W.A. Ranches hoping to reel in youth

U of Calgary’s working cattle ranch viewed as an ideal setting to showcase farming to young people

First-year veterinary students from the University of Calgary tour W.A. Ranches in 2019. A new program funded by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Foundation aims to bring more young people, including those with no exposure to agriculture and farming, to the working ranch.
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[UPDATED: June 22, 2021] Get them when they’re young.

That’s the new strategy from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Foundation and the University of Calgary’s W.A. Ranches when it comes to attracting youth to the beef industry.

And there’s no better way to get people interested in the beef industry than letting them get onto a ranch, said Ed Pajor, a director of the working cattle operation.

“We hope to have much broader, more meaningful experiences at the ranch,” said Pajor, a professor of animal care and welfare at the U of Calgary. “We’ll have things that require multiple visits to the ranch to understand the industry and how the beef cycle works.”

*The Canadian Cattlemen’s Foundation provided $150,000 to launch a new national program targeting rural and urban youth.

The program will be fully developed when a co-ordinator is hired. But both Pajor, and foundation chair Bob Lowe see a lot of possibilities that can be built on the current research projects and educational activities.

“There’s always lots happening at the ranch — everything from understanding water quality to the quality of the soils, from new technology to how the business runs,” said Pajor. “There could be a wide variety of things that would not just be about exposing youth to animals, but also exposing youth to agriculture and the complexities of the agriculture industry.”

Exposing youth to agriculture, whether in person or virtually, is the goal of a new program at W.A. Ranches, says Ed Pajor, a director of the U of Calgary facility. photo: Jager and Ko

A big part of that is giving youth the opportunity to get up close to animals, and see the amount of care that people put into raising cattle and into environmental stewardship. It’s hoped this will encourage young people to take an interest in the beef industry, and possibly pursue a career such as rural veterinary medicine.

The rise of Zoom and other teleconferencing platforms during the pandemic has also opened up new possibilities.

“Only so many people can come to the ranch in a single year,” said Pajor. “So we have to develop a way of taking the ranch to other places, through a virtual platform, that makes it easier to spread it out on a national level.”

Lowe said the program could eventually be a model for other universities across the country.

“The U of C’s student body is international, and it did meet our qualifications in the national scope,” he said.

The goal is to create a unique program but also to work with other youth-focused ones.

“We’re happy to work with other organizations, such as Ag in the Classroom, and 4-H. They have excellent programs. We’re probably looking more at high school or university level to complement,” said Pajor.

The timing is right for this type of program, said both Lowe and Pajor.

The pandemic brought attention to the food supply chain, making people more aware of their food and more curious about where it comes from. The cattle industry should capitalize on that interest as soon as possible, said Lowe.

“I’ve said forever that it doesn’t matter how good we do things,” he said. “If people don’t buy, we don’t get to produce it. Part of sustainability is being able to keep going.

“Anything we can do in today’s world to promote good sustainable food production has to happen. This is part of that.”

The project is already generating lots of positive feedback, added Pajor.

“It’s an important time,” he said. “There is much higher interest (in food). If we can help fill some of that space by providing accurate information and experiences to demonstrate the effort that goes into raising animals for food production, I think that’s a positive thing.”

In addition to its $100,000 donation, the cattlemen’s foundation is also giving $50,000 to Ag in the Classroom.

W.A. Ranches, a 19,000-acre operation near Cochrane, was donated to the University of Calgary in 2018 by rancher Jack Anderson and his daughter Wynne Chisholm for research and educational opportunities for its veterinary school and other faculties. But a youth program was also a goal of the donors.

The ranch is located less than an hour’s drive from Calgary and so its initial programming will focus on Alberta but an advisory board will be set up to help make it national in scope.

“There are a lot of different audiences for this initiative,” said Pajor.

*Update: The article previously stated the Canadian Cattlemen’s Foundation donated $100,000 to the University of Calgary’s W.A. Ranches to launch a new national program. In fact, the amount donated was $150,000.

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, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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