Producers know their land. They work within their habitat to preserve and enhance it, while producing a safe and healthy product in an economic way. Alberta Beef Producers recognizes leadership in that effort every year. The 2013 Environmental Stewardship Award (ESA) was presented in December at their Annual General Meeting in Calgary to Gerry and Grant Taillieu of Tomahawk Cattle Ranch.
Gerry Taillieu, his wife Cheryl with their son Grant and daughter Amy began ranching at Tomahawk Cattle Ranch in 2001, on a less than ideal landscape that was in need of improvements. The land is home to 4,000 acres of lakebed that was drained in the 1960's and is now primarily used for winter grazing. Taillieu knew the operation would need a long-term commitment.
"We're kind of in the center of what used to be called Low Water Lake. Because it's so fragile we've decided to start using it primarily in the winter. It grows a huge volume of feed,"" said Gerry.
Gerry and Grant run the Tomahawk cattle herd and do custom grazing. Through careful management practices they have been able to revitalize the once overgrazed pastures. The father and son don't use machinery, plough or seed and electric fencing is used to control access when bale grazing. Grazing is based completely on timing and duration. All cows/calves and yearlings are managed on an intensive grazing system in the summer and fields are never continuously grazed. A significant amount of residual grass is always left after grazing. This allows for faster plant recovery and increased regrowth.
Bale grazing has been implemented on the ranch for over seven years as a method of enhancing soil health on high ground. Originally put in place as a method to reduce feed costs throughout the winter, Gerry and Grant quickly noticed the improvements in the health of the soil and began incorporating it into their regular practice.
"The trick is finding the way where you can fit what you're trying to do within that landscape without trying to change the landscape," said Gerry. "In addition to the reduced fuel expense and labour expense of bale grazing, probably the most important thing is the improved fertility of your soil."
Plant diversity has increased tremendously through the grassland and the wooded areas. The Taillieu's have found that as they graze the lake bottom year after year during the dormant season more desirable species of finer more palatable and productive grasses continue to appear. Wildlife numbers have also increased over the last 11 years with ungulates, large predators and birds. Through winter grazing of the lakebed there is more opportunity for birds to nest.
Water management has also played a large role on the ranch. New dugouts were developed and some fenced. Four portable solar watering units have been strategically placed to maximize grazing and work is being done to improve natural water sources. Shoal Lake Creek is used to pump water, there are eight bored wells and 15 dugouts and ponds throughout the operation. Twelve miles of exclusion fencing was erected along Shoal Lake Creek, which drains into the North Saskatchewan River, with one mile left to be completed.
"Since we've been here we've finished the exclusion fencing on most of the creeks. This fall we'll be working with Alternative Land Use Services, as well as Parkland County, and that'll finish the creek fencing to the south boundary of the ranch," said Grant.
Grant and Gerry prefer to work with a holistic management approach that focuses primarily on the land, grass and water. When all three are looked after it's best for the cattle, the wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole. The positive stewardship practices they have implemented have increased the profitability of the operation through improved soil health translating into increased forage production and increased daily weight gain and finishing weights on yearlings. The lack of machinery and minimization of confined feeding has reduced capital costs and input costs are lower without the need to break, fertilize or seed land to rejuvenate pastures.
"You can't look after one for the sacrifice of the other or you're not going to be doing this for very long, successfully," said Grant. "We really enjoy seeing the environmental benefits but it has to translate into benefits to what we sell at the end of the day, and it does."
Gerry and Grant have worked closely with many industry organizations that all focus on the importance of environmental stewardship and with the help of these groups have been able to improve the productivity of their operation while minimizing the impact on the environment. It is for their dedication to the environment that Tomahawk Cattle Ranch has been named the recipients of the 2013 Alberta Beef Producers Environment Stewardship Award.