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Celebrating Environmental Stewardship: Crystal Lake Ranch, British Columbia

The Canadian Cattle Association (CCA) is pleased to feature the provincial stewardship award recipients in the running for the 2023 The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA). The recipient of the CCA’s national award will be announced during the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in August, in Calgary, Alberta. As always, a common theme among recipients is a profound sense of obligation to care for land, water, and animals. Through sharing their stories, insights, beliefs and values, readers can gain perspective about the relationship between stewardship and cattle production, and the benefits of conservation to society.

In this issue, we feature the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association’s 2023 Ranch Sustainability Award recipient, Crystal Lake Ranch, owned and operated by Werner and Judy Stump.

Crystal Lake Ranch shows forestry, cattle and wildlife can co-exist

By: Lee Hart

Werner and Jody Stump have demonstrated that their long-time cow-calf operation in the Shuswap Region of British Columbia’s (BC)'s southern interior can not only adapt to, but also be quite complimentary to a diverse environment with highly variable growing conditions.

The Stumps, who own and operate Crystal Lake Ranch, at Malakwa southwest of Sicamous, have developed an adaptable beef operation that does its best to work in harmony with nature. They have also championed some management practices that demonstrate ranching, forestry and wildlife can have a compatible co-existence that not only benefits their operation, but can serve as a model in other parts of the province, as well.

Their management practices over the years earned Crystal Lake Ranch recognition as recipients of the BC Cattlemen's Association (BCCA) 2023 Ranch Sustainability Award. The award recognizes their efforts in managing the values of sustainability, in particular around water quality, soil and forage health, and wildlife habitat, while at the same time seeking innovative productions practices, leading to a solid economic foundation.

“Sustainability is not defined as a destination, rather it is a continuous process of improvement of practices considering soil, water, air quality, and biodiversity," says Werner. "Our understanding of the inter-relationships of these attributes continuously grows, and so our practices evolve. It is a lifelong process."

Crystal Lake Ranch was established by Werner's parents in the mid-1950s, when Kurt and Hermine Stump immigrated from Switzerland and Austria. The mountainous terrain between Sicamous and Revelstoke and surrounding the Eagle River reminded them of their European homeland. The farm started out as a small dairy and beef operation housed indoors during the winter.

Some 70 years later, and the next generation of Stumps are still farming, transitioning many years ago to a straight beef cow-calf operation. As an agricultural operation in a diverse environment, Werner and Jody have found creative ways to overcome a number of production obstacles. As part of raising cattle, they have applied their professional training — Werner is a professional forester while Jody is a professional agrologist and forester — to ranch management. And with three children, daughter Kayla, who works alongside their parents in daily activities of the ranch, and two young sons, Kurtis and Kolton, who enjoy helping on the ranch, the future of Crystal Lake Ranch looks strong.

The Stumps today run a herd of 200 Simmental/Angus breeding cows and background their calves. The ranch consists of 700 acres of deeded land, 300 acres of leased pasture with associated Crown land range units.

As is the case with most of BC's beef industry, the Crown range (government-owned land) is an integral part of the ranching operation, providing through permit or lease agreements the land base for spring through fall grazing.

One of the challenges for the ranching industry has been to overcome a perception that has persisted for decades among other resource users, that grazing cattle can be detrimental to both forestry and wildlife habitat.

It is a rugged and diverse environment that's nice to look at, but a challenge for ranching due to high snowpack and high precipitation in the fall and winter. The area is rich with rivers, streams, and lakes with associated riparian areas that are important sources of habitat for wildlife species.

While the Stumps have made many management changes on their own land, they have been a leader in working with government and the forest industry to demonstrate the concept of "silvopasture" on Crown land. In simplest terms, this involves seeding domestic grasses and grazing cattle on forestry cutblocks after timber has been harvested.

"Initially there was quite a bit of skepticism from the forestry and wildlife side about the impact of seeding these cut blocks to produce forages for livestock grazing," says Werner. "Working with the support of the Ministry of Forests, we established some pilot projects. Once the timber was removed, we went into these cutblocks and seeded both grass and trees. As the grass established, these areas provided increased grazing opportunity for our cattle during the summer."

Despite initial apprehension, timber licensees have noted the success of Stump’s silvopastures to control brush and ultimately achieve a free-to-grow stand of timber.

