Ranchers along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains watched her as she made her way through the foothills, walking for miles and miles and forcing her way through every fence until she reached her destination.
That old cow just had to get back to Waldron Ranch.
“She does it every year after weaning,” said Mike Roberts, manager of Waldron Ranch. “Her owner thought she was too old to do it one more time, but she was determined to come. This is her winter home away from home.”
If the Waldron seems a little like a vacation destination for cattle, that’s not far off from the truth. Tucked away in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, the scenic 65,000-acre ranch operates a bit like a timeshare for cattle.
Shareholders in the Waldron Grazing Co-operative bring their cattle to the ranch starting in June, and then they come and go until the end of March according to the needs of their operations. For the cattle, this resort — er, ranch — is all inclusive. The shares and grazing fees cover everything from manpower and medicine to taxes and equipment.
And, of course, the all-you-can-eat native grassland buffet. But the only way in is with a share, and the 70 existing shareholders aren’t parting with theirs any time soon.
“They’re a pretty hot item,” noted Roberts. “I have a waiting list.”
The Waldron may seem exclusive, but it needs to be. Every year, roughly 13,000 head of cattle graze the grasslands, and for the shareholders, the ranch has become a necessary supplement for their own operations.
“We have to preserve this land for the long term,” said Roberts. “An awful lot of farmers rely on this as an extension to their ranch. If this gets abused and they come to a year where they’ve got nowhere to go, they’re in dire straits.”
In order to maintain the land from year to year, the Waldron has implemented a system for managing the number of cattle on the grass at any given time.
With one share, a farmer can typically graze 4.2 pairs for five months, but during the peak season of June, shares only count for half. During July and August, shares are valued at par, increasing by 1.25 in September and October. During the rest of the grazing season, shares are worth 1.5 their base value.
“That’s to encourage people to come later in the season when the grass has had lots of time to grow and the root system is strong,” said Roberts.
And the ranchers see the benefit of this system — not only for the land itself, but also for their bottom lines.
“It’s a big savings for the ranchers themselves,” said Roberts. “The cost per day in the winter months is about 83 cents a day. If you can feed a cow for 83 cents a day, your chances of making money are pretty good.”
The Waldron is able to keep feeding costs low because it focuses solely on grazing the native grasslands.
“We don’t calf, we don’t feed, we don’t brand. It’s strictly for grazing — a ranch in the true sense.”
That also means that in droughts or hard winters, the grass comes first.
“If things get tough, those cows got to go home. If it comes to sacrificing, it ain’t going to be done here.”
But part of the ranch’s stringent management plan is making sure they can survive a drought without impacting shareholders.
“Our livelihood depends on healthy grass, so we have a lot of experience in it,” said Roberts. “We manage for drought, and if it rains, we’re winning.”
One of the ways they do that is by cell grazing some pastures. They began cell grazing around 1,300 head of yearlings in 50-acre blocks a few years ago, and so far, the results speak for themselves.
“They perform quite well,” said Roberts. “We get 1-3/4 pounds to almost two pounds of gain a day on heifers, which is real good.”
That’s partially because of the blend of tame and native grasses, he added. While the majority of the Waldron is in native grass, some areas had been cultivated in the past, giving the cattle the nutrition they need all throughout the grazing season.
“If they have a choice, they will graze the tame grass in the summer, but after it freezes a few times, the food value in the tame grass goes to nothing and the native grass holds its food value,” said Roberts.
“Here, where we have lots of chinooks, the cattle can graze it through the snow pretty good.”
The Waldron’s board sets the stocking rate, which can change from year to year based on how productive each cell is, but they aren’t “packed” with cattle. Typically, the cattle start on the tame grass fields during the first week of June, and move to native grass around July 10. They hit that for three days, and then that’s it for that cell for the season.
“It gives it the whole rest of the year to rest,” he said. “Over 99 per cent of the time, the grass is resting. We want it to be healthy and productive.”
Roughly 20 per cent of the cells won’t be grazed at all in a given year, so every five years, a cell will get a complete rest — another backup plan for drought.
“If it gets real dry, we’ve got a place to go.”
By protecting the land in this way, Roberts hopes the Waldron will remain just as it is now for future generations of ranchers. And a historic conservation easement on the land all but guarantees it.
Five years ago, the Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased a conservation easement in a deal worth $37.5 million (with co-op members contributing nearly a third of that and the provincial and federal governments contributing $16.2 million). The agreement protects nearly 31,000 acres from cultivation, subdivision, and development — the largest conservation agreement in Canadian history.
“As a conservation organization, we try to conserve places that have high conservation value,” Larry Simpson, the conservancy’s associate regional vice-president, said at the time of the purchase. “The Waldron certainly fits that description.”
The Waldron received $15 million in cash that allowed the co-op to purchase another 14,000 acres of grassland, which is also under a conservation easement. Through this agreement, the Waldron Grazing Co-operative and the Nature Conservancy have been able to preserve this last remaining stand of the Northern Great Plains from further development now and into the future.
“It’s slowly fragmenting — this last majestic place in Alberta — and we feel like we’re in a race to help where we can,” said Simpson. “The Waldron is a good first step.”
“It was a very good deal.”