It’s not every day a 19,000-acre working cattle ranch lands in your lap, but that’s the very welcome problem the University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine School (UCVM) is dealing with this fall as a gift from an Alberta ranching family propels the 13-year-old school into a league of its own among vet schools in North America.
The gift, valued at $44 million, provides UCVM with the lock, stock and barrel operation of W.A. Ranches — a well-established, family-owned beef cattle operation northwest of Calgary, with the ranch headquarters within about a 30 minute drive of the school.
The gift is a game changer says Ed Pajor, a UCVM professor of animal behaviour and welfare, who is up to his boot tops this fall directing the transition of incorporating a working cattle ranch into UCVM learning objectives. It will take some planning to weave teaching and research programs into a fully functioning ranch with 1,000 head of cattle, all machinery and five full-time employees.
“The UCVM has established itself as one of the top 50 veterinary schools in the world but this is certainly a transformative gift,” says Pajor. “It provides us an opportunity to move to a new level. There are other universities and veterinary schools with farms and land, but this is certainly the largest gift in terms of land area and value in the country.”
W.A. Ranches was gifted to UCVM by J.C. (Jack) Anderson and his daughter Wynne Chisholm. And it wasn’t their first donation to the school. In 2014 a $5 million donation established the Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare.
“We are gifting the assets of our ranch to the University of Calgary to create a world-leading centre of excellence in beef cattle research,” Wynne Chisholm said at time of the ranch donation in September. She is a 1979 graduate of the University of Calgary alumni. “Our hope is that this gift will transform the teaching, learning and outreach experiences at UCVM, and empower faculty and students to create and share the scientific, evidence-based discoveries that will improve animal care and welfare, enhance our industry, and inform the public.”
The actual ownership of the ranch will transfer to the university at the end of November, but work is well underway planning the transition.“Our first task is just to get a handle on how the ranch operates,” says Pajor. He’s pleased the ranch comes with a full package including a ranch manager and four employees. The university will hire a general manager who will act as the “interface” between the ranch and UCVM.
While there are many details to be worked out, Pajor says the ranch will be part of the UCVM program on many levels.
First it will be a hands-on teaching facility for the 130 full-time veterinary students attending UCVM, which so far has worked with a number of co-operator ranches and feedlots to provide students with experience. Now with a fully functioning 1,000-head cattle ranch of their own, much of the teaching will be at the ranch. Calving season is just a few months away.
“We’ve worked with some excellent producers over the years and hopefully we will continue those relationships to some degree,” says Pajor.
Along with teaching the ranch will also be a centre for applied livestock research useful to the Alberta and Canadian beef industry. Key research areas will include animal health, welfare and nutrition.
On another level, W.A. Ranches will lend itself well to multidisciplinary research at the university. This will be an opportunity to involve several faculties and disciplines in looking at some of the broader social issues such as the relationship or impact of ranching on the environment, water quality and human health.
Pajor also sees W.A. Ranches as a perfect venue to increase the general public awareness of ranching and the agriculture industry. He foresees programs that will involve, for example, high school students and average consumers getting a first-hand look at how a modern ranch operates.
“I call this a ranch of opportunity,” says Pajor. “It will provide us the opportunity to become a world leader in beef cattle research, enhance our ability to be a world-class teaching facility, and also provide outreach to engage the community and increase the public understanding of what agriculture is all about.”