For decades, Glen and Kelly Hall have been stewarding hundreds of acres of Alberta land in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, on Timber Ridge Ranch and Glen’s family’s farm. It is their home, their livelihood, and their legacy.
“Our land is our retirement,” Kelly says. “We don’t have cash so that equity and security is something we dearly want to be able to pass to our children and grandchildren. We really need to look after what we have.”
From June to December, the Halls run around 180 Simmental cross cows on this breathtaking piece of the province. It is where their three (now grown) children with their own families were born and raised and only 35 kilometres away from the family farm that Glen grew up on. But getting it to where it is today has been a journey.
In 1985, it started with a few small parcels of land that, in Kelly’s words, were ‘tired.’
“With a partner we had the opportunity to buy some grassland along Mosquito Creek, and it became very evident why it was for sale and at such a reasonable price,” Kelly says. “The land had basically been farmed and grazed to a point that it was not productive or sustainable. The creek wasn’t healthy, the banks were destabilized, and the grass wasn’t healthy anymore.”
The Halls realized that the soil needed to be built back up first, so they planted perennial grasses, developed water and cross fenced land to start the process.
“As soon as you allow that cover to establish and to recover, it feeds the biology in the ground and this big cycle starts to happen,” Kelly explains. “If the soil is healthy, then it is more permeable to every single drop of rain, which is critical for us folks living in southern Alberta or what lots of people call the Banana Belt because of these hot, dry periods we’ve seen.”
The Halls practice regenerative agriculture, which for them means moving cows regularly so their grazing is more intentional, planting crops that enrich the soil, reducing synthetic inputs and always leaving cover on the soil. But because their land sits within three different watersheds, the couple was also very concerned about the health of the creeks and glacier-fed aquifers that passed through and beneath their land.
They wanted to improve things and ensure that the water was pristine not only for their cows, but for wildlife, and people living downstream. But they weren’t sure where to begin.
“We needed to gather some allies,” Kelly recalls.
One of these allies was a non-profit called Cows and Fish, an organization that came about in the early 1990s after realizing that although cattle are beneficial for grasslands, there were also impacts they were having on fish and wildlife because of their access to public streams and wetlands.
Amy McLeod lives in Calgary and works for Cows and Fish. When a landowner is concerned that the lake next to their property has turned green, or a rancher wants to know how their cows can access clean drinking water, she visits their property and assesses it.
“Land owners inherently know the value of having a healthy landscape,” Amy says. “Because without a healthy landscape, without good water, their operation ceases to exist.”
Cows and Fish secure grants that help to pay for electric fencing and offsite watering sites, offer expertise on how to restore lands and waterways to their natural state, and host tours on properties that show when a shoreline is managed properly, a buffer of lush green grass is available for cattle to access during a particularly hard year.
“With climate change coming up I am seeing a lot more interest because water, particularly in southern Alberta, is becoming more limited,” Amy says. “If it comes to a drought year and it’s a life or death situation and a rancher has left an area intact, they have something green left to graze. If they don’t have that then they have to cull or sell off their cattle.”
While Cows and Fish have a team of highly qualified staff and an abundance of resources and tools at their disposal, it is the respect they give to private landowners that sustains their organization and builds trust.
“Families have been ranching in this space for 100 years and at the end of the day we want to empower them to make decisions on the ground.”
A few decades earlier and back on their properties, Glen and Kelly knew that cows had impacted the water on their land, but they weren’t sure what to do, so they asked Cows and Fish for help.
“We really recognized the banks on Mosquito Creek had been degraded over the years by cattle and floods,” Kelly says. “There was no structure left. No willows. Nothing to slow fast water down. So we wanted to take the cattle away from the creek.”
With the help of Cows and Fish, the Halls developed watering sites, built cross fences, built stream crossings and installed offsite watering systems that pump water from the source to a trough using solar energy. This kept the cows off the banks, their poop out of the very water they were drinking from and ensured that downstream users, like those living in the town of Nanton, had clean water to rely on.
Years passed, and with the offsite watering systems in place, the shoreline bounced back to life. Willows, bog birch and dogwood shrubs started to thrive and the cows preferred the new, less muddy and shaded watering systems.
The Halls saw the benefit of restoring Mosquito Creek and installed more offsite water systems near wetlands and developed springs on their property, which is so clean you could drink from it. In fact, the Halls do.
“We lay on our bellies and drink the water from the ground,” Glen laughs. “Water doesn’t come from a tap. It comes from somewhere else first. It might seem a little old fashioned but the bottom line is we need to look after things. Because it’s the right thing to do.”
The Halls are but one of many family run ranches in Alberta. And while they admit everyone does things a little bit differently, at the end of the day the Halls believe that most ranchers are food providers who deeply care for the land and the water.
“The whole culture of stewardship is very strong in the ranching community,” Kelly says. “We share ideas, share the tools that we have, there’s more and more people talking, helping each other. Because it doesn’t matter if your little place is one acre or 10,000 acres. You can make a difference.”