Ranching in the West, August/September 2010

 

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From left; Wayne, Erin, Jordan, Leigh, Doris
and Ralph Bircham
Photo by Gary Houston

Bircham Ranch
Crystal balls, cattle and kids

The hardy families that settled in the Cypress Hills a century ago struggled with the weather, communication, transportation, herd health, their own health, finding food for their herd and their families … and the list goes on! They took on the challenges and found markets for their product, made a living and passed their experience, knowledge and perhaps even some cattle and land on to their families.
One of the most significant questions in today’s rapidly changing world is this: “What do you see when you look into that crystal ball? How is the breeding program best managed to stay in tune with tomorrow’s market?” Quality cattle and a sound breeding program are a major part of the formula for success, but the gamble lies in attempting to predict tomorrow’s market.
The Bircham family of Piapot, Sask., has spent nearly 100 years pondering that question. Alfred Bircham homesteaded in the “Bench” area of the Cypress Hills, south of Piapot, in 1913 and found the land and climate favourable for a mixed farming operation.

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On the far left is Wayne, Erin and the boys ranch and Doris and Ralph’s ranch on the right. Bear Creek
flows through the ranch.
Photo by Gary Houston

Son Ralph grew up on the ranch and, as a young man, worked as a ranch hand at the Leot Sanderson place, down the road from the Bench and just up the road from the Newkirk place. Mitt and Kate Newkirk had worked hard on their place and were starting to show signs of wear. One day in conversation, Mitt said to Ralph: “I just want to take the old lady and move to town!”

Ralph and Doris (Shearwood) had been socializing for some time, while Doris finished her nursing degree in Calgary. In 1959 they decided they couldn’t live without each other — and tied the knot. The following year they figured it might be a good idea to take Mitt and Kate up on their offer to make their home back on their old stomping grounds. Ralph gathered up his new truck, his 15 cows and $5,000 in cash he had squirreled away; Doris had a brand-new Registered Nursing degree, a piano and a little petty cash. And so they moved into the ranch house as Mitt and Kate moved to town — both couples happily nestled in right where they wanted to be!
Doris worked side by side with Ralph as they increased their herd both outside and inside. Daughter Dena grew up on the ranch until she decided Bryce Weiss needed some help on his ranch over west in the Centre Block of the Cypress Hills. Theywere legally hitched and raised two of their own offspring while they, too, experimented with genetics on their cattle herd. Son Wayne inherited his parents’ interest in livestock and, as he was nearing the completion of his high school years, a block of land became available, conveniently adjacent to his parents’ holdings. It not only bordered the existing Bircham ranch, but also the original Alfred Bircham homestead. Once they managed to secure proprietorship of that property, Ralph and Doris and Wayne set about the business of ranching on their newly expanded holdings.

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Alf Bircham and his son, Tom, hauling a load
of poplar poles to make fence posts and then
treated with blue-stone. ca. 1926

Alf Bircham at the old wooden pump watering
his first cow herd ca. 1918
Photos courtesy of Bircham family archives

Alfred and Mary Bircham began, as did other homesteaders of the day, with a mixed herd. They eventually achieved a nicely matched herd of Horned Herefords. Ralph can’t help but smile when he remembers what his Dad said when he finally managed to accomplish his objective of a straight Horned Hereford herd: “Don’t ever mix ’em up again!”
In spite of this sage advice, and in reaction to market demands of the day, son and grandson took a calculated risk and introduced their Hereford cows to a black bull. Wayne attended the Fourth Annual Short Grass Angus Sale in 1982 and came home with a top quality Black Angus bull, Wiwa Creek Delta. This was their first deviation from the straight Horned Hereford operation and they have been using top quality registered black bulls on their Hereford females ever since. This combination of a little genetic innovation, a little calculated risk-taking, and a lot of experience has produced a product that’s favoured in today’s market. Their black-baldie bred heifers sell at the annual Rock Solid Sale in Swift Current on the second Monday of each December.

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 Bircham Ranch black-baldie bred sale heifers  Photos by Gary Houston

Of course there is no place that is more beautiful and magical than the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan. The cleanest air and the sweetest water in the world are not only conducive to animal health and contentment, but the Hills grow the most nutritious feed that in turn enhances holistic development of the cattle from birth to maturity.
While the good grass and sweet spring water kept Wayne mostly happy with the way things were going on the ranch, nature took its course and in the fall of 1985 Wayne Bircham took Erin Butterfield
to be his wife. Although Erin was a city girl, she readily took to the “ranching in the hills” way of life. Together they set about raising cattle … and sons Leigh and Jordan.
The boys’ inherited interest in cattle and ranching rose during their formative years on the ranch through their involvement in the Bear Creek 4-H Beef Club; they’re both still keen on a career in ranching. Leigh graduated in 2007 and is presently employed as a gas well operator; he’s saving money with the intention of making ranching his full-time career. Jordan, a 2009 grad, works at the Remington Cattle Co. near Del Bonita, Alta.

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Bircham Horned Hereford cows, mid-March
1990 just before calving. The ranch purchases
the top Hereford replacement heifers available
each year to replenish their mother cow herd
Photo courtesy of Bircham family archives

Both boys got their start in the purebred side as members of 4-H and, as a family, the Birchams are now experiencing further diversification in their operation. In 2007, the Bircham Ranch took delivery of several purebred black Angus females; ever since they’ve developed a reputable crop of purebred bulls.
Says Wayne, who possesses a photographic memory for cattle: “It’s actually a good fit (with the existing heifer sales). When visitors come to buy, or look over the heifers, the opportunity is there to showcase our bulls.”
The dedication of Ralph and Wayne Bircham to detail, quality, genetics and herd health has been recognized by their peers. The Bircham family received the Saskatchewan Hereford Association’s Commercial Cattleman of the Year award in 2004. Two years later the family received the Saskatchewan Angus Association’s Commercial Cattleman of the Year award.
Interpreting the blurry images in the crystal ball may not be an exact science, but there’s one sure thing you can count on: It’ll always be pleasurable to lean on a corral fence in the picturesque Cypress Hills with a coffee in hand, take a lungful of that pure air, and chat about the future of the cattle business.

Duane Migowsky is a former newspaper editor and is perhaps one of the busiest “retirees” in southern Saskatchewan.

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