Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An example of one community pasture up for sale

the hidden understorey of native grassland, with lichens and club mosses
A cattleman I know recently told me a story that made me realize that there could well be some powerful players in the beef industry who are hoping to get some of the PFRA pastures if they are put up for sale.

"We were at the Calgary Stampede and didn't have a seat, but I ran into a friend there who was a bit of a bigwig with the Stampede and he said, 'no problem, I can get you a spot.' So he sat us down in the VIP seating at right next to a couple of women who work for one of the major banks in the farm sector. Somehow we got talking about Saskatchewan pasture land and they told me the big operators in the Alberta cattle industry see Saskatchewan as a source of cheap land for building feedlots and large backgrounding operations."

What's backgrounding? That's what I wondered too so I looked it up. Here is an explanation of how backgrounding works, from a Stats Canada publication available online:

"Cow-calf operations sell calves to backgrounding or feeding operations. Backgrounding operations, which include feeder and stocker/finishing operations, usually keep cattle throughout the winter to be fed a low energy ration like forage. Backgrounding operations sell cattle the year after as yearlings, to be finished on feeding operations, or as fed cattle ready to be slaughtered. Usually more than half the heifers for slaughter and steers inventories in Canada, at January 1 or July 1, are reported to be on feeding operations. Feeder steers and heifers on feeding operations are fed a high energy ration like grains to be finished to slaughter weight. The Western provinces have 30.6% of the total feeding operations and account for 75.4% of the Canadian cattle inventory on feeding operations." 
From what I gather, these are the intermediary places in the beef industry that can be quite profitable businesses once the operation gets big enough.

These kinds of businesses are not the PFRA patrons but they may be the people backing those who are trying to buy a pasture. If that happens, what is lost?

Consider one of the pastures up for sale right now--Wolverine near Lanigan. A lovely piece of grassland in a place where there are almost no other native prairie remnants, Wolverine is one of the few Aspen Parkland pastures that still has some Sprague's Pipits in residence and other grassland birds--last time I checked anyway.

Right now around 45 producers have 1,300 cattle that graze the 17,000 acres at Wolverine every summer. If a feedlot or backgrounding operation gets hold of it, instead of 45 producers and their families benefiting from the grazing opportunity and bringing spinoff economic activity to the local community, there could be one or two owners of a large company that controls the access to all 17,000 acres and makes all of the management decisions without the kind of grass and ecosystem management the PFRA system always provided to look after the land.

That transfer of this piece of our commonwealth into the hands of the a couple of favoured operators will also lead to the local community and economy losing the pasture management staff and their families. And, as well, if the pasture is degraded from overstocking and no control of invasive species and shrubs, the biodiversity and species at risk will suffer, riparian areas could be damaged, and the land would lose much of its capacity to store carbon.

from Western Producer
Recently the pasture staff at Wolverine conducted a trial using goats to knock back shrubby growth on the pasture, which is a serious problem in certain parts of the prairie. Here is a story about it from the September issue of Western Producer, an example of the kind of enlightened work done under the PFRA system using new approaches to handle invasive species and brush, which not only reduce the amount of good grazing for cattle but also ruin habitat for endangered grassland birds and other species at risk. 

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