By Joy Gregory
Photo by Marnie Burkhart
Originaly Publishished in Spring 2001 edition of Western Legend magazine
They're not given to star gazing and there's nary a camel in sight. Still, a group of Wise women east
of Calgary is changing the way some people see their part of the world. It's not that what they do is
so different. It's just that in an occupation traditionally dominated by men, these female cattle
producers, especially since they're running the whole show, continue to occupy a space somewhat
separate from the rest of the herd.
Leta Wise and three of her four daughters, Deanna, Della and Dallas, have operated the Wise
Maine-Anjou Ranch near Irricana for the better part of 5 years. That time period coincides with the death of R.B. (Berwyn) Wise, a much-loved husband and father. None of the Wise women questions his contribution to their education in the business of purebred beef cattle. But they also don't listen to those (and some have been brave enough to at least hint about it to their faces) who suggest "the girls" should disperse the herd and, you know, get on with life.
That notion amuses Leta. Raised on a purebred beef ranch at Acme and schooled in the show ring as a child, she's never taken a back seat to anyone in the beef business. Well, at least not since 1952 when a 19-year-old Leta Boake applied to study agriculture at the State College of Washington. She was told there were no women doing that, though they certainly "would like her in the home economics program."
"I don't know what I expected," recalls Leta, more matter of fact than irked. "I was 19 years old and thought,
'why not give it a try?'"
Her daughters bristle at the unfairness of it all. But it's not something they dwell on. Steeped in the prairie tradition of playing the cards dealt, they all know how their mother's university career may have changed their own lives. Della hopes things will be different for her own elementary-school aged daughters, Piper and Keltey, no matter what path they choose. Then again, it's not like Washington State's rejection kept Leta from doing what she knew best - and that's a lesson all of her daughters have taken to heart.
In 1954, Leta married R.B. Wise and moved to land her father, E.J.C. Boake, bought near Irricana in 1929. With 900 acres of pasture and hayland, as well as access to irrigation water, the property had provided spring and summer pasture for Boake's purebred Shorthorns, plus hay for the winter. The home quarter also boasts an incredible shelterbelt that includes many mature apple trees and the M.D. of Rocky View's largest stand of elms. It is a living testament to Leta's father's determination to push the
productivity of prairie soil. "He thought about what the possibilities were" and then aimed higher remembers Leta, whose life with R.B. would follow a similar path.
By the early 1970's, the Wise ranch was boarding exotic cattle and operated a custom fitting service to prepare cattle for shows and sales. Many of these animals were owned by urban professionals, some of whom were rekindling familial connections to agricultural production. Others were attracted to purebred beef cattle by lucrative tax breaks and big talk of how these 'new' breeds, most of them from continental Europe, were poised to transform the North American beef industry.
In many ways, that's exactly what happened. While British breeds still dominate the maternal side of Canadian beef herds, for example, the larger-framed Continental breeds have made a definite mark. They're used to produce calves with larger weaning weights and more lean meat yield per animal. It was during the first part of the Continental wave that R.B. and Leta disbursed their Shorthorns and bought their first Maine-Anjou cattle, a European breed that originated in France. Building on their experience as custom fitters with a reputation for attaining proper weight gains and conditioning of purebred animals, they also diversified
the operation further. From 1976 to 1986, the Wise ranch operated a bull test station. There, they kept official records on hundreds of bulls of various breeds. That performance data helped the bulls' owners sell their genetics to other purebred and beef
Keith McKinnon runs a cow-calf, feedlot and grain farm near Carseland. President of the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede Board in 1991-92, McKinnon led the Canadian Limousin Association when their first bull test station was set up at the Wise ranch. He remembers the hands-on contribution of Leta and Dede (Deanna's nickname) and while that kind of participation wasn't common, it was the natural order of business at the Wise ranch.
And what are his favourite memories of the Wise family? He always trusted their cattle management practices.
