The lost gem of the PFRA Community Pastures

Article and photos by Katie Doke Sawatzky

Published Oct 1, 2018 3:30 PM

Spring rains have made the mixed grasses of Saskatchewan’s southwest greener than they’ve been after a year of drought. Sagebrush glows silver-blue against rippling crested wheatgrass. Walking in this country feels strangely like wading on the shore, but instead of an ocean tide drawing you to deeper water, a persistent wind pushes you forward, bends your head and forces your gaze downward, to the grass at your feet.

Conservation cowboy

Mert Taylor figures he’s ridden 300,000 miles on horseback over Saskatchewan’s prairie grasslands.

“No wonder my arse gets sore,” chuckled the 68-year-old from Maple Creek.

Taylor, who retired in 2014, spent 43 years working for the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration’s Community Pasture Program, or in short form, the PF pastures. Twelve of those years were spent as a rider before he became manager of Lone Tree pasture from 1983 to 1989 and of Big Stick pasture from 1989 to 2014. Lone Tree is 50 kilometres southwest of Val Marie in the southwest corner of the province. Big Stick is 30 km north of Maple Creek.

“I rode a horse for a fellow one time and he said the PFRA pastures were where all the real cowboys were, so I figured that that was for me and I guess I never really grew out of it,” Taylor said.

Responsible for nearly 60,000 acres during his managing years, Taylor spent most of his days outside on horseback and tending cattle, the very definition of a cowboy.

But the PF pasture mandate was about more than cows, it was about the land.

Spanning the bottom third of the province, 62 of the PFRA’s 85 pastures, totalling 1.8 million acres, were located in Saskatchewan. All of these pastures contained native cover, ranging from 39 to 100 per cent (Phillips, 2015), with an average of 80 per cent. While temperate grasslands are conserved in Grasslands National Park on the province’s southern border, the PF pastures were among few other large continuous tracts of land where the grass was kept in good condition. Seventy per cent of Lone Tree pasture’s grassland 35,000 acres is native, while Big Stick, which is 22,000 acres, comes in at 85 per cent.

The grassland in the PF pastures was protected through ecological oversight provided by the pasture manager. Serving farmers who didn’t have the land-base to graze cattle in the summer, as well as ranchers, the pastures were a rare breed: federally managed, provincial Crown lands hosting private cattle.

Rare, but it worked for decades. Managers like Taylor looked after cows belonging to producers in their region. Branded and bred with government bulls, the cows were all mixed together and grazed the pasture in the summer. In the fall, they were sorted and picked up by the patrons.

"I rode a horse for a fellow one time and he said the PFRA pastures were where all the real cowboys were, so I figured that that was for me and I guess I never really grew out of it."

In the summer, Taylor treated any sick cows and made sure the herd stuck to his grazing plan so the grass wasn’t overeaten. He submitted an invasive-weed report every fall and monitored the wind-powered water mills that “seemed to be always breaking down.” The goal of the PF pastures wasn’t just to provide grazing services for diversified farmers or young ranchers just starting out, it was a way to sustainably maintain a landscape that requires human management. Taylor said nobody had grazing records like the PFRA and that his boss used them to set up stocking rates in Mongolia.

In his last years with the system, Taylor experimented with high-intensity, short-duration grazing, which allowed him to increase the carrying capacity of the pastures. Based on the grazing behaviour of buffalo, the idea is to put more cattle on the grass so that they can’t be selective about which plants they eat.

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“Instead of running 1,000 cows we could run 1,500 or 1,200,” Taylor said. “They clip that one plant and then they’re forced to eat the other ones because that plant that they like hasn’t grown back,” he said. “So it tends to make a more even graze and a more diverse ecosystem, which is a lot healthier.”

Then Taylor moves them to new grass, so the other patch can recover for next season.

“All of that information and records is gone by the wayside now,” he said.

While Taylor helps out on a friend’s pasture in Alberta and continues his high-intensity, short-duration grazing patterns on his own patch of grass west of Maple Creek, the program he worked for is now one for the history books. The PFRA and its services—the community pasture program, water system and irrigation programming and shelterbelt tree farms—were cut in the 2012 federal budget by the Harper government.

