Nestled in a valley and stretching across surrounding forested hillsides, is one of the many Bulkley Valley cattle ranches, passed down from generation to generation since 1919.
About 21 kilometres west of Houston, the 1,500 acre family ranch owned by Maxine Bell and her two sons Noah and Wayne is home to 500 cattle and was passed down from Maxine’s parents Harry and Jule Anderson who started the ranch in 1948, Maxine said.
The ranch has been in the family for 65 years, and Noah says his three children Haley, 16, Jaime, 14, and Avery, 13, are set to inherit the ranch after him.
Noah’s grandma Jule was born in Telkwa and grew up on a farm which is now the east section of the Bell ranch, where her family moved in 1919, Maxine said.
Noah’s grandpa Harry grew up on a farm in Gadsby, Alberta, joined the airforce in 1943 and was training on the glider planes in the Vancouver area when the war ended, said Maxine.
He was given 160 acres bordering Jule’s family ranch in 1945 for his soldier’s settlement and he homesteaded the place, bought some adjacent land and later married Jule, building up the ranch to the acreage it is today.
“We started out with a team of horses and a milk cow,” said Maxine, adding that her Dad used to work in the bush in the winter and the family used to milk cows and sell the butter and cream to the creamery in Telkwa.
They never did dairy but had a family milk cow until 15 years ago, and ranched mostly beef cattle since 1954 when they bought their first 20 head of heifers.
Maxine says ranching has changed a lot over the years.
“We had no electricity, no running water until the 60’s, no vehicles,” she said, adding that they used to have only horses for transportation and haying.
Though things have definitely changed, Noah says they still use horses on the ranch quite a lot because you can get through brush and to places where a four wheeler can’t go.
They still do branding the old fashioned way, roping calves and branding them by a fire, and Maxine still checks cows on horseback, but Noah says he prefers the four wheeler for that.
Asked what changes they see coming in the future of ranching, Noah says he just hopes beef remains a commodity.
“When BSE [mad cow disease] came in we were at the mercy of everybody. We were the first to feel it and the last to recover as things got better,” Noah said.
Maxine says she sees advertising and marketing really coming into the cattle industry, and Noah added that ranchers need to know their genetics and keep up with the demand.
This was the first year Maxine and Noah bought rancher endorsed tags for their Angus cattle, signing to guarantee that they were purebred Angus cattle with no hormones, which adds value to their animals, said Noah.
They sell their cattle, 18 month yearlings, at the Vanderhoof auction mart, and sell some pure bred bulls for breeding in Williams Lake, but they don’t sell slaughtered beef locally because government regulations require that cattle be inspected and slaughtered in a slaughterhouse, which adds cost and takes away any profit they could make, said Maxine.
Another challenge they’ve had to face is predators.
Noah says predators have been a big time problem, and both the Smithers airport grizzly and the Houston museum grizzly were shot on their ranch.
Maxine says that the Smithers grizzly was hunted for four years, and over that time they lost 40 head of cattle.
Maxine says they also lose about five cattle each year to wolves, and in recent springs have lost calves to coyotes.
Ranching in the Bulkley Valley is a hard living, Maxine said, adding that it’s often a struggle to keep from going into debt.
“Even though the price of cattle has come up, everything else has doubled too…fuel, seed, repair parts and machinery has more than doubled,” she said.
“You don’t do it to get rich, that’s for sure,” said Noah. “It’s more of a lifestyle than a job per se.”
Maxine says it’s hard work with long hours but she likes it.
“It’s a way of life, it’s a good life, I wouldn’t change it for anything,” she said.