ROCK CREEK – Ranch sustainability depends on three key strengths, according to the Fossen family: innovation, improvement and involvement.
The family’s commitment to all three won them recognition this year with the presentation in June of the BC Cattlemen’s Association’s Ranch Sustainability Award.
“For us, the award is not about one specific project,” says Doug Fossen, who with his wife Erika and daughters Jade and Reine operate Bar 7 Ranch just west of Rock Creek. “It is more of a recognition of how we operate our ranch every day.”
Doug’s parents Ed and Louise purchased the family’s 500-acre home ranch in 1976. Doug grew up helping his dad, then met Erika at Olds College, married and returned to the ranch in 1999.
The ranch now totals 2,300 deeded acres and holds a range permit on 70,000 acres, of which they use 20,000. With such a large spread, a plane in the barn that’s a legacy from Ed’s cropdusting days is useful for finding cows each fall.
“I think innovation is always on the top of our minds,” says Erika.
Doug agrees that it’s important to always be moving ahead.
“We were one of the first to install a pivot irrigation system and we went from watering seven days a week with both of us and two hired hands and not keeping up, down to three days a week,” he explains. “We use the same pump, we don’t need the labour and we get twice the amount of silage.”
They began experimenting with zero-till practices over 25 years ago.
“Much of our land is on a 15% slope,” explains Erika. “We have good soil, but if we don’t take care of our soil then we have nothing for the future.”
Doug says they like to try new and different approaches.
“I like to mix peas into my oat and barley plantings to bolster the nitrogen content of the soil,” he says. “And we try to be involved with as many new programs as we can.”
The BC Environmental Farm Plan, the Verified Beef program and the federal Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands (SARPAL) all add value to Bar 7’s operation.
“If a program fits with our goals, we are going to take advantage of it,” Doug says.
Pasture improvement has always been important.
“We are very passionate about grasslands,” says Erika.
The ranch is a combination of private, leased and Crown land which they are continually working to build forage capacity for their 350 cow-calf pairs.
Winter feeding sites and water installations are moved frequently to ensure an even distribution of manure across fields, invasive plants are removed and in some cases, fields have been reseeded.
They also have an active logging program, both for income and to grow more forage.
“We had one area where we went from 300 AUMs down to 80 because of the encroachment of trees,” says Doug. “The logging helps to return those areas to pasture land.”
Working within and promoting the industry are important to the Fossens. Doug is currently the Okanagan land stewardship representative with the BCCA. He’s also a past chair of the association’s environmental committee, a past president of the Kettle River Stockman’s Association and a former director of the Invasive Species Council of BC.
For the last several years, the Fossens have travelled to Vancouver to teach teachers in BC Agriculture in the Classroom’s annual summer institute. They are currently leaders for 4-H and have a long involvement with the Canadian Cattle Association’s Young Leaders mentorship program.
The Fossens help out in informal ways as well. The ranch has hosted field days for the Kootenay Boundary Farm Advisors program and Doug is always open to phone calls from fellow ranchers.
“There are a couple of younger farmers we know that are into farming because of our mentorship,” he says.
The Fossens deal with the financial stress of being a rancher in BC with a dose of optimism.
“I bought price insurance at $2.24 a pound for my calves this fall, but things are looking strong and I am hopeful for a better price than that,” says Doug.
They keep back and feed their smaller calves through the winter and ship in the spring to take advantage of higher prices and sell extra hay whenever they can.
“But not this spring,” Doug notes. “With the dry conditions last summer, we were down to our last half bale and had to mix some straw into our silage to keep things going until turn out.”
They butcher up to 20 cows a year at Magnum Meats in Rock Creek for hamburger and sell direct to local customers.
“We put some steaks aside for our Airbnb customers,” says Erika, referring to the adjacent, 600-acre parcel they bought in 2017 that came with a four-bedroom custom log home.
“We were wondering how to rent it locally, when a friend asked me if I had heard of Airbnb,” she explains. “It makes a wonderful quiet retreat for families and it gives us another opportunity to educate people about ranching.”
They speak about the gap between urban society and the realities of being a rancher.
“Society has an unrealistic picture of farming,” says Doug. “They don’t understand the seven days a week with minimal return that goes into growing food.”
But the positives keep them going.
“We value the ability to work together as a family to do what we love and get paid for it,” says Erika. “This award has always been one of our goals. We have watched other ranchers we really respect receive it and we are honoured to be recognized by our peers.”
Moving the ranch forward is also key to the future, Erika explains.
“With our property and improvements, I think we have made it so it can keep going. If we hadn’t made any changes, the gap to take it to where it needs to be would be too wide,” she says. “Our younger girls like it and perhaps they will be involved one day.”