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Thriving Pastures & Healthy Livestock: Grass Management Techniques for Alberta Ranchers

Here’s one thing ranchers know to be true: Alberta’s livestock industry is only as healthy as its pastures. It keeps animals well-fed and productive, the water clean and sustainably managed, and native wildlife thriving.

So, before you think about buying an Alberta ranch for sale or even just maintaining the ones you already have, it’s important to understand the basics of grass management.

This guide will provide the basics of grass management in Alberta—from pasture improvement to soil conservation techniques—and help you be better prepared to manage your land.

Skip to What You Need to Know:

A Short History Of The Canadian Grasslands

An exclusive ranch in the grasslands of Alberta

When pastures, grazing lands, and agricultural crops become the topic of discussion, it is impossible to ignore the significance of Canada’s grasslands.

Here’s a brief overview of the history of grasslands in Alberta:

Millions of years of evolution have enabled ancient natural grasslands to adapt to herbivore grazing.

But between 1870 and 1930, this precious habitat was decimated as hectares of grassland were transformed by European settlers into land for annual crop agriculture.

It took a slew of government policy decisions for this transformation to happen. A perfect example is the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 which opened all cultivable land to homesteaders.

This led to tragic consequences for many farming families who settled in problematic areas where prolonged droughts made grain farming impossible.

Early European settlers typically lacked good grazing management practices due to viewing the prairies as a “wasteland,” leading to overgrazing and, eventually, degradation of some lands.

Overgrazing: Ranchers’ Achilles Heel

Overgrazing is when livestock has access to too much grass at once, leading to the land being grazed beyond its capacity.

This can cause the grasslands to become degraded, leading to the loss of soil nutrients and, ultimately, desertification.

Their negligence can still be felt today as soil erosion issues, fragmentation of habitat and loss of native species continue to be a threat to Alberta’s natural grasslands.

Fortunately, essential laws are being enforced, and ranchers can now access various grazing management strategies to preserve Alberta’s grasslands!

Grazing Lease: Promoting Stewardship Among Ranchers

Livestock on a grassland. Grazing leases in Alberta can be for agricultural or industrial purposes.

Grazing leases in Alberta offer a way for ranchers to profit while also preserving the region’s grasslands.

The Public Land Act oversees the management of the area’s grazing land, ensuring it’s used sustainably.

There are two types of grazing leases: agricultural and industrial. Agricultural leases focus on livestock grazing, while industrial leases cater to exploration activities like oil and gas.

Interestingly, grazing lands can also be used for recreational purposes. Leaseholders can allow activities like hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes on their land.

They’re encouraged to collaborate with other users to minimize conflicts and promote responsible land use.

Typically, grazing leases in Alberta last for 20 years. To be eligible for renewal, leaseholders must meet certain conditions, such as proper land management and timely payment of fees.

Leaseholders pay annual fees calculated based on the land’s carrying capacity and the rental rate, which the provincial government determines and can change.

The Cost Of Being A Leaseholder

Looking for a flourishing ranch for sale in Alberta? It’s also essential to understand the price that comes with holding a grazing lease. Here’s a list of capital and annual operating costs to keep in mind:

Capital Costs

  1. Fence Structures– This is crucial for keeping your livestock in and predators out.
  2. Rangeland Improvements – This includes weed control, seeding, and brush management.
  3. Road construction – Access to your ranch is vital for you and your livestock.
  4. Fire Protection And Prevention – Installing fire breaks and having the proper equipment can help prevent devastating wildfires.

Annual Operating Costs:

  1. Farm Structure Maintenance– Regular upkeep is necessary for the longevity of your ranch.
  2. Property Taxes To Municipality – This is an annual cost for owning property.
  3. Human Labour – This will be a recurring cost if you have employees or hire contractors for various tasks.
  4. Supplemental Feed Costs – During drought or low forage, you may need to supplement your livestock’s diet.

The Universal Laws of Grazing Management

Crawford Viosin developed grassland management principles by observing his cows graze.

Now that you know the necessary costs of owning a ranch and are more excited than ever about investing in a ranch for sale in Alberta, let’s review the essential laws of grazing management.

Early developments in grazing management can be traced back to the biochemist Crawford Voisin.

In the mid-1900, he developed what is now called Crawford Voisin’s Four Laws of Rational Grazing when observing his cows’ graze. Today, many ranches in Alberta use these four laws as the foundations of their grazing practices.

The four laws or principles are designed to maximize the growth of pastures and the intake of ruminants while maintaining soil fertility.

The Law of Rest 

This law is all about giving pastures a break before grazing them again.

By determining the optimum recovery period (ORP) for the most productive and nutritious plant species, animals can enjoy herbage with the highest nutritional value.

Plus, when plants are cut at the ORP, they grow back faster, have less fiber content, and are more palatable.

The Law of Occupation 

This one states that the total time spent on one pasture should be short enough to prevent grazing of plant regrowth too soon.

Ideally, animals should graze the same pasture for up to three days, sometimes just one or two, depending on regional conditions.

Cattle grazing a patch of grassland

The Law of Maximum Performance

To get the most out of a herd, animals with the highest nutritional needs should have access to the best nutrition.

This can be achieved with leader-follower grazing groups, where lactating animals graze on fresh pasture first, followed by non-lactating animals.

This way, high-demand animals get the most nutritious herbage, while lower-demand animals still benefit from previously grazed areas.

The Law of Regular Performance

This law suggests that animals should spend no more than three days in the same pasture for optimal performance.

This helps promote herbage regrowth with higher leaf-to-tiller rates, resulting in more nutritious grass.

You can read more about Voisin’s four laws in his book, ‘Grass Productivity: An Introduction To Rational Grazing.’ It’s a must-have for both experienced and newbie ranchers!

Benefits Of Good Grazing Management

Good grazing management can provide a range of benefits to both the environment and livestock. If done right, it should help:

  • Maintain desirable and healthy forage plants on pastures
  • Enhance livestock production capacity and wildlife habitat
  • Retain water more effectively and prevent quick rain runoff
  • Minimize soil erosion through careful forage supply to meet livestock production needs

By considering the best pasture management strategies, Alberta ranchers have a more significant potential to be environmentally and economically prosperous!

The Takeaway

Your dream ranch could be in Alberta! Discover ranches for sale in Alberta with our help.

Investing in a ranch for sale in the prairies of Alberta requires commitment, knowledge, and dedication. And one main pillar of ranching is proper grazing management. With the proper grazing management practices and land preservation strategies, you can be sure your property will thrive for years.

Looking for a ranch in Alberta? Hansen Land Brokers can help you find the perfect one. We offer a wide selection of properties that will meet your goals. Contact us today to view our ranches for sale.

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