Soils Champions

Year-round plan protects this Ontario farm soil

Five generations of Elgies have farmed this land so it's worth preserving

Growing up and taking on expanded leadership and ownership roles in his family's 4,500 acre, multi-generation ranch near, Meadow Lake, Sask., rancher Don Campbell never considered himself an environmentalist or soils champion – even though those components were part and parcel of the longevity and success of the B – C Ranch.

Environmentalist in particular is a term that has taken on a lot of baggage. Some have used it for political or marketing gain. Others have used it as a carrying card to challenge the industry or promote other self interests. For Campbell, true environmentalism – managing resources the right way to enhance the environment that sustains us all – was just part of smart ranching and the holistic approach the family has practiced for over 20 years.

Championing new stewardship thinking

In 2008, when the Campbell family received "The Environmental Stewardship Award" (TESA), presented by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association in recognition for their significant work in protecting the environment on their operation, it sparked a reflection among Don and his family on what it means to be an environmentalist.

Rather than shy away from the term, they realized that environmentalism and stewards were terms that defined them, as well as many of their fellow ranchers and farmers across the country, just as well as any of the more traditional terms they were used to. Today, it's a term they'd like to see reclaimed by people like them, who as major land owners and operators, have a vital role to play in enhancing the environment.

"Not only are we changing our perception of what it means to be an environmentalist, the general public is beginning to see that farmers and ranchers could be the environment's best hope."

"We had never thought of ourselves as 'environmentalists,'" noted the Campbells in their acceptance speech for TESA. But to stop and think about it, ranchers like the Campbells could wear that label just about as well as anyone. The family are still known first and foremost as ranchers and farmers, but today it's encouraging to see there is more recognition that being environmental stewards is a huge part of what those roles entail. "Not only are we changing our perception of what it means to be an environmentalist, the general public is beginning to see that farmers and ranchers could be the environment's best hope."

Adapting to new perceptions and helping to shape them for the better is key part of "paradigm shift" thinking – looking at the world in new ways and having the ability to updated and re-define your role in that world, says Don Campbell. That type of thinking has lead the family to embrace holistic management and to look for potential paradigm shifts as opportunities to continually improve not only their practices, but the success and image of their industry.

Soils: Barometer of biodiversity

Soils and soil health are a critical part of that equation, says Campbell. Soil conservation and enhancing long-term soil productivity is a part of all management decisions on the B – C Ranch. Ultimately, if the soil isn't doing good, the ranch and the family is not doing good. "We recognize that long-term sustainability requires us to maintain and improve soil fertility."

For the Campbells, soils are the nest of biodiversity and productivity. Looking after soils the right way is about strengthening their livelihood and strengthening the resources they manage for the benefit of future generations. Championing soils is an integral part of the holistic management approach Don and other family members use as a decision-making process that ties together everything important to them, both present and future.

"Holistic management provides the tools to balance our quality of life, our financial resources and our care of the land base," says Campbell. The family realizes that today perhaps more than every, success in each of those areas goes hand in hand with success in the others.

Tradition of innovation, education

The B-C Ranch is located northwest of Meadow Lake along the Beaver River. It got its namesake from Don Campbell's parents, Bruce and Clare Campbell, who founded the operation in 1948. Now a third-generation cattle operation, the ranch is currently managed by three nuclear families that include Don and his wife, Bev, along with heir two sons, Scott and Mark and their wives, Jenna and Bluesette.

The ranch runs approximately 650 cow/calf pair and a long yearling operation and considers these animals a tool for increasing forage production and improving the land. There are three main soil types of the 4,500-acre ranch, including river silt, peat moss and high sand hills.

The Campbell family has championed soil conservation as part of not only their operation but a broader commitment to industry education and sustainability for over 20 years. Don and Bev continue to attend and speak at several conferences and workshops each year to promote progress in areas such as new soil conservation approaches, innovative sustainable grazing strategies, and the benefits of holistic management.

"Participating in these events also helps us to increase our awareness and ensure we are doing all that we can to improve our land," says Don Campbell. "It's important to us to continually seek out people and organizations that are willing to share their knowledge and experiences."

Slowly, improvements in land and soil are being made all across the country, and Don says the family enjoys being a part of that progression. "For the past 20 years, our family's main focus has been concentrated on making the land better than we found it. Teaching and learning is a fundamental part of that focus, he says.

Efforts to preserve land, water, wildlife and wetlands on the ranch have been integrated into all decision making. For one example, the family's work on the Ducks Unlimited Canada's Woolard Project provided a system of water control gates along the Beaver River, to ensure the wetlands always contain water, which minimizes flooding. On-farm, the Campbells implemented practices to maintain and enrich grazing lands – key factors in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and reducing fossil fuel use.

Managing in 'ecosystem blocks'

The Campbell approach to day-to-day ranch management translates into working to improve what Don describes as the four ecosystem blocks: energy cycle (plant spacing and diversity), mineral cycle (increased mineral recycling), water cycle (high soil porosity, increasing organic matter and the effectiveness of rainfall) and succession (the naturally occurring process of covering bare ground).

The success of the B – C Ranch in recent years can be attributed to many factors, but Don says two of the most obvious are winter bale-grazing and planned grazing.

"By placing purchased feed in the form of bales directly where they are to be fed in the winter months, all four ecosystem blocks are dramatically improved, therefore increasing the amount of forage for the following spring and indefinitely," he says. "By properly planning the summer grazing of our animals, we can sustain this forage by not overgrazing the plants or misusing the soil."

Because of these management choices, the ranch has effectively doubled its livestock carrying capacity and taken measures for reducing the risk of drought and flood.

Consistency in face of challenges

None of the B – C Ranch progress could be accomplished with short-term thinking alone, emphasizes Campbell. Today, soil and other environmental considerations are arguably more important than ever, and sustainability of these components should remain front and centre along with immediate profitability needs.

"During these economically challenging times, it's important not to lose sight of short term profitability and long term sustainability," says Campbell.