Having to cope with clouds of mosquitoes this summer while cutting a rejuvenated hay crop was a relatively small price for Alberta ranchers James Hargrave and Archie Sabin to pay. At least they had hay to cut.
That hasn’t always been the case on their extensive southeastern Alberta ranching operations that lie northeast of Medicine Hat, running up to the Saskatchewan border.
In 2008 it was so dry, that on one field they had to cover two acres to make a full 1,400-pound bale of hay. In 2009, after renovating the field with a low disturbance seeding system — and yes a bit of rain — the yield jumped to two bales or about 2,800 pounds of hay per acre. Another played-out hay stand, that last year yielded about a quarter of a ton per acre, was reseeded this spring and produced one ton per acre.
“The mosquitoes were wicked this year,” recalls Archie Sabin, who has been a ranch manager for three generations of the Hargrave family for more than 30 years. They had to layer their clothing, wear gloves, don face masks and goggles as they cut the stand of alfalfa that will be part of the winter feeding program for about 1,500 head of cattle. But aside from the seasonal nuisance they were pleased to finally see a decent crop.
Yes, the rain was an important factor, but what really impressed James Hargrave was the low disturbance Agroplow drill — model AD500 AgrowDrill — that made it possible for him to re-seed fields without a full tillage operation.
“Even under good conditions, if we had to work it up conventionally, it would take about three years to see a crop again, and under poor conditions it might take five years,” says Hargrave. “By being able to seed into the old stand we didn’t miss a beat. We had hay to cut, even the first year.”
Hargrave and Sabin manage the 120-year-old ranching enterprise that was established by James’ great, great grandfather in 1888. The ranch encompasses two separate operations. James, 26, and his wife Elizabeth live on the 25,000-acre Hargrave Ranch headquarters, which is just north of Walsh, and about 35 miles north of them, Sabin and his family manage the 26,000-acre Bull Springs Ranch, which is on the South Saskatchewan River near Schuler.
Over the two operations, which are mostly native prairie grassland, they run an 850-head cow-calf herd and on average 500 to 600 head of yearlings. They’ve backgrounded some calves on winter pasture for several years and this year built a new backgrounding feedlot on the Hargrave Ranch to accommodate about 700 head of calves.
From their own cow-calf herd, which is mostly Red and Black Angus cows bred to Beef Booster bulls, they direct market the heavier 560-pound and heavier calves and will background the lighter ones.
They overwinter most of the herd on the Hargrave Ranch. Part of the ranch is located on a dry lake bed, which the local Indians recommended to James’ great, great grandfather as a good place to homestead because it was an area where the buffalo always wintered.
“Some years, depending on conditions, we barely have to feed at all,” says James. “The cattle can graze the native mixed grass prairie all winter.” They stockpile forage on native pasture during the summer, saving part of the ranch just for winter grazing. “We like to have enough hay on hand for 100 days of feeding, but on average we probably only need to feed about 35 days a year.” he says.
While there is an irrigation system for part of the hayland on the Hargrave Ranch it is very weather dependent. A shallow 600-acre reservoir/ lake on the ranch is fed by McKay and Boxelder Creeks, which originate further south in the Cypress Hills. If there is good runoff and rain the reservoir will fill and they actually have capacity to pivot irrigate about 500 acres of developed hayland. In the past they have flood irrigated another 1,000 acres of native grass for hay, but most of their irrigation is focused
A new backgrounding feedlot, left, and a typical float-controlled pasture watering tank, right
on the developed hayfields. There is another 200 acres of developed hayland on the Bull Spring Ranch, which is irrigated out of the South Saskatchewan River.
But, if there isn’t sufficient water in the creeks and reservoir on the Hargrave Ranch, hay production depends on timely rainfall. While they had timely rains through part of 2009, growing-season moisture has been below average the past few years. The last big hay crop in 2003 produced about 4,000 bales, which provided a good stockpile, but over the past five years most of that has been used up.
Aside from the lack of moisture, some of the hayfields had just played out. Archie remembers working with James’ late father, Harry Hargrave, to seed some of those fields 20 years ago. The stands had become unproductive. The fields had originally been seeded to alfalfa and intermediate wheat grass, but now mostly crested wheatgrass was left.
