Friday, July 24, 2015

He Changed Lives - Remembering Denis Wobeser

"The more steel, the less profit". Those words of wisdom were spoken to a group of provincial livestock extension specialists back on 1984 by feedlot operator turned grass-farmer Denis Wobeser.  I knew of Denis; everyone did, but that was the first time I had met him.  The Western Canadian Beef Industry lost a good friend last week when Denis passed away after a brief illness, a couple weeks past his 77th birthday. As my friend Enoch, another grass-farmer who was greatly influenced by Denis, said, "He changed lives".  I hope they write it on his tombstone.

The following brief bio is from an article quoting an interview with Denis and his son Brady which can be found at

In 1999, Dennis and Jean Wobeser, of Hi-Gain Ranching, in Lloydminster, Alberta, won the Emerald Award in the small-business category. This is the major Canadian environmental award, and this is the first time it has been won by an agricultural operation. In the words of the press release that accompanied the award:
Dennis and Jean Wobeser have been in the cattle business since 1963. For over 20 years they ran a custom feeding and feedlot company that, at its peak, handled 7,000 head of cattle. In the late 1980s, the Wobesers, along with daughter Kelly, son Brady, and four employees, decided to transform their high-technical/high-input commercial feeding operation to a low-input, nature-based grazing operation.
Hi-Gain Ranching now manages 4,500 acres with most of that land dedicated to seeded pasture and maintenance of natural areas, supporting 600 cows and 600 to 800 yearlings. The Wobesers' approach has resulted in healthier and higher-volume grass, increased organic matter in the soil, more diversity in plant species, and an increase in beneficial insect species. Bare ground has been decreased and healthier land has been increased due to disallowing pesticides and chemicals.
The effects of floods and drought have been reduced due to a layer of thatch (dead and decaying plants) on the surface of the ground, which increases the water holding capacity of the soil and reduces erosion and runoff. Hi-Gain Ranching is truly a demonstration of a healthy and vibrant ecosystem.
Denis graduated from the College of Agriculture, University of Saskatchewan in 1961. The feedlot was high capital turnover and low margin.  Brady and daughter Kelly wanted nothing to do with the feedlot so they switched to grazing.  Denis began attending Holistic Resource Management (HRM) courses down in Albuquerque.  While he had always wanted to be a cattleman, he discovered that what he was really doing was farming grass and that cattle were simply a management tool. So he dropped "my sacred cows from number 1 to number 2, and put growth ahead of it".  Eventually he realized that "all our future and everything is dependent on the health of our soil. If you have healthy land, you'll have healthy plants, which you can then harvest by livestock if that's the way you choose. Now the cows are the third priority: put the soil first, then the growth, then the animals".

Denis followed his own advice.  All the equipment they had at the home ranch was two pickups and a tractor with a front-end loader.  And miles and miles of electric fence.  Denis willingly gave of his time and energy to teach others what he had learned. I took several delegations of herdsmen from Inner Mongolia to his place over the years and he spoke at several workshops I put on for the delegations. 

I had not seen him since 2007 and was saddened to hear of his passing.  We just assume good people will always be there and go on forever.

This poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson kind of summed up his life, in my opinion. 

To laugh often and love much;
to win the respect of intelligent persons
and the affection of children;
to earn the approbation of honest critics
and to endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to give of one’s self;
to leave the world a little better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to have played and laughed with enthusiasm
and sung with exultation;
to know that even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived –
this is to have succeeded.

Denis speaking with a group from Inner Mongolia 2001

Denis with another group of herdsmen from Inner Mongolia 2007

Cows grazing fresh pasture in July, grazed pasture to the right

Oil storage tank, steam cleaned, holds water for the cattle; grazed pasture on the right


  1. I'd heard of Hi-Gain, but didn't know the story behind it. Thanks for telling it - I hope his legacy lives on.

    1. I expect it will. His family will carry on, I understand. His daughter Kelly is, I believe, a qualified instructor of HRM.

  2. His techniques are probably thousands of years old but were lost somewhere along the way. Now if we could just do the same with energy and water.

    1. Intensive grazing management has been practiced in New Zealand for many many years. It was introduced to North America by Alan Savoury, a Rhodesian, who watched how herds of grazing animals "managed" the grasslands of Africa. Same as the bison herds in North America. Large numbers graze a small area clean, trampling waste and dead organic matter into the ground. Then they move on and may not return for a year or even two, giving the grass an opportunity to grow back. The principles can be applied on a large or small scale, under wet or dry conditions. Allowing the plants sufficient time to rest and regrow their root system is the key


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