Growing up on a ranch and being a 4-H member helped give Gillian Watt the confidence to be innovative when it was her turn to be a rancher.
Speaking by phone on her way to the BC Bison Association AGM in Fort St. John recently, Watt, manager of the new Applied Sustainable Ranching program at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake, said her great-grandfather Jim Bishop managed the Gang Ranch at the turn of the century.
Later his son, her great uncle, also Jim Bishop, managed the Gang, so she has deep roots in the BC ranching industry.
“My father James (Bud) Watt grew up in Vancouver but his aunt and uncles were all ranching in the Cariboo so right after the war he headed to Clinton and bought Kelly Lake ranch with his brother in law. Over the years, dad did a lot of innovative things in ranching to produce better quality calves and increase his returns,” she said.
Bud worked closely with BCAI Centre when the exotic breeds as they were known as back then were coming into Canada. He performed artificial insemination on about 800 head per year when he worked for Ted Termunde managing the Diamond S Ranch at Pavilion, this was about 50 years ago now, Watt said. They were the first to bring Simmental cattle into Canada. Then when he bought his own place at Barriere he continued the relationship with BCAI centre and did progeny testing on a large number of these new breeds and shared the production results with the Centre in exchange for free semen.
After selling Kelly Lake Ranch, her dad managed the OK Ranch, then Diamond S Ranch, and from there was the herdsmen for Coldstream Ranch for a couple of years.
Gillian first came back to the Cariboo after university to work as the Range Resource Officer at the Chilcotin Forest District. In 1994 she, along with her husband Jack Brown-John, and his partner Tim Menning and his wife, purchased the Black Creek Ranch on the Horsefly River.
Her foray into innovation began by venturing into grass-fed beef sales, focussing on beef jerky, and lean ground products that were a product of market cows.
“Market cows are largely all grass-fed but selling them in the fall through traditional markets, I thought there was a lot of room to improve returns in this area,” she said.
In her later years at Black Creek Ranch she began working on her MBA in Agriculture through the University of Guelph. At that time she changed from putting up hay to custom grazing.
She sent her cows away for overwintering at Cache Creek, where they were doing the winter corn grazing, and then brought them back just before calving.
To balance this expense, in the summertime she brought in cows from Cache Creek for custom grazing on her ranch.
“It seemed a better fit because of the heavy snow fall and the hard winter conditions. It rains a lot at Black Creek also so it seemed like a better fit to graze the land than put up hay.”
After that she started a tourism business at the Black Creek Ranch where guests could stay in a bed and breakfast and fly fish on the Horsefly River.
“We offered full meals and they fished in the river. It’s rated as one of the top fly fishing rivers in North America,” she added.
About four years ago she sold the ranch and has a hobby farm now near Kamloops where she raises a few sheep for direct sales to stores, restaurants and a few direct clients.
From Black Creek Ranch, Gillian went to work for the Royal Bank as an agriculture account manager and then onto TRU as a business mentor,in the office of research, where she worked on a couple of projects with the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association.
Eventually Gillian left TRU to work for the B.C. Association of Abattoirs (BC Meats), but has recently retired from BC Meats to return to head up the new agriculture program in Williams Lake.
During her time with BC Meats, she has helped create two main programs — an online ordering tool for chefs and stores to buy “100 per cent B.C. Beef” and the B.C. Meats Traceability System.
The Traceability System gives producers information on their carcasses, she explained.
“They take a picture, grade it and the producer can log on and see his grade. At the other end, the chefs and stores can see the grades as well.”
The first launch of the information system revealed that some things needed to be changed and upgraded so those tweaks are in development now. Watt’s replacement will be working closely with the BC Ministry of Agriculture’s Traceability staff to upgrade this system.
Gillian will be in Williams Lake on Monday, Nov. 16 to host an information session about the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program.
It takes place from 7 to 9 p.m.