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Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) presented Tom Thompson and Winding Creek Ranch with the 2017 Environmental Stewardship Award in December at the Annual General Meeting. Each year, ABP recognizes an operation that demonstrates leadership in environmental stewardship – one that contributes to the land while improving productivity and profitability. Grass management, riparian area and water management, animal welfare, wildlife and community involvement are all considered during the selection process.

Tom Thompson grew up in farming and agriculture, but it wasn’t until the property across from his parents’ land became available in 1984 that he decided to build a career and a life in ranching. Today, Winding Creek Ranch is a cow calf operation near Mayerthorpe, AB, that rotationally grazes 500 acres, with 700 acres of hay crops.

“Growing up there was something always pulling me into this direction… being a steward of the land. What sustainability means to me is, what you’re doing today, will this carry on for generations,” said Thompson.

The West-Central Forage Association played a large role in changing the focus and management practices on the ranch. Frustrated with some outcomes, Tom attended a seminar on matching production cycles with grazing cycles and began to make significant improvements to his operation. The forage association spoke of Thompson’s keen interest in expanding his knowledge and willingness to share information, while working with him to implement an economically beneficial plan that supported his environmental concerns and beliefs.

“It’s all about harvesting as much sunlight as you can. We move the cattle when the plants still have leaves because the leaves of the plants are like solar panels that feed the root, and that’s what we’re managing for – a strong root system,” said Thompson. “We went from a high input operation to a low input operation… managing the grass and trying to work with mother nature by moving the cattle to fresh forage on a daily basis, fencing the waterways and using the sun to kill bacteria.”

Tom completed an Environmental Farm Plan which introduced him to the Growing Forward program and allowed him to dig deeper into practices that were sustainable, innovative and profitable. After incorporating changes to his winter grazing, watering systems and power fencing for rotational grazing, he quickly saw benefits in his pasture through the increased moisture retention, distribution of nutrients and organic matter, and cost reduction. When rotationally grazing his animals, Tom adheres to the adage of eat half, leave half so the grass has plenty of time for rest and regrowth. Using short duration cycles when grazing increases pressure and minimizes excessive plant defoliation, allowing for rapid regrowth of the grazed plants. Cattle bale graze through the winter months to recycle nutrients back into the soil.

“The technology in power fencing today is so good that we can manage cattle like we’ve never managed them before. You can move hundreds of cattle in 10 minutes and it allows us to keep their nutritional plane as high as you can so they are gaining weight and the calves are growing. When the forage and the grass are growing, and the animals are happy… you will be profitable and sustainable. My stewardship goals are to keep the animals and the plants healthy, growing and viable,” said Thompson.

Riparian areas and dugouts are fenced to keep cattle out, and water is pumped to solar powered watering systems. The solar panel system plays a huge conservation role on the ranch, including running his home. Even on a cloudy day, Thompson says the solar panels charge to at least 40-50 per cent, however, he decided to go even bigger to get through the winter months when the sun is lower.

“We want to keep the water sources clean so the animals will do better. We have all of the waterways and dugouts fenced so the animals aren’t allowed access. We pump the water to them so their feet stay dry, and we have a buffer strip for the riparian areas,” said Thompson.

When it comes down to it, the focus at Winding Creek Ranch is on three important keys: matching the forage cycle to the production cycle, resting the grass during the growth cycle, and having a smaller, hardier animal that will do more for less.

“When I’m out in the sunshine working with plants and animals, doing something I have a passion for, it isn’t really work. I want to be out there doing a good job and seeing the changes. We’re just caretakers here… borrowing this land from the next generation,” said Thompson.

You can watch Alberta Beef Producers’ 2017 Environmental Stewardship Award video online at: vimeo.com/194756179.