Mert Taylor is a retired PF pasture manager, or "conservation cowboy." For 30 years, he looked after cattle and grass at Lone Tree and Big Stick community pastures in southwestern Saskatchewan. Credit: Katie Doke Sawatzky.

One for the history books

Submarginal prairie had been excessively cultivated in the first 20 years of the twentieth century and began drifting across the Canadian plains in dust storms during the drought of the 1930s. As a result many farmers called it quits. Thousands abandoned their farms in southern Saskatchewan. Those that stayed relied on government relief. To stop the exodus, the blowing soil and people’s dependency on government funds, the federal government created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act in 1935. Soil scientists set up research centres in the prairies. They studied each region to determine best farming practices. The community pasture program, formed in 1937, relocated farmers to arable land and seeded submarginal lands back to grass (Gray, 1967).

“It restored an entire region of Saskatchewan to a productive state,” said Rick Ashton, who worked as project manager with the federal community pasture program and then as co-director of the divestment from 2010 to 2015. Prior to that he was the manager of the Saskatchewan Pastures Program, which has 50 community pastures, and director of the lands branch within the provincial Ministry of Agriculture.

“It restored an entire region of Saskatchewan to a productive state."

“(The PFRA) program…was a legacy of good management that served two purposes:…providing reasonable grazing for livestock producers and also providing public benefits by way of biodiversity and conservation and land conservation. It was really a very elegant model that worked quite well,” he said.

A year after the community pasture program started in 1937, the PFRA converted 700,000 acres of eroded farmland into rangeland. In 1967, journalist James Gray noted that “(u)ltimately there would be 85 pastures in which 160,000 head of cattle would be grazing for 7,000 individual farmers.” That number had decreased to 3,400 patrons by 2006 (as farms and ranches became larger) but the pastures were still well used by those who needed grazing land (Phillips, 2015).

Map of the former PFRA community pastures. Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The successful program also didn’t cost very much. In 2013, the annual operating budget was in the range of $22 million. Most of that was covered by the livestock producers themselves, who paid for grazing and breeding privileges, leaving to the public purse just $5 million annually in land management and conservation costs. The lands were also open to Indigenous and recreational hunters, and were common sites for bird surveyors, artists and scientific researchers (Ashton, 2016).

So why cut a program that provided private and public benefits and was of little cost to the Canadian tax-payer?

Fall-round up at a PF pasture, circa 1947. Sask Archives; RB 8296.

Government shift

In an April 2012 CTV report, Gerry Ritz, the federal agricultural minister at the time, said the 80-year-old PFRA vessel steered into port long ago. It had fulfilled its purpose of turning unfarmable land into viable pastures and the water infrastructure in the provinces had remarkably improved. Modern farming methods ushered in a new era of sustainability.

PFRA employees tell a different story. After working with the Saskatchewan Pasture Program, Ashton was called over to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 2010 to develop “alternative management options” for the PFRA. While roping a 2,400-pound bull on a daily basis may have been par for the course in the 1940s, it didn’t square with what more “modern” civil servants in Ottawa thought was reasonable for occupational health. Ashton was brainstorming ways of phasing out the government cowboys and creating a new program roll-out for the pastures: a not-for-profit business or Crown corporation were a couple of the possibilities.

Ashton noted an overall shift in government support for the program. The PFRA was meant to help stabilize provinces that were only a few decades old. Fast-forward 80 years and the question he heard most when a new government took office was, “Why is it that we’re operating a livestock operation using government staff to look after private cattle on the landscape when only five per cent of producers use this program?”

Carl Neggers, who was PFRA director from 2003 to 2008, said the Liberal government at the time kept the PFRA going for political reasons. “It hosted 700 employees and that’s a lot of votes,” he said. “When I came in, a lot of these legacy programs were in the twilight of their importance. It didn’t mean they weren’t relevant still, but they were less relevant to the federal government than they would have been to local people.”