James first started to reseed some of the main irrigated hay fields in 2005. The land on this part of the ranch, mostly clay/gumbo, was worked in the fall of 2004 and seeded to a brome/alfalfa/wheatgrass mixture the following spring. But it never rained, the soil set up as hard as pavement and nothing much grew. It remained a very poor stand. Finally, in 2008, after hearing about the Agroplow drill, an Australian-built direct seeding system, ideally suited for hay and pasture rejuvenation, he decided to give it a try.
In June 2008 he tried a 15-foot wide drill supplied by Agroplow’s Canadian office in Crossfield, Alberta. The drill, with 24 shanks, was used to direct seed 110 acres of the clay/gumbo hayfield. The drill features a set of coulters at the front which slice through the soil and sod to a depth of about three to four inches. The coulters are followed by an inverted T-boot designed shank that creates the seed bed. The seed blend, which included eight pounds of alfalfa per acre, was placed one-half inch deep, and packed by an attached flexi-roller packer.
“We weren’t able to irrigate, but fortunately we had a good rain after we seeded and the alfalfa germinated,” says James. “We didn’t cut any hay off the field in 2008, but this year, with good moisture, we were able to get about 2,800 pounds of hay per acre where last year (from the old stand) all we could get was about 700 pounds per acre.”
Further to the south, on another old dryland hay stand that was mostly crested wheat grass with a few remnant alfalfa plants, he first sprayed out the crop with glyphosate and then in May 2009 direct seeded, with the Agroplow drill, a mixture with six pounds of alfalfa and four pounds of AC Saltlander, a relatively new green wheatgrass. The new seeding received no rain
until June, but by late August Hargrave took a single cut of about one tonne per acre.
With hopes a new seeding will remain productive for about eight years, Hargrave bought the drill so he can renew more of his hayland and he also plans to do custom seeding.
“It is a great way to get these hayfields back into full production,” he says. “If I had to work the fields before seeding there would be four or five passes with the heavy harrow. I’d have to work it up one year, seed the next, and it would probably be the third year before I had a crop and maybe longer depending on growing conditions.
“This is much simpler and the cost is minimal. I think it is probably best to spray out the old stand with glyphosate and then just go in and seed. It is a one pass seeding system, and although conditions
(Left photo) James Hargrave, left, and Archie Sabin take a closer look at a rejuvenated hayfield, (right photo) Graeme Finn, left of Agroplow in Crossfield, Alta., Bob West of RA West International of Vulcan, Alta, (equipment dealer) and James Hargrave look an unproductive corner of a hayfield that has not been reseeded.
might vary, in a year like this, we were able to seed in the spring and still be able to take a cut of hay in late summer.”
As a graduate of the Lakeland College, Vermillion, Alta., agriculture program, Hargrave says his goal is to drought proof the ranching operation as much as possible. Although the ranch has an extensive land base he is well aware of the limited productivity of the native range if it isn’t managed properly.
“The Western wheat grass and other native grasses provide excellent pasture but they can’t be overgrazed,” he says. “I deliberately target a fairly low stocking rate. Some years it may look like we are leaving grass behind, but under dry conditions, if the plants haven’t been stressed, they will still be productive.”
His other objective is to continue to improve livestock distribution over the ranches. “There is plenty of grass out there, but one of the limiting factors to get cattle to use it is water,” he says. Both the Hargrave and Bull Spring ranches already have extensive pipeline systems carrying water to ‘dry’ areas of the range. The home ranch has about 20 miles of two-inch polypipe carrying water to 22 pastures, while the Bull Spring Ranch has a pipeline network out to 35 pastures.
With several more miles of pipeline needed to the bring water to the farthest corners of the ranch, Hargrave hopes to eventually increase carrying capacity. He’d like to increase the cow herd to about 1,000 head, realizing in dry years he might have to reduce numbers to protect the range. “The native grasses can be very productive, even under dry conditions, but it all depends on management,” he says.
Lee Hart is a editor of Cattleman’s Corner in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]