Wynne Chisholm

Wynne Chisholm
by Bonnie Warnyca - 8, 2011

Growing up in Calgary and spending weekends and holidays on her parents' ranch at Gull Lake, AB, gave Wynne Chisholm a strong foothold in both worlds. One which years later would move her into an unexpected partnership with her dad (J.C. Jack Anderson) in 2005.

When Wynne's dad sold the herd while she was in junior high, she then turned her full attention to her studies and later graduated with a B.A. with a double major in French and Spanish from the University of Calgary. With the focus on Organization Development (OD), her work took her to many national and international corporate boardrooms.

In 1982, Wynne married Bob Chisholm and their son, Jamie, was born in 1991.

Chisholm continued to operate her consulting firm, Wynne Chisholm & Associates Inc., traveling extensively in the U.S. and Europe until her dad presented her with a new business proposition.

"Dad was in his late 70's by this time and had gotten back into cattle," remembers Chisholm. "I think he just wanted me to quit globetrotting. I love a challenge and this seemed to fulfill what was for me, a dream job."

For the past six years, using her training in organizational business strategies to her advantage, Chisholm has attacked the beef production learning curve with fearless ferocity.

"Within a few short years we grew the Angus-based herd to over 700 cows and our land base to 12,000 acres of deeded and lease land," says Chisholm, now president, CEO and co-owner of W.A. Ranches, with two ranch locations north of Cochrane.

"I'm used to gathering a lot of information and synthesizing it quickly," she continues. "I attended cow/calf seminars at Olds, cattle handling programs, grazing programs and the livestock evaluation program at the Calgary Stampede. The biggest part of the learning curve was in the first couple of years and since then it's been constant fine-tuning. Dad is a very forward-thinking man and prefers to spend his time with the cattle. He relies on me to continue to find new cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways to improve our cattle and grass. I brief him on all the new information."

Their first order of business was to work through the Environmental Farm Planning process which helped the father and daughter team assess the strengths and weaknesses of new properties. Chisholm's husband, Bob (a retired Certified General Accountant), became invaluable as the custodian of the ranch books.

"We know where every penny goes and Bob does a trend analysis which shows us where the sweet spots are in the operation and where we need to improve," says Chisholm. "I've also developed a planning process for the ranch to determine the line-up of projects and what our capital needs will be."

To date the family has redrawn some of the fence lines, added hot wire fences, and set up processing facilities in a standing hay shed and made changes to a processing barn. They put in side lights to get rid of the shadowing, put in an S curve and tub and chutes and improved load out facilities to name just a few of the ongoing changes. They've also added swath grazing and silage to their feeding program.

The project list for 2011 is extensive:

- 436 acre logging/clearing to enhance pasture grazing on an Ag lease

- Fence line clearing

- Revise remote waterer set up and fencing to increase the number of paddocks and improve rotational grazing at the Cochrane North property

- Design and install new sorting pens/load out system at Jumping Pound (Jennifer Woods, a student of Temple Grandin helped in the redesign of the cattle handling systems)

- Install new ranch signage; get website up and running

- Drill a new well

- Continue to subsoil hay pasture

The moderate-framed W.A. Angus herd grew in numbers near the end of the BSE years and this ranching family was able to cherry pick some good breeding stock from some of Alberta's seasoned producers exiting the industry. They focused mainly on herds with a strong herd health program.

The majority of calving is slated for the month of April, but the last few years, spring has not been kind to area ranchers.

"This spring we had five feet of snow in the trees," says Chisholm. "In order to keep sickness at a minimum, we have a calving pasture, but within 24 hours tag the calves and move the pairs to a different maternity pasture where we've put straw bedding packs. It's more intensive labour, but it has helped to keep everyone healthy."

Calves are tagged with a colored i.d. tag depicting both the dam information and what breeding group out of the 11 different groups they will be placed with. Bull calves are elastrated providing both testicles have dropped. With the high number of calves born in any given day, and in order to reduce the workload, the ranch now puts in the CCIA buttons later during processing.

Calf records are kept up daily and reports sent to Chisholm's iPhone. She uses the latest technology to stay on top of all ranch activities. On the crop side, the fields are GPS'd; soil samples are taken annually; mapping shows the variable fertilizer needs; spreadsheets are used to target each field's production; satellite maps are used for ranch planning.

"We draw potential changes to fencelines on the map and agree on the changes prior to staking out the land," Chisholm tells us. "When we reconfigured the hay shed into a processing barn, the designs were all drafted on autocad and revised multiple times. Our ranch hands all have smart phones to receive texts and Emails. Cattle records are kept on TraceBack which allows us to enter calving and treatment records in the field on the smart phones. RFID wands are used to store data on the herd and we download sort, cull and health flags to the wand. That way we can bring up the info on each cow when we want their CCIA tags."

The W.A. Ranch runs mostly purebred Angus bulls but has introduced a few Simmental bulls and Hereford bulls in the last couple of years.

"We're retaining ownership of the Simmental cross calves to get back the carcass data to compare with our Angus calves," says Chisholm.

"In 2009, we received carcass data on our entire year's calf crop by putting them in a retained ownership program with Cargill. We will put selected calves into that program this year to update our database with information on new additions to the herd and results of new crosses. We normally sell our calves in the fall, but have the flexibility to use a multi-pronged approach. We can sell through local auction markets, package groups to sell off ranch (we have a certified for trade Norac scale), or retain ownership. We have a secure market for the time being for the Hereford baldy heifers so we'll see where that goes."

The W.A. ranch crew consists of ranch manager Alvin Downie (an import from a Saskatchewan family-owned feedlot and cow/calf operation), along with two full time ranch hands and part time help when needed.

In addition to their cattle chores, they seed about 1,600 acres of crop. 466 acres is barley and oats for swath grazing, 162 acres for silage and 80 acres of barley will be seeded this year to add to the Total Mixed Ration (TMR). There's 133 acres of Winter Triticale for early spring and late fall grazing; 280 acres for hay, 420 acres of Timothy hay for rotational grazing and haying; leaving the balance between Alfalfa and mixed tame grasses for baling and grazing.

The ranch has a memorandum of agreement with the University of Calgary's School of Veterinary Medicine to provide hands-on training for their vet students. "The U of C is unique in that their vet students are offered hands-on experience in their first three years rather than the fourth year at other like institutions," Chisholm tells us.

"When the students are available, they come out during calving and processing. Some students have little or no large animal experience, and their time on the ranch offers a dimension of learning that can't be done in the classroom.

"We've had vet students help move first calf heifers and their calves and help to move the main herd more than five miles which is certainly an eye opener for some."

Ranching in this part of the world brings with it its own unique set of opportunities and challenges.

"We're inundated with drilling requests from the oil and gas industry," admits Chisholm. "Dealing with these demands takes a lot of time. It's important to find a balance between the royalties and the need for oil and gas and caring for the land. The location of the drilling definitely impacts our ranching activities so placement is a huge issue. With horizontal drilling, the engineers seem to think the best location is the middle of the quarter."

Chisholm makes it a priority to give back to her community and her industry. She is a past appointee to the Agricultural Services Board of the County of Rocky View. She has been a Calgary Stampede volunteer since 1976 and a director for the past four years. She is currently board committee chair for the Stampede, on the governance committee and is the director/liaison for the 4-H on Parade, the 4-H Rodeo and the Western Legacy Award.

Wynne Chisholm is a 2011 recipient of the Farm Credit Canada (FCC) Rosemary Davis Award which recognizes Canadian women for their leadership and commitment to the Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry.