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Celebrating Environmental Stewardship: Wray Ranch, Alberta

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 Alberta Beef Producers’ 2023 Environmental Stewardship Award recipient, Wray Ranch, owned and operated by Doug and Linda Wray, in partnership with Tim and Joanne Wray.

Healthy pastures, healthy soils — a priority for Wray Ranch

By: Lee Hart

Doug and Linda Wray are seeing some pretty healthy pastures on their south-central Alberta ranch as they work with family members to operate their cow-calf and yearling operation, and the plan is to keep it that way. 

Wray Ranch has really focused on applying proper grazing management practices to their native and tame grass pastures over the past three decades, but in more recent growing seasons, extremely dry weather has also meant making tough decisions about reducing herd numbers. 

"It's not always easy but it is important to keep things in balance," says Doug Wray as he talks about matching cattle numbers with forage production on the fourth-generation ranch near Irricana, about 60 km north of Calgary. In recent years, with drier than average growing seasons, the Wrays have sold cattle, rented pasture, and contracted custom grazing to reduce grazing pressure on their ranch. 

"We are pleased that after two consecutive hot dry years our pastures are still in good shape, with stockpiled grass to catch snow and ground thatch to preserve valuable moisture," says Doug. "We reaped the benefits of that moisture this spring as we were able to begin grazing perennial grasslands at the end of April, weeks before green up. We were confident that we had forages to carry us into June." 

Hopefully the drought isn't a long-term situation, but after bringing some badly depleted soils back into healthy production over the past 25 years, the Wrays aren't about to let their production practices slide. 

Their commitment to sustainable production practices over the years, was recognized in July as Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) along with Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy of Canada named Wray Ranch as the provincial winner and Alberta nominee for the national Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) for 2023. 

Wray Ranch, established in 1910, ran as a mixed farming operation for the first 80 years producing both annual crops and livestock. That continued until about 1998 when Doug and Linda, as the third generation, changed the focus of the operation.

"The shift from mixed farming to a grazing operation happened because of a confluence of factors," says Wray. His father retired, and his brother took an off-farm job. Their children were off to university and looking to pursue their own careers. The farm's line of machinery for the annual cropping enterprise had aged out and was due for replacement. And, if they bought new equipment, it would require expanding the land base of the farm to help pay for it. 

Doug and Linda loved the cattle part of the business, and after taking a Ranching for Profit school as well as connecting with the Foothills Forage Association, the decision was made to convert to a full time beef cattle ranching operation. The new focus and the network of expertise available formed the new direction for Wray Ranch.  

With the end of conventional annual cropping, the Wrays converted 1,000 acres to high-percentage legume perennial pastures, which was eventually divided with electric fencing into 20-acre paddocks. A pipeline system carries water to each paddock. 

The Wrays began moving cattle through a rotational grazing system, that developed into a year-round grazing program. Their land base today includes about 1,700 acres of deeded land —320 acres in cereals for swath grazing and feed, with the rest in perennial forages including 350 acres of native grass — along with about 700 acres of rented pasture. 

Today their cow herd begins calving in early May, moves through a network of tame grass pastures spring through fall, and then over winters on stockpiled native grass forage as well as triticale, oat or barley swath grazing, which carries them through until April when the cycle begins again. 

In 2015, Doug and Linda's nephew, Tim and his wife Joanne, moved back to the farm and became the fourth generation to join in the ownership and management of the ranch. Tim learned the rotational grazing system, and over the years has become a strong advocate of regenerative agricultural practices. 

While under more "normal" moisture conditions there was sufficient forage to support about 300 head of cows with calves along with 100 yearlings, in the past couple years they have had to downsize the numbers. In 2023, they are running about 140 head of cow-calf pairs at home, while yearlings are pastured on rented land near Millet, south of Edmonton. They also rent about 480 acres of pasture near Cochrane, west of Calgary, and when possible, they also work with neighbours to graze cattle on annual-crop residues, or failed crops that aren't worth combining. 

