Calgary·Photos

Why this Alberta family has been doing cattle drives for 5 generations

It doesn't get much more Albertan than this. Find out what keeps the Thomson family doing this yearly tradition after decades.

'My sons have been with me since they were big enough to ride,' says longtime rancher John Thomson

Follow an iconic Alberta cattle drive

4 months ago
3:54
It doesn't get much more Albertan than this. Find out what keeps the Thomson family doing this yearly tradition after decades. 3:54

The sun is just rising as they set out for the day.

Departing from the XL Ranch tucked in just east of Black Diamond, southwest of Calgary, the Thomsons have done these cattle drives for decades and they want to get ahead of the hot weather to come.

The goal is to move their cattle to greener pastures that they lease from the Alberta government out near Kananaskis Country. The route winds south of Black Diamond, crossing the Sheep River near Turner Valley, before hitting Highway 546 out to the forestry road.

"It's better than working in an office for eight and 10 hours a day," says John Thomson, adding he will probably ride until he can't.

John Thomson of XL Ranch has been doing cattle drives for more than five decades. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

"I've been doing it for probably 55, 60 years, and my sons have been with me since they were big enough to ride." 

His son, Chad Thomson, says there are couple reasons for the ride.

"We trail our cattle up just because we find it's better than lingering [trucking] them. It's easier on the cattle, less stress," he said.

Chad Thomson has been doing these rides since he was old enough to saddle up. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

"It's good for their feet to come on the road. And yeah, it's just tradition for us. Just five generations of doing it."

The deer and elk like it too, as the cows munch on grass — sparking new growth. It also allows the Thomsons to hay their fields for when the cattle return in the fall.

It sure is an interesting sight, even for traffic caught up in the interesting jam.

Take a look through the meandering ride below, or watch the video above for more.

It might not be a typical traffic jam for city slickers, but locals have usually encountered cattle drives in the past. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
In the light of the early morning, real Alberta cowboys set out to drive the cattle west to graze. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
The cattle drive literally crossed the Cowboy Trail just south of Black Diamond, Alta. (Rachel Malcean/CBC)
The Cowboy Trail is a scenic route that runs along Highway 22 near Canada’s Rocky Mountains and Foothills in Alberta from Mayerthorpe south to Cardston. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
John Thomson points out directions to the other riders. XL Ranch employs two full-time riders to check on the cattle during the summer as well. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
Many of these cows have been travelling the road for years, and know the way. But the mothers tend to stay close to their calves. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
The cattle cross the Sheep River near Turner Valley on their way out west, taking advantage of access to water for a quick drink. (Submitted by Julie Thomson)
The flat prairies turn into rolling Foothills just east of Turner Valley as the cattle head towards the Rockies. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
Plenty of wildlife to see on the scenic cattle drive route. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
The ranchers say one of the biggest problems lately hasn't been predators, but vehicles hitting calves or cattle — which can costs thousands. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
John Thomson steers some wayward calves back towards the pack. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
The Thomson's trusty pup Flea could often be found out front leading the drive. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
The cow's branding helps the ranchers who lease land from the Alberta government sort out their cattle when it's time to come home in the fall. The cows graze with cattle from about 16 other permit owners. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
The Rockies tower in the distance as the cattle drive slowly makes its way to the forestry road on the edge of Kananaskis Country. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
This lone bull was taking his time sauntering in the summer heat. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
The cattle drive allows John Thomson to hay his fields over summer for feed in winter. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

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