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Four Nickels And A Blizzard

A paradigm can be defined as a pattern of thinking. A pattern of thinking from the perspective of a farm includes all preconceived ideas, previous education, personal values, and established family dynamics. This is important to understand and realize when looking at decisions and options going forward. We have had several frank discussions around our kitchen table regarding the direction of our farm into the future and why we do things the way we do.

I like to think about “Four nickels” when discussing paradigms (Pair of Dimes). I use this term to remind me to be aware of my own paradigms when I look at decisions and to ensure that I look at things in different ways and respect others approach to the same issue. This does not mean that decisions made under a specific paradigm are poor or wrong, just that it is helpful to be aware of the context of the decision and to keep the decision-maker in context.

So how does this relate to blizzards or anything to do with the cattle business of today?

Farmers and ranchers live with their eye on the sky and the relationship of weather to a management paradigm is a good example.

In March of 1904 a three-day blizzard hit the Prairies and killed thousands of animals. This is of note because it coincides with many of the early settlers, who had just arrived or were to come in the next couple of years. These were the predecessors of many in the ranching business of today. In 1904 not many people put up feed for cows, but in 1905 I suspect that number grew.

An entire winter of note hit in 1915-16, reinforcing the mildly forgotten lesson of a decade earlier. This represents the first and second generations who came to ranch on the Prairies, and the start of the cow feeding paradigm.

Perhaps great-grandfather lost cattle during 1904 and your grandpa lost cattle again in 1916. They continually instilled in their kids that you have to have X tons of feed available per cow and that the cows must be kept close to home in the wintertime. This argument was predicated on experience and good judgement.

The third generation perhaps let that lesson slip with the arrogance of youth, but learned a hard “I told you so” in 1964. On December 15, 1964 the “Great Blizzard” hit the southern Prairies and in addition to three people, thousands of livestock perished in the storm. This event was reinforced in 1967 when two major storms hit in April.

This same generation also trained most of us involved in beef cattle production today, and with family structures in agriculture the lesson was reinforced by the previous generations sitting around the dinner table. “You have to have feed sitting in the stack and feed cows close to home, preferably in a corral, for 200 days.”

This is just one example of practices in agriculture that have entered the realm of standard practice without a lot of questioning since most of us come from the same paradigm. As I mentioned, these decisions and practices are not wrong and they were developed with good reason at the time, but by understanding the drivers behind the paradigm and looking from a four-nickel perspective we can intelligently examine those decisions.

Even though many of us may use equipment from the eras mentioned, it is fair to say that in the past, equipment and transportation infrastructure were very different from today. Economics and labour availability/cost were also very different. Asking “why?” with the persistence of a four-year-old has led many producers to viable solutions to the feeding issue with innovations such as swath or bale grazing, portable windbreaks, novel feedstuffs or altering calving seasons.

This is just one oversimplified example, but I would encourage you to look at your own family histories and your current ranch management and count your 20 pennies. By looking at things from a four-nickel perspective it is sometimes even possible to earn an extra one from time to time.

Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, AB. He can be reached at [email protected]or (780)853-9673. For additional information visit

About the author


Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit



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