on Shoestring Ranch can be found on Vimeo.

The award, which dates back more than 25 years, is presented annually to the beef producer who best exemplifies environmentally sustainable cattle production. Award candidates are nominated by their peers and they are assessed by a panel of representatives from conservation and agriculture organizations. The panel looks at factors such as land management, water quality, wildlife, animal welfare, and leadership activities in the community related to stewardship. Nominations close July 1 each year.

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