Days spent in pouring rain, or even heavy snowfall, while rounding up 3,200 head of cattle in Kananaskis Country isn’t unusual for a team of Foothills ranchers.
Weather serves only as a nuisance for the approximately 20 cowboys who spend a week combing heavy brush to round up their cattle in early October.
“We gather for four days and then sort cattle for two,” said John Thomson, who owns a ranch east of Black Diamond. “Mine is the last herd to come out of the forestry on the last day just because it’s one of the bigger permits.”
This year, Thomson received a permit to graze 197 cow/calf pairs on approximately 100 square miles of forestry land west of Turner Valley. While he has to pay to put his cattle to pasture from mid-June to mid-October, it saves Thomson’s own land for growing hay and it allows him to run more cattle.
The ranchers, all members of the South Sheep Creek Stock Association, work together to herd the cattle each fall, camping at Junction Creek at the end of Highway 546.
Riders hired by the association assign each rancher to specific areas throughout the week, said Thomson.
“We just go out and cover that area as best we can,” he said. “Most people that are up there have been in most of the area so they have an idea of where they’re going.”
During the days of gathering, the ranchers either spend their nights in a tent or overnight in a bunkhouse with a cook-shack and barn.
“We generally get started at about 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m.,” said Thomson. “It depends on where you’re going, but sometimes you can get back in the afternoon and other times it will be six or later.”
This year, Thomson alternated between two quarter-horses while riding with son, Chad.
“Usually you try to be quiet to see where they are until you actually find cattle,” he said. “Then you start them in the direction out. You just get behind them and make some noise and follow along. If they try to take the wrong trail and go the wrong way you direct them.”
Once the cattle are gathered in groups, the ranchers sort them according to the ranch they belong to.
“The first day we get three, maybe four herds cut and spread off and they go home,” he said. “Sometimes there are a few herds that are close to the boundary at their gates and we can do a quick sort on them and they just go home.”
But it’s not always that easy.
In some cases, the cows won’t settle down or pair up, or will want to get back out to grass and find water, said Thomson.
“We try and keep it organized, but it can sometimes get a little chaotic if you’re roughing the cows too much and they don’t want to pair up and you’re splitting up pairs,” he said. “You’ve got to do it slow and take it easy.”
This year’s abundant snow provided a challenge for the ranchers.
“There were spots where the snow was belly deep on our horses,” Thomson said. “You couldn’t see cattle trails, you couldn’t see the downed timber. I rode into one area and finally gave up because the snow was right to the horses’ belly.”
Some years it’s deep mud holes and bogs, others it’s frigid temperatures.
“A few years ago it was -26 in the morning and only got to -20 by the middle of the afternoon,” said Thomson. “If it’s really cold it can get hard on the toes and fingers. After riding for quite a while, sometimes you get off and your feet are so cold you can hardly walk.”
Well aware of the conditions before the roundup begins is Thomson’s brother, Gary.
For the past 29 years, the Black Diamond rancher spent June to October in the bush doctoring, monitoring and moving cattle from pasture to pasture along with another hired rancher.
“There’s a grazing rotation,” he said. “We set a plan with Sustainable Resource Development on how it’s going to get grazed. It’s quite organized.”
Gary said the ranchers aren’t permitted to move cattle into the forestry until June 15. By then, many are ready to make the move as their land has been overgrazed.
This year, 44 of Gary’s 73 pairs went to forestry.
“We don’t have enough grazing on our own land,” he said. “It works for us because it’s pretty much guaranteed compared to renting private land.”
Yet, it’s Russian roulette having cattle graze in the forestry.
“There’s poison weed that will kill the cows and now there’s predators that got so bad,” he said. “There are wolves all along that eastern slope and too many grizzly bears.”
The ranchers lost eight cows, including two calves that were killed by grizzlies, this season, said Gary.
“The real risky part is going in and checking the dead, especially if it’s been killed by a bear,” he said. “It might not even be a cow or a calf, but you’ve got to go in there and you’ve got to see and that bear could be right there. If we can prove that it’s a predator kill we can get compensation for it.”
It’s not just the grizzly bears doing the killing. Wolves have also become a problem, said Gary.
“We’ve always had wolves but now we’ve got packs of them,” he said. “They go after cows and calves. They eat the bones and the hair and the hide, everything.
"The bear doesn’t eat the hide and the hooves.”
To help keep predators at bay, Gary often camps close to the herds.
“We had a camp surrounded by wolves three times now,” he said. “Part of the problem is the wolves are getting a little thick up here and are starting to chase the game out of the forestry.”
The role of the hired men to move the herds from pasture to pasture is critical in protecting sheep that inhabit the forestry, said Gary.
“The cows do migrate a little bit by themselves as the grass grows to the west because of the elevation, but we try to keep up with the stragglers to keep the group together,” he said.
Although the association hired two men for the job this season, they’re not always alone.
“A lot of ranchers come for rides with us because they like to,” he said.
This season, the men doctored 70 cows with ailments from pneumonia to pink eye.
They also discovered two cows and two calves that were struck and killed by vehicles, despite the ‘cattle at large signs’ posted along the highway.
“Drivers have go to start watching out for animals,” he said.
While most of the time spent in the forestry is during the warmer months of the year, the weather can turn extreme quickly.
“When it’s hot it’s really hot and when it’s cold it’s really cold,” he said. “This is the second year in a row we’ve had a really wet roundup.”
Gary said the end of the season brought three feet of snow, resulting in hungry livestock.
“The snow was half way up their bellies,” he said. “They don’t dig down like a horse would. They lose weight and they get stressed and weak.”
The abundant snow so early in the season is quite rare in Gary’s experience.
“We hardly ever get that much snow,” he said. “We had pretty much double the snow we got in Okotoks. Some of the cows were sleeping on the road.”
After moving cattle for four months, Gary joins the other ranchers in gathering and sorting livestock in early October.
Although most of the cattle have been moved east by then, sorting is always an immense task.
“It’s one thing to gather them, but then we’ve got to sort out whose cow is whose,” he said. “Some people are down at Claresholm and Nanton so their cows go out in cattle liners and that’s a pretty big job sorting that out and loading.”
Like his brother, Gary trails his cattle back home.
With his crew of four guys, the trek home takes four to five hours.
“It’s a good 15 miles from where they start to where they end up,” he said. “There’s places where there’s no fences and you have to keep them out of other people’s fields."