Rancher John Cross exudes a quiet pride as he checks his grassland pastures, the robust forage defying the summer’s drought.
His cattle are fat and healthy and his fields show no signs of over-grazing.
“Actually, this grass is only about half its usual height because of the dry conditions,” says Cross, who runs a herd of 800 cows and 750 yearlings on his A7 Ranche in the foothills west of Nanton.
But with intensive pasture management, Cross hasn’t faced the harsh conditions which have forced many southern Alberta ranchers to begin feeding hay earlier than usual. In fact, Cross doesn’t feed his cattle any hay. They dine on grass year-round.
Cross practises holistic resource management, which involves frequent pasture rotation and strict watershed management.
The 13,000-acre ranch is split into 40 pastures and 120 temporary pastures during the grass-growing season. Cattle are left in each pasture for no more than three days, and are not allowed to eat more than 50 per cent of the grass. The cattle graze the land like the buffalo, having a large impact over a short period of time, says Cross. Giving the land rest is what keeps it healthy, he adds.
Cross describes himself as a grass farmer, with cattle and beef as his products. He has nothing against feedlots and grain-fed operations — he still ships most of his cattle to the feedlot — but he recognizes a growing market for organic beef.
He is also aware of the debate over genetically modified organisms, but admits the small amount of canola he feeds during the winter is not GMO-free.
“At some point, you have to look at economics,” he says, noting that GMO-free canola would have to be processed at a separate mill, making it cost prohibitive.
This summer, he began selling grass-fed beef to urban consumers, and his beef is a feature menu item at The Ranche, a trendy Calgary restaurant. Studies indicate, Cross says, that grass-fed beef is high in Omega-3 and conjugated linoleic fatty acids, which are thought to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease.
He doesn’t seed, spray or fertilize his fields, and he no longer injects his cattle with growth hormones.
“You want a clean product, you want clean water, you want a clean environment,” says Cross, who has applied his conservation philosophy to the new home he is building deep in the ranch coulee. The stucco home is built from straw bales and powered by solar and water. The washroom has a compost toilet.
“We’re also predator friendly,” Cross says, explaining how coyotes keep the gopher population down. But you also need some burrowing rodents to aerate the soil, he adds.
He smiles when asked what his grandfather and father would think of his eco-friendly approach.
John’s grandfather, A.E.Cross, came west from Montreal in 1884. He worked two years on the Cochrane Ranch and then established the A7 Ranche in the Porcupine Hills in 1886. He also owned the Calgary Brewery and Malting Company, and was a founder of the Calgary Stampede.
A.E. eventually handed the A7 down to his three sons, including John’s father, who later bought out his two brothers. Today, John runs the family’s cattle business along with his wife Alexandra Luppold, who raises grass-fed poultry and organic vegetables also served at The Ranche restaurant.
“I don’t think my father would be too happy about the thistles,” says John, remembering how he hated the thorny weeds.
It was the family’s futile attempts to kill them by spraying that spawned John’s holistic approach to ranching.
“It made me think there had to be a better way,” he says. “I stopped spraying them 12 years ago. And there aren’t any more now than there were back then.” Even though his Uncle Sandy shares his conservation views — Sandy and his wife donated 4,800 acres of their ranch land on Calgary’s southwest limits to form the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area — John’s greatest influence came from the land.
“You never take a place like this for granted,” he says, eyeing the treed ridges and lush riparian areas he has worked so hard to preserve.
His philosophy isn’t necessarily shared by his ranching neighbours, but some are beginning to notice the improved health of his land. “They’ve always thought I was a little different,” he says. “But some now realize I’m 10 years ahead of them.”
Soft-spoken with a gentle humour, Cross admits he’s not your usual hard-living cowboy. “Cowboys need not apply here,” he says. “We don’t do much riding, and most cowboys just don’t get what it is we are trying to do.”
He and Alexandra are a perfect fit, both addicted to soil and solitude. “I love getting my hands dirty and I love the smell of soil,” says Alexandra, a former city girl who grew up in East Germany. “My dream was always to have an organic farm, a big truck and a dog. I’ve got all that, and John.”
Each morning, the two begin their day with a cleansing tea, brewed from sage leaves plucked from their land. Alexandra then tends to her natural garden and free-ranging “happy hens,” a flock which circles her while some of the birds roost on her arm.
John retreats to his office overlooking the coulee and hilltops spiked with spruce trees.
He dreams of one day selling only grass-fed beef, and having the animals slaughtered on site instead of trucking them to a processing plant. “But right now, no one does field-kill inspections, and a carcass has to be inspected before I can sell it,” he says.
Killing cattle on their home range would be less stressful and, therefore, produce a more tender meat. “But it would also be more humane, and I like the idea of that.”
John is right. This is one ranch where tough-talking cowboys may as well ride right by.