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History of the McIntyre Ranch

Posted on October 30, 2014 by Westwind Weekly

Part I McIntyre Family 1894- 1947

The history of the McIntyre Ranch, currently one of the largest ranches in Canada, dates back over a 120 years. The ranch had gained a strong foothold in the area before Magrath itself was officially established in 1898.

In Oct. of 1870 the founder William H. McIntyre and his brother Samuel got their first taste of the ranching lifestyle when they went to Texas to sell the land their father had left them. After the sale of this land the two brothers started buying cattle in Texas. In the span of six months the McIntyre brothers had a heard of over 6,000 Mexican longhorns in their possession.


When they started to drive the heard towards Salt Lake during the month of April, many of their cattle were skinny and malnourished. Allowing the cattle to slowly graze and eat the grass across the prairies resulted in a plump heard when they arrived in Utah eight months later.

The trek did not go without its fair share of challenges. “Very often bands of Indians would hold them up and demand a number of their cattle; sometimes their demands were made in very war-like tones. The McIntyre’s stood their ground and would compromise by giving them two or three in place of the 50 or 100 head, which they demanded. Even though the Indians were a constant danger, the brothers considered the buffalo an even greater danger. One bunch of buffalo would start running and in their course pick up other buffalo, and soon a herd of them was on the run. It was almost impossible to change the direction of the buffalo stampede, and so there was a constant fear that the buffalo stampede would run through their herd of cattle and take a big part of it with them,” reads a passage found on http://www.mcintyreranch.com

They wintered their cattle near the Tintic district and sold them the following spring at $24 a head. The cattle had originally cost them $3.75 per head in Texas. The brothers maintained their partnership till sometime in the 80s, buying up, moving and reselling large volumes of cattle in the United States to turn a profit.

The winter of 1886 and 1887 were very harsh and unkind; William practically lost all of his cattle. By the time spring came all he had to show for his efforts was a large bunch of hides.

He decided to look for greener pastures and a friend suggested the Cardston area. McIntyre spent close to three years visiting the area and inspecting local settlers herds to see how they wintered before he made the decision to move to Canada.

In 1894 he purchased the first tact of land from the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company near the foot of the Milk River Ridge.

Fields were fenced, land was broken and farming operations were added to the daily tasks in 1900 to provide feed for the cattle and horses. Rye and Oats were the first crops grown. A few years later fall wheat became an important crop.

In May of 1902 it rained continuously. “Pot Hole Creek became a real river and the roaring water coursing down it could be heard for a two-mile distance … Thousands of gophers were drowned and the whole country squashed under horses’ feet like an irrigated hay meadow. Mosquitoes were so thick that nearly everyone wore mosquito netting and it was hard to breath without getting them in your mouth and nose.”

Later that summer, William went to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and purchased  500 head of purebread Hereford cows and Black Galloway bulls. These were the first to join the heard at the McIntyre Ranch. The Galloway-Hereford cross produced a lot of very good, polled, black, bald-faced cattle.

Prior to 1905 the present day Province of Alberta was part of the North West Territories. There were Royal Mounted Police barracks on the St. Mary’s River north-west of the ranch, and on the north branch of the Milk River south of the ranch.

Other neighbours chose to squat on land, finding it foolish to purchase land when they could use whatever they wanted for free.

At the time, Lethbridge was the nearest railroad point. Being some 56 kilometers north of the ranch, the trip into town for supplies was rare, taking four or five days to complete the round trip by wagon.

One of the most devastating moments in the early history of the ranch was the death of William’s youngest son who passed away as a result of the flu epidemic in October of 1918. He was 27-years- old at the time and enjoyed roping on the ranch and electrical engineering. After that William avoided the ranch for the better part of two years and his eldest son William. H. “Billy” McIntyre, Jr took over the majority of the operation.

Family friend and associate, “Ray Knight used to say ‘What we have had in the past we will have again in the future,’ meaning that wet years, dry years, severe winters, and mild winters will keep on coming in cycles.

The ranch made it a priority to conserve water for stock watering and irrigation in dry periods. They also worked towards storage of feed in years of ample production to tide them over during harsher periods..

The winter of 1919-20 lasted from October to May. Due to the length of the winter and the volume of snow that fell, everyone was short feed.

“We had contracted for 600 tons of baled hay in the Coaldale district at $30.00 per ton … Owing to the bad roads and the tremendous demand for hay, all of our hay was not delivered to us and our needs kept getting more urgent. By the time the end of winter came, we were paying $60.00 per ton for hay shipped in from Quebec.” The McIntyre heard pushed through with scarecly any loss, but more money was spent feeding the cows than what they were worth.

Cattle prices picked up gradually after 1921 and by 1928 weaned calves ans steers were once again bringing a good price of $45 a head. Such was the repeatative cycle of life on the ranch.

Ralph A. Thrall began his Canadian ranch career with the Knight Watson Ranching Company, becoming a fast and trusted friend of William “Billy” McIntyre Jr. As a result he began working alongside him and his family when the Knight Watson Ranching Company dissolved.

