Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

“This could be bloody. How’s your stomach?” asks Mike Rose, ranch manager of Quilchena Cattle Co. Ltd., as we approach the red bull corseted by a steel cage and three cowboys in fringed chaps, smeared with blood.

“This could be bloody. How’s your stomach?” asks Mike Rose, ranch manager of Quilchena Cattle Co. Ltd., as we approach the red bull corseted by a steel cage and three cowboys in fringed chaps, smeared with blood.

Cow boss Miles Kingdon clamps a wrench-like device around the bull’s testicles and muscles down on them while the other cowboys steady the squirming 270-kilogram yearling that somehow managed to avoid the typical one-month-old castration. With the placement of his testicles on a fence stump, alongside two others, the Hereford-Angus cross is now officially a steer. After spending this summer fattening up on bluebunch wheat grass, he’ll fetch a higher price at auction come fall since feedlots prefer docile cows.

This gory scene aptly depicts the current state of B.C.’s cattle ranching industry. The high Canadian dollar and skyrocketing fuel, fertilizer, corn and grain costs have B.C. cowboys metaphorically by the balls. Ranching has always been a tough business, but with last fall’s prices for feeder steers (industry speak for beef cattle between 135 and 450 kilograms) nosediving to as low as 71 cents per pound while expenses go through the barn roof, the already endangered B.C. cowboy is now in jeopardy of extinction.

Since Rose’s great-grandfather Joseph Guichon started ranching these Nicola Valley grasslands near Merritt in 1882, the family has managed to tough it through many industry slumps – from the Great Depression to the recent two-year export drought, when mad cow disease (BSE) closed the U.S. border on Canadian cattle. While the negative publicity hasn’t curbed consumer demand for beef in North America, the cattle producers’ model is based on a 65- to 75-cent dollar, and Canadian ranchers have been hit hard, particularly the small under-100-head outfits that make up the significant majority of Canada’s more than 87,000 cattle ranches.

“Last fall the price for steers was the same as it was in 1965. On today’s buck, that should be worth $1.85 per pound and you might have enough left over for a new truck and saddle,” says Rose, 49. “Now ranchers are lucky if they can pay off their debts come fall auction, and most are already working full-time jobs off-ranch.” Besides skyrocketing fuel and grain prices, ranchers are being squeezed by costly new BSE-related slaughterhouse and packing-plant regulations, which are less stringent south of the border. Even the U.S.-owned agri-giants are smarting from their own recent BSE incidents, along with decreased exports, labour shortages and tainted-meat recalls.

As a result of these widespread industry woes, an increasing number of B.C. cowboys are hanging up the chaps. The province’s herd size dipped from 805,000 in July 2004 to 661,000 by July 2007, while the number of B.C. ranches dropped from 7,590 operations in 1995 to 5,705 by the start of 2008. B.C. has a proud heritage of cattle ranching – dating back to the 1860s when gold-rush prospectors discovered that these arid, grasslands-rich regions east of the Fraser River were ideal for cattle production – and hosted the earliest cattle drives in Canadian history. Today, third- and fourth-generation ranchers are increasingly forced to sell their herds and land to wannabe cowboys from the U.S., Asia and northern Europe.

Joseph Guichon was 17 when he came to B.C. from Chambéry in the Savoy region of France – one of more than 30,000 prospectors who streamed into the province during the gold rush. “His three brothers had already left France for the California gold rush,” recalls his grandson, 79-year-old Guy Rose – Mike’s father – as we chat over coffee in the cafeteria adjacent to Quilchena’s golf course (one of several modern-day attractions at the ranch, which also include a hotel and housing subdivision). “Young Joe was getting letters from his brothers about the gold rush in B.C. and decided to run away. He got on the boat from Liverpool and met his brothers in Barkerville. Pretty adventurous. He didn’t speak a word of English.

Guy Rose

“Up in Barkerville, it was the same story,” continues the elder Rose, “everyone digging holes and only a couple of guys making money. But the brothers saw that eggs were selling for a dollar apiece, so they started packing food from Yale to Barkerville, working for a man called Cataline. They had a good time and made some money.” Post-gold rush, they came to the Nicola Valley to look after a herd of horses. “We don’t have to feed our horses here – can leave them out all winter, just put them up in the hills and they do fine,” he says. “So they said, ‘Wow, great country,’ and got a homestead at Mamit Lake.”

