“It’s amazing what’s been done here.”
Tucked into the southeast corner of Alberta is a short-grass prairie ranch not too different from its neighbours, but at the same time unique in its characteristics and activities. As a research substation of Agriculture Canada, Onefour is a stronghold of forage and cattle research.
Ian Walker, ranch manager at Onefour for the past 10 years and a member of the ranch’s cattle crew in the 1980s, has seen the substation go through many changes, especially in operations. “It’s amazing what’s been done here,” he says.
The 42,600-acre ranch, located about 2.5 hours south of Medicine Hat, is characterized by abundant sunshine, low precipitation, extremes in temperature and frequent high winds. Part of the land is owned by Agriculture Canada, while the rest is leased from the Alberta government.
Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 cattle have roamed the landscape as part of the substation’s cattle research program, although today Walker aims to maintain a herd of 550. In the past, sheep were also a fixture on the fields. Established in 1927, the headquarters area of the substation has evolved from tents near a spring to a town-like cluster of houses, offices and animal-handling facilities.
According to John Lawson in his book, 75 Years of Research: 1927-2002 Research Substation, Onefour,” in the summer of 1927, L.B. Thomson, a field husbandman and later first head of the PFRA, and S.E. Clarke, an assistant agrologist, set up camp to survey topography, soil and vegetation, and start preparing grazing projects. Permanent headquarters were developed nearby, with an office building, small forage laboratory, cookhouse and homesteader shacks.
The land location of the original site was SW15 T1 R4, hence the name Onefour. As the ranch
grew, headquarters moved to SW15 T2 R4, but Walker said no one was interested in changing the name to “Twofour.”
In 1929, a residence was constructed for the superintendent and another one was built in 1935. Office buildings were built in 1939 and 1958 to accommodate an increased number of staff and research projects. Other residences were constructed or moved onto the ranch, buildings changed uses and eventually the headquarters became a busy hub with a store, school and assembly hall.
By 2002,however, two duplexes, a few houses, the cookhouse and two trailers were the only remaining residences at the substation. While the ranch itself has undergone major changes throughout its history, some things never change, like its remote location.
Lawson reports that the first telephone line came to the substation in 1931. It was a single wire, built on small poles attached to fence posts. In 1981, the substation had buried telephone cable, but it was the last rural area in Alberta to receive it. Today, cellphones are commonly used but the Internet is still dialup, so “don’t send any photos,” says Walker.
It is recorded that as many as 23 granaries (the earliest built in 1924) were located on the substation, most of which were constructed from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s. Livestockhandling facilities included sheep corrals, shearing sheds and lambing sheds, until the sheep program was discontinued in 1978.
Since initial cattle research focused on management procedures for handling, treating or marketing cattle, determining the effects of climate and assessing forages and feed supplements for range cattle, the only infrastructure required were small corrals and a small barn.
However, when bison and cattalo (a mixed breed of cattle and bison) arrived in 1950 at the outset of the substation’s genomics program, a sturdy set of corrals were required. A steel shed, feedlot and feed mill soon followed.
In 1998, a new calving facility was completed, housing an office and laboratory, two hospital pens, 10 maternity pens and a work area used for calving assistance that contained a chute and squeeze on a scale. “We have as good cattle-handling facilities as anywhere,” says Walker. “We’re a big ranch with the capability for growth.”
Today, there are four full-time staff, including Walker, a senior herdsman and two other herdsmen or cowboys. Some of the staff have houses away from the ranch and they all work 10 days on, four days off.
Together, the four staff manage the livestock, 250 miles of barbed wire fence and 25 active wells on about 66 sections of land. Walker says they like to use horses as much as possible to check fences and fields, but off-highways vehicles are also used, especially for fencing.
Walker recognizes that the ranch is a government entity that theoretically could end at any time, but he doubts that will happen due to more than 80 years of valuable research, including unprecedented cattle herd data and genetics.