He would later purchase the ranch, it has remained in Thrall ownership to this day.

Part II Thrall Family 1948 – Present

The Thrall family purchased the ranch from the McIntyre estate in 1948, the year after Billy McIntyre’s death. It was a fitting transition into trusted hands as Ralph A. Thrall was a close friend of William “Billy” McIntyre Jr, for over 30 years. He was already operating the ranch as the controller/secretary and continued to help the McIntyre family after Billy’s death until they presented him with the opportunity to purchase the ranch.

Since the Thrall family purchased the ranch, the property has not changed in size or boundary. “It is the same property now as it was then,” said current McIntyre Ranch general manager, Ralph A. Thrall III.

The ranch features 87 square miles of property, 75 of which are still native grasslands and the remaining 12 were converted into cultivated tame grazing land. Like in the past, all the ranch land is still used for cattle to graze. The six ranch hands tend to over 210 miles (338 kilometers) of fence.

“The size of the property makes the McIntyre Ranch fairly unique … There are only a handful of big ranches in Canada and the McIntyre is one of them. But what makes the ranch unique is the abundance of the native rough fescue and the species diversity on the property.”

Rough fescue is perennial bunch grasses that grows in dense tufts with stiff, narrow leaves. There are three species or subspecies of rough fescue that occur in Canada and adjacent parts of the USA, but Alberta is the only jurisdiction in North America all three species can be found. In 2003 Alberta named rough fescue their provincial grass.

Rough fescue provides good forage for wildlife and livestock. It has high spring protein and digestible carbohydrate content. Rough fescue also produces good yields as native hay and nd it is a highly preferred forage for livestock during winter months because the nutrients and proteins remain in the leafs and blades of grass all year, unlike most vegetation.

“We tend to not feed cattle in the winter time because the grass is nutritious enough where we don’t have to.

“Even though it is tolerant to drought, and the elements, it does not tolerate over grazing … so to me if you don’t have rough fescue (on your property) you have over grazed it … as long as I watch the fescue I can manage the property.”

This is a principle that the McIntyre’s were well aware of too. When they came up to Canada through the over grazed portions of the United States, they saw over grazing first hand and realized the importance of balancing the number of cattle in a herd with the amount of available grazing land. Today the Thralls honour that tradition by ensuring that any given point, only 25-percent of the land is being used, rotating the sections where the cattle graze.

“Stewardship is perhaps the greatest legacy that my family has maintained from what the McIntyre’s had established and preserved themselves … My father and I believed that the McIntyre’s were some of the pioneer conservationists or environmentalist from a grass management perspective.”

Another area where the McIntyre Ranch is unique is the size of the cattle heard, unlike 95-percent of cattle farmers that operate a cow-calf operation, the ranch falls into a fairly small niche cow-yearling market. Instead of selling the calves after they have been weaned, the ranch backgrounds the calves over the winter and keeps them until they are at least a year before they are sold at market.

The heard consists of 3, 000 factory female cows at any given time, but can be upwards of 8, 500 during the peak summer months when both the new calves and the yearlings are still on the ranch.

“If there was a significant change from the McIntyre years, the introduction of cross breeding would be it.” The practice was recommended by family friend and former general manager Doc. Syd Slen to Ralph A. Thrall II in the early 80s.

Ten-percent of the female breeding cows are pure breed, five-percent of which are Herford and another five-percent are Red Angus. These cows are bred to produce 150 strong bulls with the top 60 -75 genetic performers being introduced into the cross bred heard.

“We basically raise the pure breeds to provide their own bull power to our cross bred heard.” This practice helps insure top genetics remain in the McIntyre heard.  

Aside from the more traditional ranching operations, Ralph and his family are proud of the creative arts and culture pursuits that they get to be a part of and support through the ranch over the years.  

In both 1991 and 2004, over a dozen artists spent a week living on the ranch, doing a “residency” taking in the natural environment and cowboy traditions.

“The ranch spoke to them in different ways through their art, be it sculptures, painting, photography or literary verse” and resulted in several displays at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge.

Music is also important to the Thrall family, in 2001 Howard Cable was commissioned to do a western piece. Howard also happens to be the man behind the beloved music that introduces Canadian hockey games.

The outcome was “McIntyre Ranch Country” a collage of several western songs evocative of the old west and the ranch.

Another honour was a Discovery Channel program in 1996. A Passion for Prairie – Wind, Grass and Sky’ was an hour-long episode that included over 40-minutes of footage from around the property. The landscape also made an appearance in a Cowboy Country TV episode.

“The big picture story is not just taking care of the land, but also showing what it has to offer and exposing the things it has to offer both scientifically and artistically,” has been the goal of ranch management.

*This two-part historical feature ran in the Westwind Weekly on Sept. 25, 2014 and Oct. 23*

Special thanks to Ralph A. Thrall III

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