Making environmental stewardship pay in many different ways

Environmental stewardship award honours southern Alberta ranchers who pride themselves on conservation

Deer Creek Livestock Co.’s land has changed a lot in the past nine years as the grassland has improved, the wildlife has increased, and the stocking rates have gone up.

It’s the combination of improving both productivity and the environment in tandem that earned the operation the 2020 Environmental Stewardship award from the Alberta Beef Producers last month.

Jeff Smith.
photo: Supplied

“We’re really focused on the overall health of the ranch in general,” said Jeff Smith, a shareholder who is also vice-chair of Canada Beef.

Smith and his fellow shareholders purchased the ranch in 2011 from the Gilchrist family, who owned the operation since the 1930s. The ranch, which is about 47,000 acres, supports 1,200 cattle.

Following a suggestion from previous owner Tom Gilchrist, the shareholders partnered with Multisar, an organization that works with landowners and ranchers to promote habitat stewardship and wildlife conservation.

“They’re a very good partner that brings scopes and values to things we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish without their knowledge,” said Smith.

Water scarcity is a big factor at Deer Creek Livestock, especially in the past few dry years in southern Alberta. The Milk River runs through the ranch and solar panel watering systems pump water away from the river to keep cattle off the banks.

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“We’re blessed with water and on dry years we can utilize it for the irrigation potential but that also means we have to protect it,” said James Bekkering, another shareholder. “We have to be stewards of the environment no matter what we do. We want to leave the land and where we live in a better place for the next generation. I think the future looks good for us.”

The operation, which also uses solar-powered electric fencing, is built around year-round rotational grazing.

“The cattle move around throughout the year. They’re in their winter field. They will stay there from now until February or March,” said Smith.

Multisar has provided the shareholders and their staff with recommendations and ideas to promote conservation on their land.

“They respect that the ranch is better maintained for wildlife if it is utilized properly,” said Smith. “In the last eight years, we have increased our wildlife out there. From the conservation side of things, the riparian areas have improved. The grass has improved.

“On the cattle side of things, we’ve been able to increase our stocking density in areas.”

The land has been assessed almost every year, and the overall health of the ranch has improved. More than 103 wildlife species call the ranch home, and many of these species have increased in population in recent years.

“In some of the assessments, they’ve also shown us areas where the grouse have increased,” said Smith.

Deer Creek Livestock continues to make improvements. When fencing is replaced, smooth wire is used, which is a wildlife-friendly alternative for the pronghorn antelope on the ranch. Cows and Fish has done assessment of the riparian areas to measure and benchmark the riparian health, and the operation has achieved Verified Beef Production Plus certification.

The shareholder group, which also includes Gateway Livestock, Richard Visser and Doug Turner, along with respective family members, all have unique skill sets they can bring to the table, said Smith.

“There’s a lot of us who contribute to it,” he said. “We all have our different areas of responsibilities. My wife does the bookkeeping. Myself and James are in charge of the cow-calf operation. My dad, Les, does a lot of work with the grass rotation.”

Being open with the knowledge allows the general manager, Hugh Vandersteen, the confidence to work as a member of the team with the guidance of the shareholders, he added.

The operation runs with a board of directors, three full-time staff and one part-time employee.

“Our mission is to provide a safe and quality beef product to all society,” said Smith. “The other thing we focus on is that we depend on the environment to produce the best-quality beef that we can, and our customer depends on us to protect that environment.” — With files from Alberta Beef Producers

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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