The cattle business is definitely more of a marathon than a sprint, and for good reason. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means and many factors — from the interaction of livestock and the natural landscape to market vagaries to supply chain issues — come into play.
Ben and Stephanie Campbell, ranchers just north of Black Diamond, AB, know that a slow and steady approach focused on keeping the land and animals in harmony is the winning one for their direct to market operation, Grazed Right. In business only since 2013, the Campbells currently run 300 yearlings on 1,500 acres in Alberta’s iconic foothills.
Ben is as enthusiastic as any rancher despite his unique path into agriculture. He didn’t inherit his ranch, like many do. In fact, he studied engineering and worked in Katete, Zambia for Engineers Without Borders before spending a few years working in Calgary. The novelty of being a downtown man quickly wore off and he and Stephanie charted a deliberate path to ranch life. Although he was raised on an acreage near where he ranches today, Ben had to buy land from a family member at market value and began with just four yearlings.
That humble start kicked off methodical growth that has allowed him to stay true to his passion for conservation and the environment. He makes it perfectly clear that the goal of the ranch is, and always will be, providing a connection for city people to the country. But Grazed Right is still a business, so decisions are deliberately made to keep the ranch profitable and reach some serious conservation goals.
LETTING CONSERVATION LEAD
Each year the Campbells sell 25 cows direct to consumer (although it’s been as high as 45) and the rest are sold into the commodity market. All animals are grass fed and strip grazed. “I didn’t need many acres or resources to have a direct marketing biz,” he says, adding that selling a portion of his cattle into the commodity market has given him the time and money to focus on what’s important to him and his family, which includes three children under 10. “I consider myself a conservationist and now, one of my central goals of having this ranch is conservation.”
That self-assigned label is important to Ben because it influences how he interacts with the land and what his goals are. He likens himself to a park ranger in a national park — responsible for taking care of the land while earning a living raising the animals that live there.
And that means all animals. Despite being surrounded by just about every animal you can imagine — think grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves, moose and more — the Campbells do not trap or shoot any, preferring to let nature take its course and allow the food chain to work itself out.
All their wetlands are fenced off to protect the increasingly important » waterways, and the water for cows is all provided through a remote watering system, delivered by more than 10,000 feet of aboveground pipe. Solar powered water troughs are a frequent site on the Campbells’ land, as are nest boxes for threatened species such as the American kestrel.
Choosing to strip graze the cattle means spring, summer and fall are particularly busy for Ben as he moves animals every day from one grazing area to the next. The goal is to mimic the historic patterns of bison. “The point of the ranch is to protect the land and I use the cattle to (do that),” he explains. “Cattle are my grasslands management tool. I try to do that the same way the bison did.”
By moving the cattle every 24 hours, Ben guarantees his soil and grass are healthier, with increased water absorption when it rains or snows, and promoting the biodiversity of insects and birds. The system means that each section of grass is grazed only twice every 365 days — a number Ben is happy with.
While his management philosophy and approach are working well, the former engineer is not driven by money above all else, only being a steward of the land. “I gave up a lot as an engineer to be a farmer,” he says. “We make money to stay in business so we can manage the land effectively.”
THE ADVANTAGE OF CHOOSING AN UNCONVENTIONAL PATH
Over the last nine years, the Campbells have made many decisions, some of which have proven better than others, but the best one by far, Ben says, was the first one: buying the ranch and going full tilt at running it their way.
“We choose to view the ranch as a holistic ecosystem; that we are animals that live here as well,” he says. “We don’t view the animals and ourselves as separate chunks. We are human animals that live on the farm and eat things that are produced on the farm and we will keep it healthy with that goal in mind.”
There have been mistakes, to be sure. For instance, the first year he and Stephanie rented the entire ranch from family, they were managing their own animals and a neighbour’s cattle (530 animals in total) and he decided to bale graze in February with two-and-a-half feet of snow on the ground. “It was hell,” he says plainly, but adds that despite the hundreds of extra hours of labour, the market’s upswing at the end of the year made up for a lousy start.
Getting into ranching without any inter-generational history gave Ben the advantage of fresh eyes. “I’ve been told my biggest strength is I don’t know anything, and I know it,” he laughs. “I was able to learn modern, cutting-edge practices and implement them. I don’t have an identity or self worth tied up in roping and riding a horse. My identity is being successful.”
Over the years, Ben has attended countless grazing management courses. In 2016 alone, he spent more than $10,000 on learning techniques and methods to help him ranch better. But he also places great value on lived knowledge and found trusted mentors in nearby ranchers Jim Bauer, Mike Roberts and Dylan Biggs.
“(On our ranch) we have the benefit of knowing nothing and being willing to learn and try new things and if those don’t work, try new things again,” he says. “We are always going to be adapting, learning and growing. We’ve never arrived at perfection.”
CONNECTING PEOPLE TO FOOD
Part of never being perfect is to show others that owning a ranch can be messy and not always idyllic. It’s why the Campbells offer monthly tours of their ranch to anyone interested in seeing what they’re doing. The majority of attendees are city residents, which he and Stephanie welcome as an opportunity to re-connect people to their food systems.
“I want to revolutionize ag and food production and that starts with an informed consumer,” he says. “If they don’t know anything, if they’re not able to make an informed decision, they’re not capable of making a good decision. I trust people and my experience with people is that they are trustworthy if you give them information.”
Earlier this year, the Campbells were recognized as winners of the Outstanding Young Farmers Program award for the Alberta/NWT region. “It was really just about spending time together as an agricultural community and celebrating each other’s successes and learning and growing,” he says.
While they appreciate the accolade, he and Stephanie are just getting started. “People love nature and animals and wildlife,” he says. “Who doesn’t want to protect the environment or do good things for animals? I’m excited to address climate change through agriculture. It’s a positive and exciting message, it’s not a doom and gloom message.
We’re not helpless. We can make the world a better place.”