"Historically declining forage availability due to reduction in logging and later due to changes of forestry practices meant that the amount of forage produced in these timbered areas declined by 60 per cent or more," says Stump.

Starting with 140 hectares over four cutblocks, "we successfully demonstrated that grass could be grown while establishing a free-to-grow stand of trees.” The success of this project gave other forest licensees faith that forage could be grown with trees on our range tenure area and the silvopasture area is now about 350 ha and counting.

Not only did the demonstration provide summer grazing for cattle it also helps support wildlife, particularly in the spring, when the areas are frequented by grizzly and black bears and ungulates.

With the cow herd, calving season begins in July, with cows calving on the Crown land range units. While the ranch has an attendant who camps on the range and checks cows periodically, the herd basically does things on their own.

"These range units themselves are between 50,000 and 70,000 acres, so it's a big territory," says Werner. "Our man on site keeps an eye on things, but at any given time if you're checking you might only see about 10 per cent of the cattle. So, they have to be pretty self sufficient.

"We have developed this easy-calving cow herd, with ability to handle walking in tougher terrain," says Stump. "The cows have this strong mothering and protective instinct which helps protect calves from predators and we are calving under favourable weather, rather than trying to manage calving in cold and snow in January and February."

The cows are turned out on Crown range pastures in June, and basically follow the grass growth by elevation, working their way up, through June and July, to higher elevation grazing reaching alpine areas by late August. Then usually by early September the first snow arrives pushing the herd down.

The cows come home from Crown range in October. They graze on pasture and crop land at home, with winter-feeding beginning sometime in November. Calves remain with the cows over winter with weaning in March and April, when they go into backgrounding. The yearlings are marketed August through October as 900 weight cattle, heading to a finishing feedlot. The Stumps produce hay, haylage and corn for silage for the average six months of winter-feeding. The herd is fed out on cropland, which helps keep the nutrients on the land as well.

"Once we get into May, they are grazing some of the early grass on our pastures or in our woodlot area," says Werner. "We then move them over to a second ranch location about five kilometres away, which has better access to Crown range. They graze there for a few weeks and then in June they are turned out onto two different range units."

The Stumps manage their home place not only for beef production but to accommodate a wide range of wildlife species as well.

“The species that exist on ranches are often there not despite the ranch but because of the ranch,” says Werner. “We intentionally maintain unique ecosystems. We have areas designated for intensive use, extensive use and areas set aside for wildlife habitat and water quality values. The balance of open areas like meadows, timbered areas and riparian areas without development attracts wildlife.”

Seeding the cutblock areas to domestic forages has helped to provide an alternative food source for the omnivores keeping them away from private land, although standing corn becomes too big of a temptation.

"The bears are attracted by the corn cobs and at one time we would see as much as 25 per cent crop loss due to the grizzly bears," says Stump. "We have seen as many as 14 bears at a time in the corn field." After consulting with specialists, losses have been greatly reduced by installing a robust seven-strand electric fence to draw a boundary between what is shared and what is not.

“Although the grizzly bear presence has been a problem for our corn production, the electric fence functions well as a deterrent," he says. "We are fortunate that the grizzly bear population in our area has been able to co-exist with the cattle. We feel protective of the grizzly bears we have as they are keeping other grizzlies away that may not be peaceful towards cattle.”

Werner and Jody manage their use of water sources to ensure health and functionality. They use high efficiency pivot irrigation systems for their annual crops, to reduce water use and they have established setbacks to protect riparian areas. Riverbank stabilization work has been done to reduce erosion on historically eroded banks.

The ranch is economically diversified in that it is associated with a woodlot that provides timber revenue as well as ensuring year-round employment to ranch help. Production of hay and vegetables further contributes to the ranch’s diversity and sustainability.

While managing the ranch occupies many hours, Werner and Jody both appreciate the importance of family time and are also active in their community and industry.

"We are learning how to best manage the diverse resources to optimize production, but it is a never-ending process," says Werner. "In recent years, soil health has certainly become an important topic, so now we are learning what production and management practices can best serve soil health. We practice no-till farming, but perhaps in the future the drones can be used to help apply biological products that benefit soil health as well. We are always open to trying something new and we can't worry about failures. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't, but we have keep trying."

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