When the Conservatives gained office in 2006, things changed. Neggers said that, when the Party got their majority mandate in 2011, the PFRA was doomed. Federal employees providing services and maintaining infrastructure on the ground, outside of Ottawa, were of little value to a government that, in Neggers’ opinion, was “really anti-public service.”

Everyone except federal bureaucrats and administrative employees didn’t see it coming.

“They basically said, ‘That’s it,…the program is done and the province is going to take their land back,” said Neggers.

The repercussions of that decision would not be felt by the bureaucrats in Ottawa, but 3,000 km away. The PFRA’s administrators who were based in Regina and pasture staff like Taylor were soon to be unemployed and the patrons of the pastures themselves would feel the effects for years to come.

Responsibility falls to patrons

With its 2012 budget announcement, the federal government announced that it would return all of the reversionary land (land owned by the province but reverted back to the federal government in 1937 so that the PF pastures could be established) to the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The divestment would take five years, ending April 1, 2018.

The decision upset not only pasture users and employees, but also members of the public who benefitted from use of the PF pastures as accessible Crown land, such as nature conservationists and First Nations hunters. The Saskatchewan government ultimately decided to lease the pastures to patrons through 15-year agreements if they formed grazing businesses and met reporting requirements. They didn’t have to pay for the existing infrastructure but any improvements were their responsibility. Along with the land, 80 years of sustainable land management was now placed on the shoulders of approximately 2,500 farmers and ranchers, many of whom had never met together as a group.

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Rural sociologist Michael Gertler, from the University of Saskatchewan's School of Environment and Sustainability, discusses how the PF pasture program created a grazing commons for rural communities and maintained grassland health, and how privatization is threatening the prairie landscape.

Uncertainty leads to instability

Before the divestment, 35-year-old Nick Schmidt was the manager for five years at Garry PF pasture, 30 km west of Yorkton. He remembers the day he heard about the divestment. Called into a conference call at the district office in Melville with other managers in the area, he expected something big was happening.

“We were all sitting around the table listening to this,” he said. “We all figured maybe they would bump us down to seasonal employment, or maybe even get rid of a few pastures, but to shut down the whole thing was definitely quite a shock to us all.”

What followed for Schmidt was uncertainty and confusion.

“Ninety to 95 per cent of us guys all lived in government housing on these pastures too, so we were not only losing our jobs but we were potentially losing our homes too. So yeah, it was a big deal.”

Things at Garry started to go south after the announcement. With meetings leading to nothing but disagreement, Schmidt interviewed down at Lone Tree, which was one of the first pastures scheduled to transition. Fewer patrons meant fewer cooks in the kitchen, and he was impressed with the patrons’ optimism, that they wanted to make a go of it. He moved down south with his young family for the 2014 grazing season, Lone Tree’s first season out of the PF system.

These days Schmidt takes the pick-up truck onto Lone Tree pasture, where he drops off salt blocks at three different locations for the 1,100 cows owned by his clients, the eight families that make up the 14 clients of Lone Tree Grazing.

“We were not only losing our jobs but we were potentially losing our homes too. So yeah, it was a big deal.”

So far things have worked well for Schmidt. The pasture committee applied for a grant from the Nature Conservancy of Canada that helps pay half his salary so he can maintain the ecological monitoring he did as a PF manager, which is a condition of the new lease agreements. The pasture also received a grant to help protect the endangered Northern leopard frog. Schmidt keeps the cows away from the dugouts and the organization provides portable water tanks that he sets up elsewhere.

“Now I’ve got to look after the cows, the grass and the frogs,” he said, smiling.

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Nick Schmidt, a former PF manager, manages Lone Tree pasture in Saskatchewan's southwest. Credit: Katie Doke Sawatzky.

Schmidt has had successes negotiating with the patrons at Lone Tree, although now they're clients. He was able to talk them down from 150 grazing days to 140, which doesn’t sound like much but makes a big difference to the health of the grass.

"For us all to win we have to look after the land.”

“I’ve got some pretty good guys and other places … they might have tried to run me out of the country,” he said. “The patrons have to win for me to win, is how I look at it, but for us all to win we have to look after the land.”