One of the brothers went back to France, while Joe and the other brother married two sisters from Victoria. When they started having kids, the families wanted to be closer to civilization. “Douglas Lake Cattle Company was being formed in the 1880s by some bankers who planned to sell meat to the railway contractors,” says Rose. “They bought my grandfather’s place and with the money he bought land down here.” By 1890 Joseph had 2,000 cattle; he introduced Hereford cows to the region and continued expanding the ranch holdings. He was also in the posse that snared infamous American train robber Billy Miner in 1906, who was imprisoned in a shed behind the hotel.

Rose’s mom was born on the ranch, but Rose actually grew up in Kitsilano, the son of a Vancouver police officer originally from Prince Edward Island. They visited the ranch on holidays, and by the time he was attending Vancouver College in Shaughnessy he visited every chance he got. “In high school, every Friday I was on the train at 7:30. I just loved it here,” he says. As soon as he graduated from UBC in 1954 with a degree in agriculture, Rose returned to Quilchena. During a European break, he picked up a “souvenir” in Germany, in the form of his wife, Hilde, and by 1957 they were ready to raise a family. Rose and his cousin Gerard Guichon divided up the ranchlands; the Guichon Ranch is now run by Guichon’s daughter Judy. [pagebreak] Mike Rose, after graduating high school in the mid-’70s, left home to attend the agricultural program at Fairview College in Alberta; he had always loved ranching, but his parents were firm believers in post-secondary education. He later went to Washington State University, where he lasted one year. “I majored in skiing and teaching Americans how to drink beer,” says Rose, who wouldn’t return to university until he picked up a UBC arts degree at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops in his early 40s. Meantime he got a diploma in livestock production and spent several years off-ranch doing a variety of jobs – including being a farmhand at Douglas Lake Cattle Co., helping build a Catholic church, working at a sawmill and acting as a “flying groom” shipping horses to Europe – before returning to Quilchena in 1982 to work for his dad.

Guy Rose’s grandson, Jared

“I’ve seen hundreds of cowboys come and go,” Guy Rose tells me. “They have all these romantic notions about a lifestyle and don’t realize it’s really tough. But it’s also a privilege and I hate whiners. How many people dread going to work? I never did. We’ve been here for over 100 years and we’ll be here for another 100.”

Quilchena is a rare breed of B.C. ranch in that it has stayed in the family since Joseph Guichon settled here more than 125 years ago. It remains one of only a dozen B.C. cattle producers with more than 1,000 head of cattle (most split between this Thompson-Nicola region and the Cariboo in central B.C.). Guichon, like a few other enterprising types, realized that while the region wasn’t ideal for farming, it certainly had great potential for cattle.

Traditionally, most ranchers could do timber logging when the cycle turned downward. Mike Rose’s ancestors also dabbled in turkey and pig farming, as well as the hospitality industry when his great-grandfather built a large, stately hotel at the ranch in 1908, anticipating a railway that was never built. The hotel stayed closed until 1957 when Rose’s dad reopened it, but business didn’t pick up until the opening of the Coquihalla Highway; the Quilchena tourist operation, which Rose says “pays for itself,” now also includes an RV park, general store and the golf course. To supplement income, a number of ranches are also getting into the dude-ranch business, offering horseback riding and cattle drives, with the South Cariboo now known as the “Guest Ranch Capital of B.C.”

The majority of large spreads have long been bought and sold by the wealthy elite. Quilchena’s neighbour, Douglas Lake Cattle Co., known as the biggest ranch in Canada, has gone through a string of well-heeled owners over the century, from the Woodward family to WorldCom co-founder Bernard Ebbers to the present owner E. Stanley Kroenke, who owns two NHL teams and is married to a Wal-Mart (WMT-N) heiress. Kroenke paid $68.5 million for the 400,000-hectare ranch in 2004, and earlier this year he bought Alkali Lake Ranch in the Chilcotin, whose neighbour is the Gang Ranch, owned since the mid-’80s by Saudi sheik Ibrahim Mohammed Afandi.

