Ranchers across southern Saskatchewan share prairie knowledge

Cheryl Guenther was the first female to pass the PF manager test 11 years ago. She continues to manage Wreford-Nokomis pasture and wants the land preserved for generations to come. Credit: Katie Doke Sawatzky.

Article and photos by Katie Doke Sawatzky

Published Oct 1, 2018 3:30 PM

Cheryl Guenther: for the love of animals

After Cheryl Guenther guides cows across the grid road into the Wreford-Nokomis community pasture, Lu the border collie jumps up in her saddle and they ride back to the corrals where I wait. The dog, rider and even the horse seem pretty happy.

“They’re like extra riders,” says Guenther about her dog. “They save so much time.”

Guenther and Lu have a special bond. Guenther has Lu trained to make sure the cows stay in formation when she puts them to pasture. If any break off from the herd, it’s the dog’s job to herd it back with the others. What Lu does is even more important now that the longstanding federal community pasture program, operated under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act, has ended and the pastures have all been divested to the province.

Wreford-Nokomis pasture, which is an hour-and-a-half southeast of Saskatoon, transitioned in 2016 and, while Guenther says things went considerably well, she estimates there was a 25 per cent loss in patrons. Under “the PF,”—local shorthand for the federal program—the pasture had a manager and four other riders. Now it’s Guenther, Lu, and one other rider. Her three daughters, who are all experienced riders, help out from time to time, too.

But Guenther doesn’t mind and says since the pasture transitioned to a patron-run private Crown lease, things run efficiently. This is Guenther’s third year managing the pasture after 11 years as a rider, so she knows the land well. She ranches at Lanigan with her family and manages the pasture for summer work. She is in her element on the 11,000 acres of moist mixed grassland.

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“I always tell people, I never could see myself in an office somewhere,” says Guenther, who admits she has a “cow fix.” She also has a keen eye for the species-at-risk and other creatures that she says make their home on the pasture, such as Sprague’s pipits, golden eagles, ferruginous hawks and short-eared owls.

“When you find a hawk’s nest, I’ve been able to picture them from Week 1 to Week 5 and watch their growth and turning into adults, it’s pretty exciting,” she says. “Cows and wildlife can co-exist and these endangered species will be here as long as this pasture is here and there’s a very healthy environment for them.”

“I always tell people, I never could see myself in an office somewhere."

We take an ATV through the grass to where the cattle graze, Lu panting on the seat between us.  Guenther said when she heard about the PF divestment she was scared the pasture would get overgrazed or that parcels would be sold and cultivated. But the attitude of her patron committee made all the difference.

Guenther says the role of the pasture in the local community, which includes Nokomis, Lanigan, Simpson and Holdfast, further south, wasn’t lost on the 20 patrons who stayed on. “The community really trusted us and said, ‘Just do what you did under PF,’” she says, also noting that the committee wants to make sure young producers can get into the pasture, which was why the PF was set up in the first place.

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Wreford-Nokomis is one of five out of 62 pastures with patron committees that are receiving funding from Nature Conservancy Canada Saskatchewan Region to help pay for their pasture manager. Guenther says her rotational grazing pattern, which leaves grass to rest for a whole year after it’s grazed, keeps everything healthy. Her job isn’t a static one, though. She’s regularly attends workshops on grass composition and water management, building on her animal health technology diploma from Grand Prairie Region College in Fairview, Alberta.

“Every year something new crops up and you learn something,” she says.

As we drive back to the corrals, pulling the side-by-side in a trailer behind the truck, Guenther drives slow her eyes constantly on the grass on other side of the road.

“We want it here for our kids and our grandkids in the years to come,” she says. “I hope this, these pastures are here for hundreds of years yet and if we look after them properly they will be… You can’t take everything. You’ve gotta give back, you gotta look after it.”

Clint Christianson: collaboration is key

A half-hour drive northwest from Val Marie, Saskatchewan, the gateway to the West Block of Grasslands National Park, took me to Clint Christianson’s ranch, Stony Hills. After winding through the Frenchman River Valley, I surfaced and blocks of brilliant canola made me squint. It seems that wherever the stuff will grow, it grows, even in the parched land of the southwest deemed unsuitable for farming and seeded back to pasture 80 years ago.

It’s a busy day for Christianson. He’s in the corrals with family members sorting cattle. A massive steer with long horns in a paddock greets me as I pull up.

Christianson is on the pasture boards for Lone Tree and Val Marie pastures, which are both former PF pastures, and worked for the PFRA as a pasture rider and manager for nine years. He has been a big supporter of Nature Conservancy of Canada’s funding pilot project, of which Lone Tree was the first to sign on. When an NCC employee came to do a range health assessment at Lone Tree pasture after it transitioned in 2014, he was impressed. In his view, their funding is part of a new relationship and understanding between ranchers and the conservation organization.

“We’ve made a living making our own decisions,” says Christianson. That sense of self-sufficiency is why there’s sometimes tension between ranchers and conservationists. Christianson gives the example of Environment and Climate Change Canada employees enforcing Species-at-Risk legislation for wildlife found on ranchers’ land. But NCC’s approach is different, he says.

“NCC isn’t out to tell us how to run it,” he says. “They’re aiding us in funding so that we can do what aids both sides. If we don’t have grass we can’t make a living, if we don’t maintain the grass we don’t make a living. NCC wants it maintained out for another 100 years too, so really we’re on the same page…We all do want the same thing.”

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Christianson describes the southwest as “the most conscientious place,” in terms of how ranchers view the landscape. Because the area sees such little rainfall, he says, they have to manage the grass sustainably or else it affects the bottom line. For him, the environment has cultivated a deep respect for the land.

"If we don’t have grass we can’t make a living, if we don’t maintain the grass we don’t make a living. NCC wants it maintained out for another 100 years too, so really we’re on the same page…We all do want the same thing.”

Lone Tree was one of the first pastures to transition to lease and it went well because it was smaller. Val Marie, the biggest pasture in the PF system, was more difficult.

“How do you referee 61 people?” Christianson says.

Conference calls with the Community Pasture Patrons Association of Saskatchewan and its chair Ian McCreary helped allay fears during the transition years, and Val Marie has successfully transitioned. What Christianson worries about now, is what happens if the price of calves rises. For a pasture business like Lone Tree, which costs between $300,000 and $400,000 to run a year, things might become uneconomical real quick.

“That’s my biggest fear is what do we do in the bad years. You know how do we make it work?” he says.

Clint Christianson is a vice-chair of both Lone Tree and Val Marie pastures. He was a big supporter of the partnership between Lone Tree and Nature Conservancy of Canada Saskatchewan Region because, he says, it aids both sides.

Ross MacDonald is a former employee of the PFRA and a current client (former patron) of Lomond pasture, which transitioned in the spring of 2018. He says the struggle so far has been the lack of knowledge among the clients about grass management. Credit: Katie Doke Sawatzky.

Ross MacDonald: filling in the gaps

Three hours south of Wreford-Nokomis pasture, in Saskatchewan’s southeast, Ross MacDonald drives through a parcel of his own grassland that neighbours the Lomond community pasture. His three-year-old daughter Sienna, sits in the backseat.

Just before MacDonald parks the truck, we slowly pass by a pumpjack belonging to Zargan Oil and, further ahead, a capped well. Both are evidence, along with the horizon all the way from Milestone to Weyburn dotted with pumpjacks like this one, that this is Saskatchewan’s oil country.

“It’s a pain in the arse,” MacDonald says, when I ask him about oil development on his pasture. While he understands the need to encourage drilling and even has a family member in the industry, as a landowner there’s not much about it that’s appealing. By law, landowners can’t deny the industry access to what’s underneath the surface, and MacDonald didn’t see any revenue from wells developed before he received title to the land. But what he emphasizes most is the damage each site causes to the landscape.

Gesturing to the pumpjack and the mowed grass all around it, he says the development causes landscape fragmentation and introduces noxious weeds like leafy spurge because of the mowing. This soil is rocky and so excavation means you lose soil structure and the species composition isn’t the same as the surrounding vegetation, he explains. Plus, the presence of acidic H2S gas, a drilling by-product that he sometimes smells, causes barbwire to rust more quickly, which increases maintenance costs.

Between 2006 and 2016 over 34,000 wells were drilled in Saskatchewan, making that an average of 3,400 a year. They are concentrated in the southeast, the area that Ross MacDonald and his family call home. This isn’t the only patch of land MacDonald owns. His family’s operation, 98 Ranch Inc., is further south near Lake Alma.

MacDonald has his master’s in animal science and range health and as we walk towards the Lomond fence, he answers my questions about different grasses. Western wheatgrass, which has a bluish hue, is noticeable on the dry, rocky soil. Green needlegrass is a decreaser, which means that it dwindles in numbers after disturbances like overgrazing or untimely fires. At one point, Sienna points out a large grouping of little prickly pear catcti, something I might have stepped on if I wasn’t looking down.

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For MacDonald, the divestment of the PF pastures didn’t come as a surprise. Before it happened, he was a senior manager in the PF administration and afterwards, oversaw how the bull operations (breeding and wintering) wound down. No small task, since, he says, the PFRA was the largest purchaser of beef-cattle breeding bulls in Canada.

What MacDonald recalls most about the 2012 federal announcement was the rashness of the decision.

“There didn’t appear any forethought into what services should be retained what services might add value, (or), what services maybe had outlived their time. It was just everything must go,” he says.

"The demand for those services to be provided across the landscape, especially across Crown lands, increases daily, so that’s sort of tragic that we’re losing some of that."

Besides the lack of order and knowledge of protocol over the land divestment (“Nobody knew what was going on”), MacDonald says the biggest loss was the PFRA’s focus on grassland health and wildlife habitat: “Those large public goods.”

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This is the Lomond pasture’s first season out of the PF system. MacDonald estimates 90 per cent of Lomond's clients (former patrons) didn’t know about a grass budget or planning AUMs (forage needed for one “animal unit” over a month). He says he’s been able to help fill in those gaps, but with the loss of the PFRA’s technical expertise and substantial monitoring of the landscape, the ability to show the Canadian public that the grassland is well cared for is now harder.

"Yet the demand for those services to be provided across the landscape, especially across Crown lands, increases daily, so that’s sort of tragic that we’re losing some of that," says MacDonald.

Read more:

PF community pastures

Farmer-led conservation