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Pelly ranchers: Yukon’s oldest farm does it all

A visit to the Pelly River Ranch is like entering a funhouse of country mayhem.

Miche Genest

Special to the News

A visit to the Pelly River Ranch is like entering a funhouse of country mayhem. Chickens peck at the feet of wandering cattle, dogs come running to be petted, busy volunteer farm workers from around the world chat in several languages, and Dale Bradley cracks jokes to entertain visitors while keeping an eye on the whole proceeding. An air of friendship and hard work pervades the place, one of the most successful family farming operations in the Yukon.

Dale and Sue Bradley have the distinction of running the oldest, continuously working farm in the territory. They’re the second generation of Bradleys on the Pelly River Ranch, and the Bradley family are the fifth in a series of owners dating back to 1901 when Edward Menard bought 20 acres on the Pelly River “for farming purposes” and brought in farmer George Grenier as his partner. Menard and Grenier sold to Pete Olsen and Frank Chapman in 1915, who sold to the Fairclough family in 1927, who sold to the Wilkenson family in 1940. In 1954, Dale’s uncles Hugh and Dick Bradley bought the place from the Wilkenson family. The farm is like a good car: well-loved by every owner, albeit with quite a few miles on it.

The Bradleys were young, keen and up for anything — Dick had just come from the animal husbandry program at Olds College, and Hugh had a Bachelor of Science and Agriculture from the University of Alberta. They started off with seven head of cattle, a sow and a boar. In her history of the farm, Marjory Bradley writes, “These [pigs] helped to pay the grocery bill for the Bradley’s for the first five years.”

Dale Bradley’s parents, Ken and Dorothy Bradley, joined the farm in the mid 1960s, and he grew up there surrounded by family and animals. As a young adult he went out and explored the wide world but then came back in the early 1990s “to get away from working for a living” as he puts it. Like their family before them, Dale and Sue and their son Ken run a mixed farm, which means they engage in several agricultural practices. They raise chickens and beef cattle, mostly Hereford and Angus, have a big vegetable garden, perhaps the biggest patch of Saskatoon berries you’re likely to see in the Yukon, and they raise hay to feed the cattle. The Bradleys sell their eggs, chickens and beef to customers in Dawson, Faro and especially Whitehorse. In addition, they supply local markets with a range of root vegetables — potatoes, carrots, rutabaga and parsnips.

The Bradleys are supply all their own hay, which is the cornerstone of the beef operation. “Hay determines everything,” says Dale. “The size of the herd, how many cattle overwinter, and in part, how many cattle are slaughtered. Financial need also enters into it.”

He tries to maintain a population of 25 breeding cows — “I’d like to go up to 30 but it all depends on the consistency of the feed.” A dry spring and a wet July like the one in 2015 can wreak havoc with haying. Hay needs three to five days drying time, dry weather to cut it and more dry weather to bale it. And that, says Dale, is where silage, a form of animal feed, comes in.

“Silage is more weather forgiving,” he explains. “You can make silage when it’s high humidity and right after a rain. There’s no drying time; it’s cut and processed right away. You can make good silage out of any forage, and it helps to control weeds. The window of palatable silage is much wider than hay — poor forage makes poor silage but cows will live on poor silage. [Whereas] cows get sick on mouldy hay, and they don’t like dry stocks.”

Dale uses a large pit for his silage, piling it in when it’s green, and packing the oxygen out by driving the tractor back and forth over top. “That’s usually the job of some poor WOOFer (volunteer farm worker),” he says with a grin.

The Yukon Agricultural Branch suggests that pit silage is the most appropriate silage method for the Yukon, and Dale agrees. He tells horror stories of round, plastic-covered silage bales freezing into cement at -40C, whereas a crust forms over the silage pit in winter and insulates it from the weather. He can feed his cattle on silage all winter and sometimes well into the next winter.

A report on animal feed written for the Yukon Agriculture Branch in 2014 suggests that for most Yukon beef producers, “a feed management system based on grass feed, either as fresh forage, silage, hay or a combination of these is most likely going to produce the best results for the least amount of cost.”

The Pelly River Ranch is a textbook illustration of this system. In addition to hay and silage, cattle there eat a lot of fresh forage, everything from grasses to rose leaves to young fireweed, a feed that gives the beef a wild, natural flavour that Bradley appreciates. Currently, he finishes his cattle on grain. “I was taught as a young man that was a proven way to finish your animal.” But the market is changing, and as interest grass-finished beef grows, it’s possible that Bradley will be able to capitalize on that wild, natural flavour as a selling point.

He has watched the market change in other ways. When his uncles were selling beef most of their customers were families on a budget who would buy in bulk and butcher at home. Sometime in the late 1980s that situation shifted. Instead of delivering to people’s homes, the Bradleys started delivering to the Deli in Whitehorse. Their clients continue to look to professional butchers for cutting and wrapping services. Customers buy in bulk but they are also interested in buying a variety pack of cuts or a single package from the grocery store. The Bradleys predict the market for Yukon-grown vegetables will continue to expand too.

Dale Bradley is philosophical, as farmers have to be. He and Sue will embrace the changes and realities of running a mixed farm on the banks of the Pelly River, as their family has done for over 60 years.

This article is part of a series commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association and funded by Growing Forward 2, an initiative of the governments of Canada and Yukon.