As B.C.’s hot real estate market expands into the Interior – from the Okanagan to the Cariboo – ranchers who helped establish communities from Merritt to Quesnel have to sell out rather than pass on their ranchlands (and often their debts) to their children. The Rose family owns 12,000 hectares at Quilchena, with access to another 16,000 hectares of Crown land for summer grazing, including prime recreational land along Nicola Lake. They’ve been able to play the real estate market without chipping into their farm and grazing pastures, developing a 45-hectare parcel of land in 2004 and selling 44 lots at prices starting at $155,000 (they “sold like hotcakes,” says Rose).

The Rose family also found an enterprising way to keep the ranch not only viable but in the family, by designating plots in their housing subdivision for Mike’s four siblings: Steve, the eldest at 51, who ran the farm side of the business for 27 years before taking a more financially lucrative job as a logging truck driver; 46-year-old Peter, a Vancouver-based architect; Paul, 42, who now manages their hotel and public golf course; and the youngest child, 41-year-old Anne Leeper, who made the National High School rodeo finals and is now an executive cowgirl working at a 25,000-head feedlot in Strathmore, Alberta, but visits the ranch with her husband and two children whenever she can. [pagebreak] The money generated from the subdivision sale helped the family stay afloat during the BSE years and also ensured the “generational transfer of the ranch” so that Guy Rose could retire (though he’s still very active as the ranch president) and give his children each a piece of the ranch. Mike Rose has ranching hopes for his 23-year-old son from his first marriage, who now works as a heavy duty mechanic in Alberta. “My accountant Frank has set it up now so that in 2013, I’ll be making money. By then my son Matt might be coming back to take care of this place.” Rose also has a six-year-old son with his second wife Suzanne, who runs a small custom baggage business from their home on the ranch.

City-slicker parents saddled with their adult kids might long to be empty nesters, but ranchers typically want their kids to stick around and pitch in with the sun-up-to-sun-down line of work, especially since the average age of a rancher is 53 years old. Trouble is, while the cattle industry generates the highest amount of Canada’s farm cash receipts at $6.2 billion and injects $25 billion into the economy, ranchers make the lowest incomes at an average of $41,600 in 2005, with a whopping 75 per cent of that generated by off-farm sources.

No wonder every penny per pound counts come the fall cattle auctions. Over the past decade, Internet auctions have also made trading easier, with Quilchena now running its own independent live e-auction from the hotel banquet room. “We bring the cows down from the range, sort them into types and weight classes and throw up live pictures on a big screen so that brokers can bid online,” says Mike Rose, who decided to bump their sale up to August last year, at least a month before most ranchers sell cattle. It proved to be a wise decision since they got an average of 96 cents per pound for yearlings. “A month later, the going rate was 87 cents and it just kept going down after that, so we looked like geniuses,” says Rose.

In 2006 they netted $1.35 per pound; to turn a profit, Quilchena needs to sell yearlings for at least $1 per pound. With the Canadian dollar’s surge and increased operating costs, even the larger outfits such as Quilchena – staffed by five full-time cowboys and as many as 10 part-timers during the summer months – have to be thrifty to make ends meet. Rose keeps costs down by finding crafty ways to fix old machinery for farming and irrigation, but they still can’t afford to pay a decent wage to keep the other Rose offspring on-ranch.

When I visit Quilchena in early April, it’s spring-cleaning time in the cattle corrals. About 20 of the ranch’s 1,500 yearlings are lined up for inspection. The next cow through the chute gets a once-over from cowboys on the lookout for rogue testicles, damaged hooves, pink eye and horns. “If the horns aren’t trimmed, we’ll have to pay $10 a head, and in this economy we can’t afford to lose a nickel,” explains Rose. “A lot of ranchers have big branding parties every spring, and there’s typically lots of beer flowing at those things, so you can understand if they miss the occasional nut or horn,” he says of the 140 cows he purchased from neighbouring producers. Each steer also needs a yellow radio-frequency identification tag (a mandatory BSE-related quality assurance mechanism that tracks the age and movement of each cow) on its ear and the ranch’s R brand on its right hind.

