For Christoph and Erika Weder, their philosophy has always been to ensure that the management of their ranch is done in harmony with the environment and with nature. This young ranching family is already thinking to the next generation and not only focus on minimising the impacts to the land but leaving it in better shape than it was when they began managing it. The Weder's commitment to sustainable ranching has made them Alberta Beef Producers' 20th Environmental Stewardship Award recipients.
In 1996, the Weder's acquired a quarter section of land and 10 beef cows in Camrose, AB. They then relocated to the Peace Country in 2003, and increased their herd to 60 cows, 20 open heifers, and began ranching on 880 acres of deeded land. Spirit View Ranch is now a purebred and commercial cow/calf grasser operation that runs 500 breeding females and 500 grasser stockers on 2800 acres of deeded land, 4200 acres of lease land, and 640 acres of rented land.
"The Spirit River is kind of the namesake of the Spirit View Ranch. It kind of fits in well with our philosophy, and the spirit we have for it," says Christoph.
The Spirit View Ranch is north of Rycroft, AB, and bordered by the Spirit River to the south and the Peace River to the north. The ranch consists of perennial forage cover and pastures include alfalfa and meadow brome stands with native grassland on the south and north facing slopes of the river banks, and significant acres of aspen boreal parkland forest and grassland. You can also find over 100 restored, with the help of Ducks Unlimited, wetlands throughout their property that help to preserve biodiversity, they are great brood habitat for ducks and geese, and retain moisture which increases forage production.
"It's kind of a little hidden insurance policy for us because if we have a really bad drought year, they're going to be dry but they will have had a whole pile of water that'll grow grass behind them, and we'll utilize it then," says Christoph.
Even with the wetlands, cattle still prefer to make use of the watering sites strategically placed in fenced alleyways. With the majority of water supply being surface water in the Peace Country, major dugouts have been constructed and long pipeline systems deliver the water to the sites. Three solar powered watering systems also operate in the more remote areas and critical riparian areas are fenced off to limit access and minimize impact.
All upland habitat and boreal forest is fenced off and only grazed for a short period of time or even deferred on specific pastures to increase the nesting success of ducks and migratory birds. The Weder's have over 1200 acres of forest and grassland protected under conservation easements with Ducks Unlimited. A recent wildlife inventory showed that they have 150 bird species, 45 mammals, seven amphibians and one reptile species inhabit the ranch.
"The earth is not just habitat for wildlife and birds. It's our habitat too and we have to look after what we have in front of our doorstep. We want to make sure we keep it, we preserve it, we look after it and that's what we do," says Erika.
Their rotational grazing system and reliance on legumes has made it possible to have sustainable grass and forage production that doesn't require fertilisers. All of the pastures, including the grazing leases, are cross-fenced with electric fencing and strip grazed for no longer than five days at a time for over eight months of each year. Older pastures are used for wintering sites to eliminate manure hauling and improve production. The protected forest and shelter belts offer relief from the cold winter winds, reduced infrastructure and yardage costs and manure gets to areas in need of nutrients.
"We bring the feed right to the fields that we want to feed it in and save big time because we have no manure hauling costs associated with wintering our cows. The cows are on a snow ration so the water system's taken care of, no electricity for that and we've got natural shelter around here for the cattle," Christoph says to emphasise just how cost-effective it is.
In 2004, the Weder's were the first ranch in the Peace Country to complete the Verified Beef Production program and the Environmental Farm Plan. In 2006, they were certified by Food Alliance acknowledging the ranch for sustainable farming and land use practices. These accomplishments help Christoph and Erika communicate their story about raising beef. Throughout the winter months they spend countless hours speaking to producers, retailers, chefs and consumers and during the summer months they are always eager to host tours on the ranch. Sharing the message of stewardship on Spirit View Ranch has always been important to the Weder's as a business tool to better market their product or to encourage others to implement best management practices.
"We have lots of people that come to our place and they stay for a couple of days. Some for even longer like the students we have who stay for months, or even a year. They want to see what we're doing and they get excited about it," says Erika referring to the international students who come to work and learn on the ranch.
Think global but act local and communicate those values to other people to make a difference. These are words used as guidance for every decision made at Spirit View Ranch. The dedication to the environment Christoph and Erika Weder display and their desire to encourage others makes them more than worthy recipients of Alberta Beef Producers' 2012 Environmental Stewardship Award.