Joe Kootenay sits astride a tall horse as he watches the cows come home. As a cold rain pours down onto his black Stetson, hundreds of brown and white calves scurry out of the wooden chute before him and into a wire-fenced pen.
“Git along, little doggies!” he says, as he idly swings his lasso. This is where hamburger comes from, he jokes.
Kootenay, director of Alexander Indian Band Farm Enterprises, is an honest-to-goodness cowboy, and he’s got the chinks and spurs to prove it. He and his fellow cattle rustlers endured a day of miserable weather to welcome some 1,000 cows to the Alexander bison ranch.
The band will have some 3,000 cattle on 12,140 hectares of pasture by the end of summer, Kootenay says, and should have about 4,500 next year.
“This is just the beginning,” he says. “We’re slowly becoming one of the largest, if not the largest, private ranches in northern Alberta.”
Back to the land
Alexander has had a band farm since about the 1950s, says councillor Henry Arcand — a legacy of the government’s efforts to turn aboriginals into farmers. The farm had one of the province’s largest bison herds up until 2003 when the bison market crashed, prompting the band to sell its animals. It’s been renting its land to other farmers ever since.
Council found that leasing the land was creating few jobs and little revenue, Arcand says. “It wasn’t growing as it should be,” he says, especially compared to its neighbours, who were making more money with less land. “We knew we were doing something wrong.”
Kootenay, 26, was called in last August to revive the farm. The former cop, firefighter, and oilrig worker decided to take back control of the farmlands and use them for a custom grazing operation. “It’s a summer camp for cows,” he explains.
Other farmers (mostly feedlot owners) will pay the band a price per head to fatten their cattle over the summer, he explains. He and his cowboys will patrol the pens every day, lassoing and doctoring any cows that get sick. Come fall, the cows will go back to their homes near Stony Plain, Carrot Creek, Picture Butte and Morinville to be sold at auction.
The change has already produced results. “By doing it this way, I was able to increase revenue by literally five times,” Kootenay says, with pride. “Last year at this time we had three employees. Now we’re sitting at nine. During the peak season, we’re going to be closer to 15.”
Kootenay is confident the new farm will take off. It’s well sited, he notes, as it’s close to three auction houses and many beef producers. Its vast tracks of land also have plenty of water, grass and shade for cattle. The band also owns all that land, avoiding one major cost most ranchers face: rent. “We don’t owe anyone any money.”
Alberta’s beef industry has been through tough times lately, he admits, but beef prices are bouncing back. “Small ma and pa operations that had under 50 head have almost disappeared,” he says, but that means the industry is now dominated by big feedlots — their main customers. Even if prices don’t recover, he notes, the band will still get a certain amount of cash for every cow it hosts.
The band will know within a year if Kootenay’s plan was a success, Arcand says. If it pays off, it should bring new jobs to the reserve and raise funds to support housing and recreation. He also hoped it would encourage more residents to get into farming.
Whatever happens, it looks like Kootenay will have a great time on the new ranch. “I love it,” he says of the ranching life. “We’re a big operation again, and we’re going to be bigger.”