Managing a Community Pasture

There's no other job like it. And it's not just because you get to ride a horse and herd cattle. Duties, of course, are a big reason why a pasture manager's job is different from others at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Managers look after thousands of acres of rangeland and hundreds of head of cattle, treat sick animals, bale hay and straw, and repair equipment and fences. To do it all, they have to be part mechanic, farmer, range specialist, vet, stockman and cowboy.

Another difference is the hours of work. The position has no defined hours. If need be, pasture managers work seven days a week, dawn to dusk. It's required because they are working with animals and equipment, both of which can pose problems at any time. For example, if cattle get out through the fence, or a windmill stops pumping water, the manager cannot wait until the next morning, or after the weekend, to look after the problem. It has to be corrected as soon as possible.

But, perhaps the unique feature of the job is where the manager lives-on the pasture. Each pasture (there is one exception) has a headquarters yard, containing a home, barn, outbuildings and corrals. The home, for which the manager pays rent, provides both living and office space.

By living on the pasture, managers are, in effect, at work all the time. They can't close the office door at five o'clock and leave their work behind. Nor can they disappear home to where neighbours and friends may know nothing about AAFC or what they do. Their work is always "out the back door" and they are known by everyone in the community.

It's an arrangement where patrons become friends and neighbours-people one associates with on a regular basis at curling and hockey rinks, 4H meetings, church, rodeos, barbecues, baseball games, and committee meetings. According to Doug Young, past Manager of the Kindersley-Elma and Antelope Park Community Pastures, patrons treat the pasture like any other farm in the community. "Patrons phone or drop in at all times of the day or night, weekends included," he said. "Most of the phone calls are before 7:30 in the morning, during noon hour, or after dark. That's when the patrons are home. When they drop in, we usually end up discussing things around the kitchen table. Home life can be disrupted quite a bit…you have to have an understanding family."

When you put all of these different duties and related activities together, you have a position that is more a way of life than a job, and one that brings you in closer contact with the community and AAFC's clients than any other in the organization.

The pasture year

The pasture year begins in November. That's when patrons re-apply to bring their cattle to the pasture. The applications trigger a planning process that includes drawing up grazing plans for the next season and acquiring any extra bulls that will be needed.

Other winter work includes feeding the pasture's bulls, collecting deposits from patrons to hold their pasture space, and conducting the pasture's annual meeting.

Outdoor work picks up in April. Fences, corrals, windmills and solar panels are checked and fixed, and dugouts and rangeland inspected. The amount of water available and the condition of the rangeland determine how many cattle a patron can bring. If there is not enough of either, the number of cattle is cut to fit conditions. Managers make this decision in consultation with the Pasture Advisory Committee, a group of patrons who make suggestions on running the pasture. Summer staff (Pasture Riders) are also hired in April.

Cattle begin arriving in May. It's called the take-in, and can stretch from May to the end of June. "The length varies from year to year, and depends on the weather and the patrons," Doug explained. "If there's not enough moisture for the grass to grow, the date is set back. If there is good moisture, the patrons may be too busy seeding to bring their cattle. And if there's really a lot of rain, the roads may be too muddy to haul on."

When they do arrive, each animal is counted and, if necessary, treated, branded, ear-tagged, dehorned, and castrated. It's a big job when you're handling between 1,000 to 9,000 animals weighing anywhere from 100 to 1,500 pounds each. It's also a job that can extend from the early hours of the morning to sunset and through the weekend, depending on when patrons can bring their cattle.

Horses begin arriving the first of June. Most are in Manitoba pastures and belong to farmers and ranchers involved in the PMU (Pregnant Mare Urine) industry. Horses are a whole new ball game, according to Ross Sigfusson, former manager of McCreary and Alonsa Community Pastures. Ross managed 9,000 animals and 73,000 acres of land on the two pastures. Horses were introduced into his pastures in 1995. "You have to learn what spooks them and gets them running," he said. "They react differently than cattle, and when they get going, they're a lot faster and move greater distances than the cattle."

Ross has found stallions to be a particular challenge. "They make bulls look like pussy-cats," he said. "They're afraid of nothing, and they're real quick. One stallion knocked over one of our riders and his horse and left his teeth marks in the rider's saddle as a reminder of what happened."

Over summer, cattle and horses are checked at least once a week. It varies from one pasture to the next, according to Al DeLorme, former Manager of Foam Lake Community Pasture. "At my pasture, there were only 1,300 head of cattle and 11,000 acres to manage. We had a lot of cattle in small fields, and we rotated them through the different paddocks quite often. As a result, our cattle were checked at least twice a week. In bigger pastures with more cattle, they may only be checked once a week. However, if there are health problems, cattle will be checked more often."

Ensuring the safety and health of the animals, and that the cows and mares are bred, are two of the manager's most important duties. "They're not our animals. They belong to the patrons," says Al. "What we do with them on a day-to-day basis can affect another family's income. For example, if we don't notice a sick animal soon enough and get it treated, it could die. And if we don't notice a bull or stallion isn't doing his job, patrons won't have calves or foals in the spring. If any of these things happen, it will mean a loss of income for the patron."

Dealing with third parties-conservation groups, oil companies, hunters, and recreation groups-is another big summer job for many managers. Doug, for instance, has close to 200 oil wells on his two pastures and spends about a third of his time dealing with oil and drilling companies. "I have input on where they drill, how they maintain their roads and drill sites, and how they restore the pasture after putting in a pipeline. It's to ensure they don't damage ecologically sensitive areas, disturb historical sites and, over the long term, affect our grazing patterns too much."

Cutting and baling hay starts in late June or early July. It's also a job that can result in some long hours. Hay has to be "put-up" as quickly as possible so it doesn't get rained on and lose some of its quality. The hay is used to feed the pasture's bulls over winter.

Stallions are rounded up and sent home after August 1. Bulls are separated from the cows after approximately 60 days. Rented bulls are picked up by their owners; AAFC-owned bulls are put in fields away from the cows. The mares and foals are rounded up and sent home in September and the cows and calves in October.

One of the last jobs of the season is collecting the grazing and breeding fees from the patrons and sending the money in to Land Management staff in Regina. Once that's done, the managers are free to open the new applications they are receiving and begin planning for the next grazing season.

No other job

Despite the hours and demands of the job, and the fact they are government employees living in a community fish bowl, a manager would be very reluctant to change jobs. His position allows him to live the life he wants-outdoors, on a ranch working with animals. If demands get too great around the office, he can always saddle up a horse, ride out on the range, and check a few hundred head of cattle while keeping an eye out for wildlife and listening to the wind. It doesn't get much better than that.

Written by Bill King, AAFC