"Grazing crop residue is a win-win opportunity," says Doug. "It allows us to make use of a cheaper feed source and provides the neighbour with extra income. The relationship may mean the difference of whether we need to cull cattle in drought years, and it certainly reduces the overall cost of feed for the cowherd, contributing to a healthier net profit." 

As Doug Wray learned about forages, he also got involved in industry associations such as Foothills Forage and Grazing Association (FFGA), was a founding member of the Alberta Forage Industry Network (AFIN), as well as the Canadian Grassland and Forage Association (CGFA). In 2016, he was recognized with the CGFA Leadership Award.

Wray Ranch has applied regenerative agricultural practices, even before the term became popular. Cattle are out on pasture year-round, adding nutrients through manure and urine to the soil. The cattle move through a rest/rotation grazing system. Forage in each paddock is grazed for two or three days and then depending on growing conditions, the paddock is rested for about 45 days before pastures are used again. "It's a system that mimics how the bison grazed the prairies for thousands of years," says Wray. 

For the most part, native prairie grass is not grazed during the growing season, producing stockpiled forage that is used in late fall and winter.  

While most of their land is kept in perennial forages, they do produce about 240 acres of annual crops in rotation with cereals such as triticale and oats or a triticale and barley blend, that is used for swath grazing. Crops are direct seeded, and as needed they use a low disturbance drill to renew some areas of pasture with forage blends that include a high percentage of legume species.

"Sometimes we will direct seed into sod to renew a pasture and in other cases we will seed a cereal crop for two or three years before we return that field to perennial pasture," says Wray.

Working with soil experts, the Wrays are monitoring changes in soil health. "Those 80 years of commonly practiced conventional tillage agriculture in the 1900s, reduced soil organic matter on our 1,000 acres of annual crop land to 2.3 to three per cent," says Doug. "Now after years of conservation tillage practices and perennial pasture management, bale grazing and swath grazing as winter feeding strategies, the organic matter on that land is now more than seven per cent."  

Along with that, converting that cropland to perennial forages has also reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Calculations show those acres have sequestered up to 60 tonnes of CO2 (carbon) per acre. Soil compaction and density have been reduced, water infiltration capacity is up, and soil aggregate stability is higher, all indicating healthier, more productive soils. Wind and water erosion have almost been eliminated. Dugouts and one seasonal creek are fenced with solar and wind powered pumps supplying water to off-site water troughs.

The well-managed pastures have also provided habitat for a wide range of wildlife species. For example, they have identified more than 75 species of birds on the ranch and of course there are more than enough gophers and badgers.

While Doug is active in forage organizations, Tim Wray is currently participating in the Regenerative Ag Lab through Rural Routes to Climate Change. The goal of the lab is to hopefully introduce the concept and benefits of regenerative agriculture to more producers. Also, in recent years, Tim co-ordinated an on-farm cover crop trial with Food Water Wellness (FWW), the Foothills Forage and Grazing Association (FFGA), Irricana Ag Society and the Centre for Rural Community Leadership and Ministry. 

As Tim and Joanne joined the ranching operation, they have introduced skills and tools to improve overall business management of the farm business. Along with completing a Holistic Management Course, the younger generation also brought a new perspective that has invigorated discussions around both short-term operating and future directions. Tim has developed management spreadsheets, while Joanne has taken on record keeping using AgExpert accounting and Herdtrax cattle software. These systems all help the Wrays to better analyze ranch performance with confidence. They also consult with an extensive network of experts —Nagel Vet Services, DeNovo Ag, Union Forage, FFGA, FWW, Cows in Control Inc., AgGentec, and MNP, along with peers — for expertise, which helps them fine-tune their overall management. 

Proper management won't make it rain, but it does put the ranch in a good position to make the most of moisture that is available. 

"It has been important to us over the years to manage this land to optimize forage production which at the same time improves soil health," says Doug. "It benefits our ranching operation and beef production as well as the environment. We really focus on protecting the health of our pastures. When it does rain these pastures will be able to jump back into production quickly, and we'll be in a position to restock our herd.” 

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