Saskatchewan's Community Pastures Program: More than Meets the Eye

Source: Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food

No one knows Saskatchewan's network of community pastures better than Rick Ashton, Manager of Resource and Management Services and the Saskatchewan Pastures Program with Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food.

The Community Pastures Program operates within the Lands Branch of Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food, and looks after 7.5 million acres of Crown agricultural land. Of that, about 800,000 acres have been set aside as community pastures. There are 54 provincially operated community pastures around Saskatchewan.

“You can think of it as a very large ranch that is spread out across the province," explains Ashton, "with the exception that the Government of Saskatchewan hires the cowboys and owns the land and infrastructure, but all the livestock is owned by members of the public."

Ashton points out that, as a result, there is a huge responsibility placed on the pastures program because it ends up looking after the cattle for the summer.

“What comes with that is different levels of health, different levels of breeding and various livestock management ideas," he says. "We have 2,500 patrons who all have differing views about what is the best breed, when is the best time treat calves, and all those sorts of issues.”

Cows are in the community pasture system for approximately 125 days on average—or four months. On average, 66,000 cow/calf pairs graze these pastures each year. We have one sheep pasture, and there are usually a few horses being grazed, but generally the pastures are cattle operations, explains Ashton.

“Most of our staff come on board in the first part of April and work a seven-month season," he says. "Fifty pasture managers look after operations at the pasture level, and we have about 70 to 80 riders to assist them in riding the fields and checking the cattle. The riders can work full time shifts—which would be the whole week during the grazing season—or they might come in for just a few days in the spring, maybe a couple of days during the summer, and again a few days in the fall when the cattle are rounded up.”

In addition to the community pasture network, there are six wintering stations where bulls are looked after, adds Ashton.

“Bulls that are owned by either the breeding co-ops or the patrons in and around the community pasture are housed and fed over the winter. We have six pasture managers working year around to look after those bulls—somewhere between 450 to 500 bulls in all. There are about 60 to 80 bulls per location.”

Beyond the purely agricultural value of the pasturelands, there is another increasingly recognized stewardship element to managing this unique resource. Much of the land in the provincial pastures program was returned or abandoned by homesteaders during the 1930s, or it was land that was deemed too rough, brushy, forested, rocky, or sandy for farming.

It is recognized by many of the organizations that are concerned with conservation and natural spaces that community pastures are important areas because they are all large blocks of land under the same management. Today, 500,000 acres of that is native or natural environment, with the remaining land being seeded forage. If you looked at a map of the province, we would have half of our land in the grasslands, and half of our land in the aspen-parkland or boreal transition region.

“The land in the south is primarily native prairie," says Ashton. "The historic Matador Provincial Pasture is the largest community pasture in our system. Pick just about any of the pastures in the south—they are all beautiful. Matador, because of its size, is a very interesting pasture. I like Millie Provincial Pasture in the Great Sand Hills also. Because it is in the sand dunes, there is so much wildlife there.”

Ashton is quite fond of the Hatherleigh Provincial Pasture northeast ofNorth Battleford., as well.

“It is situated in a knob and kettle landscape. It doesn’t have the potholes quite like the Missouri Coteau, but it has one nice larger valley going through it. The pasture stretches from one side of the valley to the other, and has a fantastic view.”

The role of the community pasture has changed over the years. When the community pastures were established in the 1940s and 1950s, it was to diversify farming. Back then, ranchers could earn a living with a herd of 30 to 40 cows. Now, producers need a herd in the neighbourhood of 200 to survive, according to Ashton.

“Our maximum allocation is only 50 cows, so few producers will be using the community pasture as their sole source of grazing land any more," says Ashton. "We celebrated 75 years as a program back in 1998. That makes us 82 this year. Eighty-two years is a long time for any government program to stay in existence, but the program is still well-received and still in demand among producers. As the department considers the future of Crown land management and the recommendations related to Crown land in the Action Committee on the Rural Economy (ACRE) report, the future of community pastures will be an important consideration. The land is always going to be grazing land, but, from my perspective, it is really important that large, contiguous blocks of public land be maintained in their present form, and be managed in the public good.”

For more information, contact:

Rick Ashton
Manager of Resource and Management Services and the Saskatchewan<>


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