Beef North Travels West

Spreading the Word about Beef North Across the Country

By Emily Potter, Beef North Project Assistant

In June, I had the opportunity to travel out to Williams Lake, British Columbia to speak to local ranchers and students in the Applied Sustainable Ranching program at Thompson Rivers University about the Beef North project. As part of Beef Farmers of Ontario’s Growing Forward 2 project to help spur beef expansion in Northern Ontario, this trip was part of our strategy for generating awareness about beef farming opportunities in Northern Ontario with students and young and expanding producers across Ontario and the country. The trip was also about learning what beef producers are doing in other parts of the country to grow the industry and encourage the next generation of producers.

The Applied Sustainable Ranching program at Thompson Rivers University is a unique program. It was introduced a few years ago and the students currently in the program are the first cohort to go through it. As a two-year diploma program, it is split into 12-week blocks focused on specific topics such as business enterprise, environmentally sustainable ranching, and hands-on skills and diversification (including fencing, animal housing and handling system design, animal care, dog training, horsemanship, equipment maintenance, and other topics important for being successful in the ranching business in British Columbia). The second year focuses on beef production, sheep production, winter forage production, agri- and soft-adventure tourism, and final business plan development.

The Applied Sustainable Ranching program has a mix of students from British Columbia and across Canada, including a few from as far as Quebec, and then a handful of international students from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Brazil and Ghana. The students are involved in ranch life right from the start, either working on their own ranch or someone else’s to pay for room and board. The majority of the program is based on hands-on learning, and then they spend about 20 hours a week in class or working on homework.

While visiting Thompson Rivers University, I spoke to a group of several dozen students and local ranchers who came to see what Beef North is all about. We talked about Ontario’s beef industry and Northern Ontario, and how we are supporting producers who are expanding or starting a beef operation there. I was able to talk about my own farm a bit to give a real-life example of what it’s like to farm in Northern Ontario. The class had lots of great questions, particularly about support programs available to farmers in Northern Ontario and land prices. Land prices around Williams Lake are comparable to Northern Ontario, but if you were to go south towards Chilliwack, you’d be looking at anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per acre.

I also had the chance to hear some other speakers on the day’s agenda, who talked about managing grasslands to mitigate and adapt to climate change. There’s great research being done in British Columbia about improving grasslands and their capacity for carbon sequestration through management intensive grazing systems, which aren’t as common out there as is in Ontario.

As I had never been to British Columbia before, I was not entirely sure what to expect in terms of beef production there. Gillian Watt, the Applied Sustainable Ranching program director, toured me around some of the students’ ranches near Williams Lake to give me a better idea of what ranches and beef production are like there. It was a great learning opportunity and a chance to see a different agricultural system at work. 

British Columbia’s environment is extremely diverse, from a temperate rainforest along the coast, to snow-covered mountains, to almost desert-like grasslands in the interior along the Fraser and Thompson rivers (in the middle of the mountain range). In the interior, it is very dry without much rainfall, so it’s necessary to irrigate many pastures and hay fields. Because of the climate, beef producers require a lot more land per animal than we do in Ontario (they use “animal unit month” or AUM – the amount of feed required for one cow-calf pair in a month). Their cattle also need to be well adapted to walking long distances to feed and water, as well as the hot and dry environment. For these reasons, ranchers in British Columbia often use smaller breeds, like Herefords and Angus, or smaller framed continental breeds.

The day I was there presenting, I tagged along with students who were heading out to Empire Valley Ranch, one of the oldest ranches in British Columbia. It was almost a 3-hour drive southwest from Williams Lake along the Fraser River. This ranch is located within a provincial park called Churn Creek Protected Area, where tens of thousands of acres of grasslands are protected. Interestingly, the vision statement of the Churn Creek Protected Area is to “conserve and restore nationally significant grasslands and wildlife populations while maintaining a viable, year-round working ranch.” Having an operational ranch on a provincial park and protected area is part of what makes it unique. While there, we were able to see three different classes of grass

lands (upper, middle, lower). The most abundant species were bluebunch wheatgrass, big sagebrush and pasture sage. The ground was covered in a fragile microbiotic crust consisting of lichens, mosses and cyanobacteria, making the grasslands very sensitive. Interestingly, alfalfa is considered an invasive species there because it is not as well adapted to the environment as the native species.

Seeing these grasslands put beef production in British Columbia into perspective for me. Use of Crown land, whether protected grasslands like Churn Creek or elsewhere, is very important for beef producers there. Ranchers are able to go through an application process to lease the Crown land, and cattle are often moved onto Crown range land in late May, staying there until September or October. It was clear from my visit to Churn Creek Protected Area and Empire Valley Ranch that beef production and environmental protection on Crown land are not mutually exclusive.

Overall, it was definitely worth the trip to British Columbia to talk about Northern Ontario beef farming opportunities and to learn from what they are doing. The students and producers were enthusiastic to learn about Beef North, and I was able to take home some ideas from their sustainable ranching program, as well.

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