"And if I stayed for lunch they would feed me cold pancakes with corn syrup. I loved that," he says with a laugh.
Leta and the girls remember the custom fitting business and bull test station an exciting time in the ranch's evolution. But that's not where all the action took place. By 1966, Berwyn and Leta were also well-known on the judging circuit and the girls, more often than not, went along for the ride. Leta remembers a Wetaskiwin show where she judged the first class of Charolais ever judged in Canada. A few yearslater, the husband and wife judged cattle at the Colorado State Fair. Convinced her mom's memories are too tempered by modesty, Della says she believes her mother is a trail-blazer. "She baked cookies like everybody else's mom," says
Della. "But she also halter broke cattle, fed cows, broke and trained horses, forked manure and shook straw."
Today Leta and Deanna are the hands-on ranch managers of an operation calving out 80 purebred females and retaining 20 bull calves for spring sales. Leta's time is increasingly spent on projects like the Stockmen's Memorial Foundation. But she also tracks their herd's bloodlines and guides breeding decisions. She moves electrical fences. She takes her turn watching a remote camera feed during calving season. She leads the discussion on how to fine-tune the ranch's breeding program to better meet the demands of purebred and commercial customers. When it comes to feeding and bedding the herd, Deanna's in charge. She manages the bulk of spring calving duties and calls the shots when it's time to put up the 150 acres of hay bale and bring home the barley and wheat straw for winter feed and bedding, or clean corrals.
"We might fight a little, but we get it done," says Dallas, the youngest and a welcome part-timer on the chore front. A medical office assistant in Calgary, she spends three days in the city and four at home. At home, she's the ranch's best cowgirl. In the city, she willingly answers her colleague's questions about beef production. "I don't preach, but I do set them straight," says Dallas.
Della Wise-Whelan is an esthetician who moved back to the ranch with her husband, Ron Whelan, after their first daughter was born. He runs a contracting business, she's the rancher. These days, she helps with the books, is responsible for the ranch's Web site and is the family's self-professed "political liaison." In addition to an executive position with Action for Agriculture, a farmer and rancher-based lobby group headquartered in the Municipal District of Rocky View, Della accepted an offer to participate in a ratepayer interest group organized by the Western Irrigation District. While the first group focuses on urban encroachment and the loss of good pasture and farm land, the second has targeted provincial politicians to receive information about the critical value of irrigation.
If a division of labour makes sense in any business, it's critical to the Wise Maine-Anjou Ranch. First it gives all of the partners input. Second, it allows them to pursue other interests. Deanna, for instance, is an accomplished photographer. Della still runs her own aesthetics business and Dallas has that city job, as well as a passion for water-colour painting. Did her mother and sisters' decision to keep running the ranch after Berwyn died surprise eldest daughter, Debra Rest?
"No," she says with the same quick laugh that punctuates conversations with her siblings. "I knew they would continue
on. I never had any doubt about that." A former office manager for the Canadian Limousin Association, Debra's own career in agriculture took her to the U.S. after she married a field editor with a publication that focuses on purebred Limousin cattle. An x-ray technician now based in Loveland, Colo., she's a partner in Colorado Genetics Inc., a company that specializes in transplanting embryos of beef cattle. She leases her cows to her mother and doubts she'll ever return to the ranch. But there's no denying her heritage. In 1969, a 14-year-old Debra won the D.E. Black Shield at the Calgary Bull Sale, replicating a feat her mother accomplished 20 years earlier. It was the first and only time a mother and daughter shared that honour, and while Debra shared her show ring experience with several girlfriends, she knows her mother never benefited from the same support.
All that aside, Leta kind of snickers at questions about a changing role for women in agricultural production. It's not that she hasn't noticed women taking a greater role in the business. It's just that she doesn't think of them as women doing men's work. From where she sits, she's always been a woman doing her job. That her daughters followed a similar route to the family business is a source of pride. But when all is said and done, Leta Wise, like most mothers, is just happy to know her children are happy, too.