Same grass, different boss

Lower overhead costs under not-for-profit co-op and municipal management structures translate into cheaper pasture fees for ranchers at two non-AESB pastures

Two community pasture operations in Manitoba offer a glimpse of what the future may hold after the federal government phases out its involvement over the next six years.

In the rural municipality of Wallace, near Kirkella, a block containing 25 quarters of marginal, rugged land is grazed from around June 1 to Oct. 15.

It’s a “no bull” non-breeding pasture, where for a $60 seasonal fee, yearlings owned by local ranchers graze under the supervision of a single paid employee and his string of saddle horses.

“It’s cheap grass,” said manager Alistair Hagan.

The pasture has been in operation on municipal-owned land since the 1970s, and in most years, it either breaks even or turns a profit for the RM of Wallace, said Sandy Heaman, a councillor who sits on the committee that oversees its operations.

Fenceline

The RM built the five-strand barbed wire fence that surrounds the pasture and is responsible for maintaining it. The manager’s salary and other costs come out of pasture fees. A volunteer committee made up of Heaman, a fellow councillor, and a handful of local ratepayers with ties to the cattle business meet several times a year to establish rates and make operational decisions.

Apart from a few of the worst years post-BSE, the operation covering an area where there are no roads and no residences or farms paid for itself while providing a valuable service for ratepayers and area ranchers, she said.

“Last year we made a profit, and this year we’re anticipating an even better profit,” said Heaman.

Running a community pasture is not particularly troublesome, she added, but whether other RMs opt to take over once the federal government phases out its role will depend on the attitudes of local councils.

On the east side of the RM lies the Wallace Community Pasture, which is run by the Agri-Environment Services Branch (AESB, formerly PFRA). The land is half owned by the RM and half provincial Crown land. As for its future, Heaman said that councillors are still waiting for direct correspondence from the federal government on when they plan to phase out control.

Near Langruth, a community pasture has operated for about five years under a not-for-profit co-op model with a volunteer board of directors on land formerly managed by the PFRA.

Fee dispute

Jim Murray, a founding member of Big Grass Grazers Pasture, said that about 26 local ranchers stepped in to take over after the RM and the PFRA couldn’t settle a dispute over rent on the roughly 20,000-acre parcel near the Big Grass marsh.

“When we first started, it was hard to get enough cattle, but now we’ve got a lineup of people wanting to get in,” said Murray.

Local ranchers prefer the co-op over the PFRA because they are given more say in how things are done in the bushy, swampy pasture that grazes about 2,000 cow-calf pairs for $72 each every 120-day season starting in late May.

For example, they can put their own breeding bull in with the herd instead of paying a breeding fee, and can check up on their animals whenever they want.

Like the pasture near Kirkella, the RM is responsible for fixing the fence every spring, but the co-op’s riders do repairs in season.

Low overhead means ranchers benefit from lower pasture fees.

“We’re not paying someone in Regina to sit behind a desk pushing paper,” said Murray.

Twelve years ago, as a young cowboy, Hagan worked as a pasture rider in a PFRA-run operation. The day-to-day operations people were good, but the organization was top heavy with upper management and needlessly wasteful.

“It was typical government,” he said, adding that he saw $150,000 tractors with nothing more than a post pounder on behind.

Hagan hopes that community pastures continue as “grazeable grass” for local ranchers, regardless of who ends up running them.

“As long as the grass is available to farmers at reasonable rates is the main thing,” said Hagan. “The PFRA was a heck of a good idea. It’s just that times have changed.”

Gerald Huebner, Winnipeg-based director of GO Teams for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, said that provincial officials are working with representatives of AESB and the federal government on transitioning community pastures to other management.

Huebner said that the province is not in a position to take over community pastures, but will be working on a number of scenarios involving patrons, municipalities and industry stakeholder groups.

“We’re very concerned about community pastures. They’ve been a very important resource to the livestock sector for many years and we hope that continues,” said Huebner.

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