A donation of a fully working ranch — worth an astounding $44 million — will transform the University of Calgary faculty of veterinary medicine into one of the world’s top centres for animal health and welfare research.
“For us, the gift from Jack Anderson and his daughter Wynne Chisholm and the families of this ranch is a major platform for teaching, research, community, and industry outreach,” said Baljit Singh, dean of the veterinary school.
Anderson and Chisholm donated WA Ranches — 19,000 acres north and east of Cochrane, and its entire herd — 1,000 Angus mother cows plus bulls.
Chisholm owns the ranch with her 91-year-old father, and farms it with husband Bob but no one in the next generation wanted to take it over.
“We had built something wonderful and we didn’t want to sell it to an auction or sell it to a larger operation (and) we’re too big for an employee buyout,” she said.
In addition to preserving the ranch’s legacy, the family wanted to ensure their five staff members remain employed, and that youth could be involved in the operation. That got them thinking of the university’s veterinary school and their long relationship with both the school and its students.
“We’ve had vet students and faculty out here ever since they’ve had students,” said Chisholm.
The bond had deepened in 2014, when she and her father gave the university $5 million to create the Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare.
“We knew from that relationship that UCVM was missing a dedicated cattle ranch for research, teaching, and outreach,” said Chisholm. “They are currently using farms like ours. They are spread out all over the province. That adds costs to their projects and gives them variable data due to diverse ranching practices.
“It was starting to reach the point where it was hampering the recruitment of students and faculty, and the growth of the overall program.”
After some serious discussions in the family, they began talking to Singh and Ed Pajor, an internationally renowned professor of animal behaviour and welfare who holds the chair endowed by Anderson and Chisholm.
“Their generosity is really humbling for us,” said Singh. “It will have such a profound impact on our programs.”
Having an entire working ranch with a large herd will allow the school to conduct research that will impact the entire cattle sector, he said.
“This really puts our researchers in the area of cattle health at a totally different level and really sets us up at a major global leadership role when it comes to the beef cattle health and wellness programs whether they are in the area of health or research,” said Singh.
Scholars, teachers, and industry people will be welcome to use the ranch to develop knowledge and scientific information, he added.
“For example, we are not just going to do research as to how to keep the cattle healthy,” he said. “We are going to keep an eye out for how to shape federal policy when it comes to animal and food movement across provincial and international borders.”
Pajor will become the first director of the ranch, and will lead the development of a strategy to implement the university’s vision for it in the coming years.
“This is the largest donation of a ranch to a veterinary program at a university in Canada,” said Singh. “We really want to do some due deliberation and thoughtfulness to help the beef industry in Alberta and across the nation and globally. So the vision is very high and it’s very big.”
The donation fulfils a long-standing need held by the veterinary school, said Pajor.
“We’ve recognized that the opportunity to have a research and a teaching herd would be a real benefit to our students and our researchers,” he said. “This really does address that need in particular.”
Conducting research and training in a real ranch setting is invaluable, he said.
“It’s that much more applicable for the ranchers and we can also do that type of workshop for the veterinarians who are in the province and are looking for continuing education opportunities,” said Pajor.
The ranch’s legacy will remain, and its name will be WA Ranches at the University of Calgary.
“UCVM is one of the top 50 vet schools in the world,” said Pajor. “With the faculty and this kind of facility, this will make it into the top centre in the world for excellence in beef research and animal health and welfare.”
The transaction won’t be finalized until Nov. 30 — to allow the Anderson-Chisholm family and their employees to conduct one last fall run.
“We’re still actively running a ranch,” said Chisholm. “So we’re making all our plans for gathering up our herd from our various summer pastures, and doing our sale plans for our calves, because our calves aren’t part of the gift.”
Anderson, who had oil and gas interests but re-entered the cattle business after purchasing the ranch in 2005, will be able to take his weekly drive to check the cows. The family will be allowed to visit the ranch if they like.
But it’s not just the cows they’ll be keeping an eye on.
“I’m really excited about all the scientific evidence-based discoveries that they will make and how they will improve animal care and welfare,” said Chisholm. “It will enhance the industry overall because of the outreach component that is part of the gift.
“And it will inform the public so that there is more solid information out there about where our food comes from and how animals actually get treated and what is animal care.”