Family uses horses to mix past with present

DAVIDSON, Sask. — Sunshine and a warm winter’s day have the O’Briens thinking of spring. Eyes light up thinking of branding time and the taste of prairie oysters on the central Saskatchewan farm.

“Everyone fights over them out here,” said Melanie O’Brien. “We shake and bake them.”

Her father-in-law, Don O’Brien, likes to throw them on the branding pot with butter and salt.

“It’s good stuff,” said Melanie’s husband, Michael.
A January cold snap has temporarily lifted so everyone is energized.

“You can see the excitement in the animals too. It’s funny. Even this morning, letting the horses out of the barn, everyone bucking and running around because it feels like spring out,” said Melanie.

Don is helping with the morning chores feeding the farm’s 200 Black Angus cows and 11 horses while Michael recuperates from knee surgery after being kicked by a cow.
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“If we go on a trip or go to visit family, he steps in. We wouldn’t be able to go anywhere had it not been for him,” said Melanie.

Horses have been part of the O’Brien lifestyle in Canada since Don’s grandfather emigrated from England to homestead near Elbow, Sask., in 1907. Michael is the fourth generation to use horses to do chores.

“We mix the past with the present. We just like horses and use them as much as we can. I grew up with it and just like being outside. It’s cheaper using the horses and a lot more fun,” said Michael.

Don said they are a lot easier to work with than the tractor, especially in winter.

“You don’t have to mess around plugging them in. You go to the barn and harness them up and they’re ready to go,” he said.

He harnesses and hooks up two Fjord Belgium-cross horses to the homemade bale sleigh to pull round bales to the field.

The family’s 4020 John Deere tractor is fired up every few weeks to grind feed.

“Some guys say you can only feed so many cows with a horse but I can do the chores in the same amount of time as it takes with a tractor,” said Michael.

A shared love of animals and competition brought together Michael and Melanie, who met at a rodeo where Michael was driving chuck wagon ponies.

Melanie grew up in Prince Albert, Sask., but craved a farm life and bought a horse after graduation.

“It was a hobby I pursued on my own. I wouldn’t give it up for the world,” she said.

After years of travelling on the rodeo circuit and working for different ranching operations throughout the province, the O’Briens are happy to be farming with their three children.

They purchased the land in 2006 and started a cow herd when prices were good for buying land but depressed for cattle.

“A guy’s been fighting a losing battle until this year. Hopefully this year, things are picking up,” said Michael

They own and rent more than four quarters of land. About half the cows go to a community pasture north of Davidson, the other half go to the provincial park and some remain on rented land.

They harvested 1,300 round bales last year and expect to use about half that number this winter.

The children attend school in Davidson and Melanie keeps busy taking the children to dance lessons, hockey, swimming and 4-H.

“You have to be an outdoors person and enjoy working with animals and want your kids raised in a big wide open area,” she said.

“It’s definitely a lifestyle you’ve got to like. For me, I don’t think you can find a better one to raise a family,” said Michael.

Melanie also works part-time as a school bus driver and care assistant at the Davidson hospital.

Michael would like to expand the herd this spring but it will depend on prices.

“We increased a bit more this year but we haven’t got near enough cows to raise the family on. We would need about 250 cows,” he said.

“Ranching, you don’t get rich,” he said. “You have to enjoy the lifestyle.”
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