Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Cattle in a field at W.A. Ranches
Photograph by Riley Brandt
Vet Med’s 19,000-acre backyard is fertile ground for discovery by the largest group of researchers working on beef in North America.

Written by Jaelyn Molyneux, BA’05

Don’t let the rolling foothills and casually grazing cattle of W.A. Ranches fool you. At 19,000 acres, those foothills add up to the largest outdoor classroom in North America.

And those beef cows — about 900 Angus and 60 bulls — are the subjects of study and monitoring as part of a massive effort to expand the teaching, learning, research and community engagement around global beef production and animal welfare.

W.A. Ranches is a working cow-calf ranch just northwest of Calgary. It was gifted to UCalgary by J.C. (Jack) Anderson and his daughter, Wynne Chisholm, BA’79, in 2018, instantly changing the game for agriculture research at the university.

“We have this focus on the health and welfare of beef at the University of Calgary that didn’t exist before,” says Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD, director of W.A. Ranches and the Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “When you have your own research station, you can manage the resource and take the lead in research programs.”

As the team got to understand the nuances of the expansive ranch, it launched several field research projects, including the “grimace scale.” That project involved hovering drones unobtrusively around calves to record their facial expressions at various times, identifying what they looked like when they were in pain and when they weren’t. That information helps producers and vets make informed decisions around the welfare of calves.

The ranch also provides infinite opportunity for cross-faculty research. Biomedical engineering, science and sustainability applications, and research have tapped into the ranch. For example, engineering student Jackson Cooper recently used the facility to test and validate computer coding to track collars on bulls. And partnerships with government and industry are growing — Alberta Innovates, Alberta Beef Producers and the Beef Cattle Research Council are just a few of the groups working with W.A. Ranches on research projects.

The ranch also spurred the creation of a six faculty-strong club called Team Beef, whose members meet monthly to kick around ideas and support each other and their students. “It’s the largest group of researchers working on beef in North America, especially at a vet school,” says Pajor.

If the first couple of years were all about getting to know the ranch, the next few are about continuing to build infrastructure to expand the teaching and research capabilities and open the gates to increased outreach through industry workshops and youth events. It’s an enviably wide and welcoming home on the range.

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