Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Spotlight On: Empire Valley Beef

Spring grazing on the open grasslands

 Joyce and John Holmes live a life that most of us only see in the movies, specifically spaghetti westerns from the mid-60's. Stewards of an epic tract of BC Parks land known as the Churn Creek Protected Area, the Holmes raise their cattle on a ranch founded in the 1860's by settler families heading north to the gold rush. Through careful management and close observation of the natural grazing patterns of their animals, the Holmes have worked to rehabilitate the native grasslands of the Empire Valley Ranch and made tremendous improvement to the previously overgrazed areas of the land. In 2008, they received the BC Rangelands Management Award, and their ranch is the only operating ranch owned by the Ministry of Environment. Empire Valley Beef is the result of their conscientious approach to ranching - healthy, delicious and humanely-raised beef, lamb, and chicken available year-round at several Vancouver Farmers Markets locations. We asked Joyce Holmes to tell us more about her super-cool cowgirl life...

How long have you been ranchers?   I grew up on my parents' ranch - born and raised rancher. John grew up working for ranches.

Can you explain land stewardship and how your operation works?   Land stewardship is taking care of and improving land and its' habitat. BC Parks purchased the ranch in 1998 to protect the most prestigious native grass - the blue bunch wheatgrass. This grass is very high in protein, and healthier than any hay grown in the world. It grows very early in the spring, providing excellent nutrients and energy to the livestock. We take pride in rehabilitating the native grasslands here at Empire Valley Ranch. We make sure we don't overgraze any part of the ranch and have a 2 year grazing rotation, allowing units of land a full year to grow naturally and uninhibited. We've discovered the perfect number of animals the ranch can easily maintain without ever running out of grass.

How big is the ranch?   The original ranch before BC Parks purchased it was 28, 000 acres, plus another 300, 000 acres grazing lease on crown range. It's now known as the Churn Creek Protected Area, and John and I leased the land in 1998 and became stewards of the Empire Valley Ranch.

What breeds of cattle do you raise?   We are 95% Angus, and 5% British breed. We don't raise any fancy heritage varieties but are working towards a premium grass finishing line of Angus cattle. 

Why are some of your cattle grass finished, while other finished on grain?   There are still a large number of people that like to have the extra marbling of grain finished beef. In the last four years there has been a tremendous shift towards grass only, and it is our goal to be 100% grass finished in the future.

Are your chickens completely free range and pasture fed, or do they get some grain?   Our chickens are pasture grazed from the time they're old enough to live outside of the warm, protected house. Chickens are a natural grain animal, so they do receive organic grain as baby chicks and then they're weaned off to 75% grass and bugs with a little grain. They roam the ranch and barn yard, but go in at night so the coyotes and foxes don't have a free meal!

How many animals do you raise in a year?   We own 600 mother cows and calves - in the fall about 1200 cattle total. Currently, there are 20 sheep, and 80 chickens.

Are there a lot of beef-raising ranches in the area? Do they take the same care with their livestock?   Our nearest neighbour is 20 km away, and there are a couple of ranches on the east side of the Fraser River that are 40 km away. Most don't practice grazing rotation because they either own or manage the ranch and are trying to pay for land, livestock, and expensive machinery. Most of them are sadly overstocked which in the short and long term kills the grassland.

Empire Valley Beef can be found on select dates at the Trout Lake and Kitsilano markets. For more info, visit their website:

The Holmes family at home on the range