Longhorns near Val Marie
With the Federal government breezily sloughing off responsibility for its community pastures--nearly one million hectares of endangered grassland habitat that Canada has been protecting for more than seventy years--it is easy for conservationists to forget that, if we let this piece of the commons go, a shared cultural, social and economic resource that has been serving rural communities for decades will be lost as well.
Part of what the old PFRA pastures provided was a form of consistent oversight and administration of vulnerable lands that are valuable not only to birdwatchers and naturalists, not only to cattlemen, but to all of us who want to have clean water, carbon sequestration, and wild beautiful landscapes as part of the prairie world of today and the legacy we share and pass forward. Included in that legacy is both the current benefit of affordable grazing for local cattle producers and the heritage of cowboys and ranchers who have for more than a century found what has been the single most sustainable form of agriculture on the northern Great Plains: properly managed grazing of cattle on native rangeland.
I recently received a letter from Barb Campbell, who lived for several years in cattle country near the Val Marie Community Pasture. Barb's letter reminded me of these other many values of the community pastures and how they touch all of us whether we live on a ranch or far away in the city. She tells me that she sent this same letter to MLAs and to the Premier.
One of the astute comments Barb makes early on in her letter is that the Federal government seems to not have a plan in place to ensure that the agricultural and ecological values represented in the 80 community pastures will be protected in perpetuity. A lot of us share that concern.
Here is Barb's letter, just as she forwarded it to me last week:
A City Dweller's Guide to the PFRA
Community pastures, currently run by the federal government, are the very foundation of Saskatchewan's dryland cattle industry, and they are also the perfect habitat for wild creatures. The pastures are currently being threatened by a change from federal government control to an as yet unknown method of administration, without any clear plan in place to protect their vital role. I support their continued existence and recognize their importance. I saw first hand how they help the ranchers and the natural environment when I lived in Val Marie for 7 years. I am writing to urge the provincial government of Saskatchewan to take over administration of the community pastures and to run them for the benefit of the rural communities.
Established by the federal government after the Great Depression and drought, the pastures provide grazing on native grasses for carefully controlled herds of cow-calf pairs. PFRA stands for Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. The PFRA pastures I know most are around Val Marie , Cadillac and the Montana border region. The pastures cover the beautiful hilly uplands of the area, land that could never be cultivated, and provide a huge boost to the local cattle industry. And they are also some of the most glorious places I have ever seen in the province of Saskatchewan.
Ranchers are permitted so many animals per acre, and the cow/calf pairs are let into the pasture in June. Getting them from their home ranch, some miles away, to the pasture gates is a lot of fun. It is a cattle drive, in the old fashioned sense, and riders on horseback and on quads lead the herd. Others follow the herd, and some ride along side. If you are driving in the area in June, you may have to wait on the highway to let a herd cross. It is a thrill to see about 200 animals in motion, hopefully going forward, but sometimes ducking and darting off to the side to try to get away. It should be noted that all the animals going into the pasture are all females with young calves.
Inevitably cows that have been to the PF for many years just know the way and plod along with acceptance. Some of the young heifers (first time mothers) are more spooked, and have to be chased and blocked along the way. When they get to the PF gate, they are kept there outside the gate for a half day or so to let the pairs “mother up” . Usually some calves get separated from their mothers in all the confusion, and the time is needed for them to find each other again. The mothers moo and the calves baah, and by recognizing the right cry, the mothers claim their calves. I love the expression to “mother up”. And it is always so heartwarming to see a pair reunited.
In case you are wondering where the bulls are, they are kept elsewhere for the summer, having already performed their job . Yes, that's right. By the time the cows go to the PFRA, they are (hopefully) already pregnant with next spring's calf. So the nutritious grazing is pre-natal nutrition for the unborn calf, and nutrition for this year's 3 month old calf. As such, the grazing is very important to the health of the herd.
Once in the PFRA pasture, the herd is the responsibility of the pasture manager and the riders (employees on horseback aka. cowboys) and they are well supervised for the summer season. If you ever wondered why rodeos have competitions in roping and cutting out calves, it is because these skills are used everyday by the riders. Rodeos were a chance to see who could do the job the best. The riders know where the herd is, whether any calves or cows have died, how much weight they seem to be gaining. The pasture is up on the uplands; beautiful hills covered in native grass, with water provided by either springs or wells. In a wet year, the grass is lush. In a dry year, it is shorter and dry looking. But remarkably, it provides good nutrition just the same. This mat of prairie grass is called 'prairie wool', and it adapted to survive the extremes of temperature and the near desert conditions of the southwest.
In the fall, the process is reversed, with the riders bringing the herd to the gate, the rancher and helpers waiting on horseback or on quads to drive them home. By now the calves are quite grown up and less likely to get separated from their mother. The mothers are more nonchalant about the calves too. It is kind of like the difference between the first day of kindergarten and the last day of Grade 6. Three months on the community pasture is not free, and there is a per day charge to the rancher. But it is far cheaper than renting pasture land privately or buying the hay to feed the herd.
The jobs created are important to the local economy of the small towns in the area. There is the pasture manager and usually a group of 4-5 riders, all of whom are the government payroll. This injects much needed money into the local economy. I am unaware of any PFRA employees who are female, but many pasture managers and riders have wives and children, who bolster numbers in the local schools, and work for the local health centers, banks, restaurants and stores. In other words, the PFRA staff are a vital part of the community. There are also contract jobs fencing the pastures. This is well paid work that demands physical skill and the toughness to work outdoors doing heavy work under all weather conditions. The PFRA- built fences are the envy of the local ranchers, who can rarely afford the premium posts and extra strands of wire used by the government.
As far as the role of the pastures in protecting the environment, it also is essential. The national parks and provincial or regional parks can only cover so much territory. The pastures extend the area by many times over. The other living creatures that live in this protected pasture environment are the wild grasses, plants, creatures and birds. Native grasses. Crocuses and buffalo beans. Essential ground cover like ground moss. Whitetail deer, mule deer, burrowing owls, the Swift fox, rattlesnakes. Birds like Sprague's pipit, meadowlarks and night hawks. Grazing cattle do not seem to bother them at all, as the density of the cattle is so low. In fact the PFRA pastures are just as important as the national park in providing good habitat. The whole area looks like one big national park, and it almost is.
If the community pastures are to be transferred from federal control to provincial control, it must be done in a planned and orderly way, to allow ranchers enough time to adapt. There are a lot of questions? Will the current PFRA quotas be kept? Will the pasture managers and the riders still be on staff? Will their wages be the same? Will the animals/acre be the same? Will the cost per animal be the same? Will all the current land be kept in pasture? Will any of it be converted to farmland? Or sold? Which government department will be in charge? Will the provincial government recognize the important conservation role of the community pastures? Will the provincial government work well with the local communities?
It is all up in the air, and is causing a lot of anxiety and speculation. I call on the the provincial government to take over and preserve the community pastures as a vital support for the livestock industry and for the rural communities. And the provincial government must take the initiative in leading an orderly transition to their new administration. Rural jobs, a rural way of life, the livestock industry and the untouched prairie habitat are all at stake.
retired small business owner
an image Barb sent along with her letter