Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) announced Round Rock Ranching as the 2014 Environmental Stewardship Award (ESA) recipients at their Annual General Meeting in December. Each year, ABP recognizes an operation that demonstrates leadership in environmental stewardship – who contribute to the land while maintaining productivity and profitability. The diversity of Alberta’s ranchlands presents challenges and opportunities for beef producers. Working with the land is vital to ensure long-term sustainability.
The McGrath family runs a fifth generation cow/calf operation near Vermilion, located north of the Battle River. Sean McGrath, along with his wife Tanya and their three kids, works in partnership with his father Fred, and his wife Anne, on the management and operation of the ranch. Their vision focuses on being environmentally, socially and economically responsible while working towards ‘the best beef in a better world.’
“You’re committed to it because you’ve seen your parents and your grandparents work and struggle at it and your connection to the land is there because it’s been important to you… and the generations before,” Sean said of his dedication to the environment.
With an 80 percent native land base Sean picks breeds that fit the land rather than trying to force the land to produce for the cattle. The emphasis on timing of grazing is what they attribute to the success of the ranch. The move to strategically located bale grazing has enhanced tame grass and distributes manure evenly across the landscape, reducing the nutrient effects of confined feeding. Employing various winter grazing techniques like swath and bale grazing has worked to reduce fuel, time and money.
“The change has just been in the management of it... coaxing nature along and letting her do her thing, she can do amazing things if you let her,” said Sean.
Winter grazing has also reduced pressure on riparian areas in the native rangelands by cows using snow as a water source for upland grazing and producing a more even grazing pressure on the stands. Intensive management of tame pastures has resulted in the ability to defer grazing on native rangelands, establish better ecosystem function, and improve litter and nutrient cycling in all of their pastures while increasing yields in the native rangelands. Proper range management results in a lower degree of risk of drought and the environment provides added forage production.
“We would typically graze native into the winter and… from there we would go onto swath grazing and after that we would move onto bale grazing. It saves fuel, it saves time and it puts the nutrients on the land where it is supposed to be,” Sean said of their grazing strategy.
Sean has done significant work with offsite watering development including fencing and pumping solutions. Gas and nose pumps are also used in the operation, as well as winter grazing native rangelands using snow as a primary water source to reduce impacts on riparian zones. The ranch has also adopted practices such as the use of portable wind fence, and fuel-efficient vehicles for daily operations to reduce energy use and costs. Additionally, winter feeding methods also significantly reduce energy use.
Duck houses were installed and are maintained in several water bodies to provide nesting habitat for mallards and grazing is structured so as to avoid disturbing these installations during key times. Several wetlands have been fenced off and many trees have been planted in the last five years consisting of a mixture of species designed to provide shelter and encourage wildlife and pollinator habitat.
“Conservation is important to me because that’s just the way we were raised. We’ve discovered here or maybe knew all along is that the better we do at conservation, the lower our costs are and the more value we produce. The land keeps getting better,” said Sean.
The ranch is invested in forging partnerships that benefit the environment through work with various industry groups. Sean works closely with Alternative Land Use Services and Cows & Fish to provide environmental and educational benefits for their operation and to be shared with the public. Projects have included bale grazing studies by the Agri-Environment Services Branch, range quality assessments with Alberta Environment, and rangeland and riparian monitoring. Through the projects done with these groups riparian areas are thriving and providing wildlife habitats, carbon sequestration and biodiversity preservation.
“From a bigger picture across our whole ranch... should our kids chose to ranch, I would like to see our place in better condition than it is today,” said Sean.