For now, Schmidt and his family are happy where they are, but in 10 years, when Lone Tree’s lease is up, he’s not sure what will happen. He wants to graze cattle on his own place some day and he’s certain he won’t be able to get into Lone Tree or any of the other four former PF pastures nearby because he doesn’t have enough cattle right now to be a viable client for the businesses. The irony of it all isn’t lost on him.

“It cripples me,” he said, “but those guys stuck their necks out for these pastures when everybody was saying it wasn’t going to work, so I feel that, yeah, they deserve to instead of letting somebody like me in with 15 head or whatever…which really sucks because, yeah, that was kind of what the PFRA was set up for was to help the small guy out.”

Dwindling rural infrastructure

Mert Taylor agrees the PFRA, in its early days, was a way for new ranchers to get some skin in the game with little investment. But over time, he said, the system became abused by old-timers who never moved on, or who passed their allotment (each pasture had an allotment committee) on to their children. It became an “old boys’ club,” he said. But with a few adjustments, like switching to a bidding system open to every Canadian, Taylor said it could have been restructured to stimulate the rural economy by ensuring younger producers could enjoy the benefits.

Instead, the complete dismantling of the PFRA was one more blow to Saskatchewan’s dwindling rural infrastructure, according to Taylor. Taylor saw a 70 per cent drop in patrons at Lone Tree, from 35 to 11, after the transition to a leasehold system in 2014. He also said the patrons can’t afford to hire extra staff in the summer like he used to do, which had spin-off benefits for nearby communities.

“We bought all our supplies, our salt, our barbwire, our posts, all that stuff was bought locally. You know any repairs we needed done was done locally, and now that stuff is not going to be purchased there,” he said.

As for the patrons he’s talked to, Taylor said they’re realizing they don’t have enough staff to cover the pasture lands and that pressure from chemical, fertilizer and implement companies has “got the farmer like he’s just a hamster on a wheel.”

“Their profit margin has shrunk so they have to have more acreage and more livestock numbers to generate the same amount of revenue,” he said. “And the kids, the family grows up and they see how hard Mom and Dad work seven days a week, they never take any holidays. When they get off the farm or ranch they ain’t coming back.”

Land lost

While the effects of the drastic decrease in patron numbers is already measurable in communities like Lone Tree, it may take years to measure the effects of the pasture transition on the land itself. The biggest threat to the native prairie, so carefully managed for 80 years, is that under the new lease agreements the grass will be overgrazed or invasive weeds will take hold. If this happens, it won’t come as a surprise—not because of any flaw in the moral character of the patrons, but because they simply don’t have the resources or knowledge to manage the grass appropriately. When that job was done by neutral cowboys like Taylor and Schmidt, self-interest wasn’t a threat. Now farm operators are faced with the decision to let the grass grow or improve their bottom line, a difficult position to be in.

Some patrons have found the resources to invest in range health, but Taylor sees others struggle and says things are starting to go full circle. He said the shift to larger farms and ranches looks a lot like how things were right after settlement: larger, unsustainable operations. But one thing he’s noticed is the most sobering of all.

“I see a lot of ground drifting and blowing,” he said.

While another dust bowl may not be imminent, just how full circle rural Saskatchewan will come to the 1930s remains to be seen. Dropping settlers onto the prairies and looking the other way was part of the problem that led to excessive cultivation. Likewise, dropping the responsibility for rangeland health and other public benefits on pasture patrons’ shoulders without government help may prove harmful for the 1.8 million acres of Saskatchewan grassland that is no longer under the unique model of federal-but-local third-party management.

Read more:

Farmer-led conservation

Ranchers who protect

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Mert Taylor discusses his role as a PF manager and the impacts of the PF closure on rural communities and the land.

Works cited

Ashton, R. (2016). The federal community pastures divestiture: A summary of facts and opinion. Regina.

Gray, J.H. (1967). Men against the desert. Western Producer Prairie Book. Saskatoon, SK: Modern Press.

Philips, D. (2015). PFRA pastures transition study. Public Pastures – Public Interest. Retrieved from https://pfrapastureposts.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/pfra-final-report.pdf