Within the next month, all of the baby calves – 280 as of early this morning – will also be tagged, branded, vaccinated against flu-like pulmonary diseases and implanted with a pellet that will “stimulate the pituitary to produce growth hormones that’ll add an extra 22 pounds of gain over six months,” according to Rose. “We have to do whatever we can to break even,” he says, adding that, “the EU uses that as an artificial trade barrier on North American beef, even though there’s no science to back that ban up.” [pagebreak] Rose is equally suspicious about the recent BSE hysteria that shut down trade to the U.S. for more than two years in mid-2003 after one Alberta cow tested positive for the virus. “There was no need for the U.S. ban, but the protectionist bastards got what they wanted even though we had much higher standards in Canada. They do almost no testing down there, but the media ran with the story like it was the black plague and the damage was done,” says Rose. The ban cost the industry $11 million per day (Rose is mum on his own losses), while the big packing plants – such as U.S.-owned, Alberta-based agribusinesses Cargill Foods and Tyson Foods Inc.’s Lakeside Farm Industries Ltd. – tripled their profits.

That’s a bitter pill for ranchers to swallow since they take great pride in the fact that their cattle thrive on a healthy diet of grass and sunshine, and quality-control issues only crop up when they’re shipped out to feedlots and packing plants for slaughter.

“These guys always end up kicking the costs of those things back to us ranchers. When the U.S. giants fart, we always smell it up here,” says Rose. Tyson Foods closed three U.S. factories in 2006, and, with the strong Canadian dollar and our new BSE-related government restrictions, rumours are circulating that Canadian plants, most in Alberta, may be downsized or shut down. “Tyson has 30 per cent of the cow capacity,” notes Rose, “so, holy shit, that’d kick the crap out of our prices and make for a long, cold fall next year for all ranchers in Canada.”

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association wants $130 million from the federal government to offset surging BSE-related costs, which proves the industry is in dire straits since cowboys typically don’t like to ask for handouts, and they’re certainly not keen on bureaucratic paperwork. “Around here, we call it ‘Suck it up, princess,’ ” says Rose as we hop in his red GMC 500 pickup, Rose’s nine-year-old border collie Chub into the back, and head out on the gravel road to check out the calving barn and see if there’s any action among the pregnant heifers.

At this time of year, Quilchena’s cowboys are on a 24-hour labour watch. “Miles can even do the C-sections,” Rose says, pointing out the surgery room marked with the sign “Patient Consultation” before heading back out. “There’s a heifer that hasn’t taken to her calf,” says Rose as we approach a nearby pen. “Let’s see if we can inspire some worry,” he adds and calls Chub into the pen. The heifer’s ears prick up as Chub sniffs at the calf, and it starts trotting toward its mother. She shies away slightly and won’t let the calf suckle, but at least she doesn’t bolt to the other side of the pen. “If they have a tough labour, they associate the calf with that pain, and sometimes it takes some time for them to warm up,” says Rose, “but it looks like these two will be fine.”

Next we head to the colt pasture where a dozen or so mixed-breed quarter-horse colts munch on hay. Ranchers typically still rely on their trusty steeds for getting around the ranch and herding cattle since they’re easier on the grass than ATVs and don’t scare the cows. With their strong short legs and temperament, quarter horses are the preferred breed for ranchers. Quilchena has a herd of about 80 quarter horses that need about 450 kilograms of hay for fuel per week, but owners cut costs by buying their colts direct from Saskatchewan and then training and breaking them here.

“That way we don’t have to keep a stallion and brood mares,” says Rose as the colts start nuzzling against our shoulders. “Hi there, baby,” coos Rose, adding, “Horses are the best part of this job. They’re way too smart to be pets. You have to respect them. They can stomp you into the ground. Get a Pekingese if you want a pet.” Like most cowboys, Rose has broken many bones after being bucked off these infamously skittish beasts. “Luckily I usually land on my head, which is the thickest part of me,” he says, laughing. Frank Sciarpelletti, Quilchena’s accountant these past 14 years, radios that he needs Rose to sign some cheques back at the office.

Passing the red barns and wood bunkhouses, with the sagebrush hills and big blue skies as backdrop, Rose discusses the constant need to adapt – to change and diversify in order to survive. (These days he’s planning on hitching his wagon to the recent “grass-fed” beef trend, particularly with corn and grain prices going through the roof and growing consumer demand for all things organic.) In a business that has long attracted stridently independent characters, Mike Rose – like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him – is defiant in the face of adversity. “I’ve always been too stubborn a son of a bitch to live with someone else telling me what to do,” he says. “Cowboys aren’t especially gifted, but we don’t have any quit.”