Winters

The early drovers found that they could usually winter their cattle on the dry bunchgrass ranges of the Interior, where the animals fed on the stalks that poked through the snow. In most winters, this was sufficient to keep the cattle fed, but the occasional winter was too severe and great numbers of cattle were lost. Nonetheless, most ranchers believed that cattle would always be able to scratch out enough grass in the deep winter snow to keep them alive until spring.

A photograph of horses hauling hay for winter feeding on the Clarke farm.Click to enlarge,
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Horses hauling hay for winter feeding, Clarke farm, north of Williams Lake - Courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.

Even the harshest winters only convinced them that they needed a small haystack or two to provide extra feed.

In the early days, the ranchers put up hay using swamp grass or the native bunchgrasses, and it was generally considered that a ton of hay per head was enough for winter feeding. In actual practice, much less hay than that was produced. In 1893, the North Okanagan had 5200 head of cattle and 2000 tons of hay. It is not surprising then that the occasional severe winter resulted in the starvation of great numbers of cattle.

A photograph of men stacking hay at the Clarke Farm, north of Williams Lake. Click to enlarge,
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Haying at the Clarke farm north of Williams Lake - Courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.

Thousands of cattle died in the Thompson Okanagan in the winter of 1879-80. It is estimated that a full quarter of the 9000 cattle in the Nicola Valley perished before early April. This severe winter, and others over the next twenty years, convinced ranchers they needed to put up large hay stocks for winter feeding.

As the bunchgrass ranges were depleted, it became obvious that the ranchers would have to grow more forage crops. The cutting and stacking of hay during the summer months became part of the ranching scene that persists to the present day. While this practice increased ranchers’ costs for workers and equipment, it ensured that cattle would have every chance to survive harsh winters.

Media Files

Audio Tapes 4256:1 Cattle Ranching in the Nicola - “Winter/Haying”
Ranchers talk about devastating winters and the need to put up hay.

A flash player with audio describing devastating winters and the need to put up hay.

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