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Life on the farm no simple affair - cowhands can’t rush at huge B.C. operation

The Edmonton Journal, Wed 09 Nov 2005, By David Finlayson

EDMONTON - Being the cow boss at Canada’s largest ranch has its challenges, especially when animals are scattered over 95 kilometres one way and 50 kilometres the other.

“We’re really no different than any other cow-calf operation. Things just take a little longer,” said Stan Jacobs, who has worked at Douglas Lake Cattle Company for 18 years.

With a base herd of 7,000 cows and 16,000 to 20,000 animals on the ranch in any given year, fall roundup can take a little time.

They start gathering the yearlings in September and by late October they’re shipped out. The calves are weaned by Christmas, and in January they’ll start feeding the cows to help them get through the winter near Merritt, B.C.

The 75 cowhands still use horses because of the fragile grassland, and they’re pretty blunt with outsiders who try to take any kind of offroad vehicle onto the property, said Jacobs.

His team was at Farmfair International’s first-ever rodeo Monday and Tuesday competing against working cowboys from 12 other Western Canada heritage ranches.

The cattle are pretty much left to fend for themselves for 11 months of the year, just as they have for the 120 year history of the ranch.

“Weather is probably the biggest challenge we have,” Jacobs said. “The cattle are at the mercy of whatever is happening, and it’s not just about whether it’s warm or cold.”

If it’s too dry for long periods, as it often is in that part of central B.C., they can lose animals. So when they’re buying breeding stock they look for the tough genetics.

The ranch, owned by disgraced Edmonton-born businessman Bernie Ebbers until 2003, has its own town with a school and church. And many of the hands have been at Douglas Lake all their working lives, Jacobs said.

“There’s not much about the life I don’t like. It’s beautiful country, we’re working with great animals, and the company treats us pretty good.”

The biggest challenge for Vern Lonsberry, cattle sales manager for the Western Feedlots group in High River who was also at Farm Fair, isn’t pushing 200,000 animals a year through the three feedlots. It isn’t even keeping track of the 4,000 to 6,000 cattle they put out on the range every summer.

It’s attracting people to the industry when they can make way more money in the booming oilpatch.

“We can’t afford to pay $20 to $25 an hour, and the oil industry is taking over all the labour in the province,” said

Lonsberry, whose Round T Ranch team also competed in the ranch rodeo.

He’d like to have 70 people working at Canada’s largest custom feedlot company but right now it’s quite a bit less than that.

But they’re able to keep the High River, Strathmore and Mossleigh operations running smoothly through high-tech systems the early cowboys would never have dreamed of.

The Round T started life in the 1880s, producing polo ponies for the ex-pat Brits that came over to settle the vast southern Alberta range.

It changed hands several times until a group of ranchers started the custom cattle feeding business in 1958 as an alternative to shipping their calves and feed grains to Eastern Canada for finishing.

Now, in addition to the feedlots, Western operates a feed grains trading division, a commercial feedlot software development venture, cattle and feed finance facilities and commodities consulting.

Information is paramount at Western and customers are provided with whatever level of detail they require, Lonsberry said. The software venture, a custom database called Feedback, records all production and operational activities including animal feeding, health treatment, marketing, and carcass evaluation.

The ranch rodeo circuit is a welcome change from the daily routine, and Lonsberry said the cowboys are having a great time at Farmfair, despite some expected first night glitches Monday.

Farmfair runs through Sunday, with cattle taking centre stage for the rest of this week.


Posted by FFC on June 10th, 2009 :: Filed under Beef cattle,Canada,Farm life
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One Response to “Life on the farm no simple affair - cowhands can’t rush at huge B.C. operation”

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    August 16th, 2013

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