Manitoba farmer experiments with soil fertility techniques

After the first year of mob grazing, grower says the soil was rich with organic matter

A producer panel held at 
the Saskatchewan Soil 
Conservation Assocation 
conference in Saskatoon brought together four farmers who use techniques not normally seen in the industry, including Ryan Boyd.

Click here to read a story about another grower who participated in the producer panel, Colin Rosengren.

When Ryan Boyd returned from university to the family farm in Forrest, Man., he wanted to incorporate holistic management techniques into farm’s modus operandi.

Holistic management is a decision-making framework that includes economic and environmental considerations in the farm play. It includes improving soil health as a central focus, while reducing the external inputs necessary to achieve yields.

“We try to keep the soil covered, living roots year round. We can do that. We often don’t think we can, but it’s just getting your mind wrapped around what are the possibilities,” Boyd said.

Soil fertility improvements at his family’s farm are driven by carefully maintaining healthy soil organic carbon levels, growing a diversity of plants and high density grazing.

“If we can increase organic matter, then why not? There’s huge potential for the nutrients and all the other spinoffs that I would refer to as healthy soils,” Boyd said during his presentation at the Sask-atchewan Soil Conservation Association conference during Crop Week in Saskatoon.

Boyd farms about 2,000 acres of crops with his wife, Sarah, and his mother and father. Their cattle numbers fluctuate in the low hundreds, depending on market conditions.

When Boyd returned to the farm in the early 2000s, crop prices were depressed, and Boyd wanted to see first-hand how cropland soils could be improved by growing forages.

He sowed a few fields to perennial forages and grazed his cattle on them, but had problems with foot rot and pinkeye with those cattle, so he began tissue testing the forages.

The copper-to-molybdenum ratio was out of whack, and the forages were deficient in zinc and many micronutrients, he said.

“But after two to four years of just good grazing management, you could go to the same spot in the field with the GPS where I’ve been taking these samples every year, and the quality of that forage, the mineral balance in that forage, it came into where you would want it on a feed test. It just seemed to balance itself,” Boyd said.

As the tissue tests began showing better results, the foot rot and pinkeye incidents dropped off and are no longer a problem, aside from isolated incidents.

After seeing how a forage crop helped improve his soil, Boyd wanted to find more crops and techniques.

“I believe there are lots of good things that come from that higher density grazing. We keep the cattle out on the land all year. We graze perennial pasture right into December or until the snow gets too deep,” Boyd said.

High density grazing, also know as mob grazing, uses many animals in a small area for a short time and can quickly improve soil quality when properly executed.

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Boyd was convinced after only one year of mob grazing that he could significantly improve his soil through his land management choices.

“I remember like it was yesterday. I took the spade out and it was like digging in the backyard when you were a kid looking at the black crumbly soil under the sod,” he said. “It was like something I’ve never seen out in the field. It just smelled good, crumbly texture.”

He decided he wanted soil with those characteristics on his entire farm, and has been working toward that goal ever since.

Increasing the plant diversity on the farm is a key technique for improving soil. Boyd also said having cattle helps him significantly.

“We wouldn’t be experimenting the way we do if we didn’t have the cattle as an out. When we go to grow an intercrop like that winter wheat, vetch and peas, in the back of my mind, we have the cows right there that we can turn out, or cut and bale it or silage it.”

He said it would take many years of mono cropping to incorporate the level of plant diversity on his farm that he thinks is necessary to have healthy soils.

“If I grew a different crop every year and had six different crop types in my rotation, it would take six years. But if I can grow a diverse mixture and then graze it, I can have 10 or 15 different species in an annual crop for grazing. And if I go out and mob graze that, I think I can eliminate the need for a long diverse cash crop rotation.”

Diverse forage mixtures help bolster his soil that the cash crops take advantage of, but the forages themselves are also profitable.

Boyd said growing diverse annual forage mixtures provides high quality feed in the late fall and early winter when pasture feed quality is poor, and he can do it a lot cheaper then feeding high quality hay.

He also uses cover crops to keep something living on the fields as long as possible.

“Winter cereals have a good fit as a cover crop. They add some organic matter and feed some carbon into the soil that feeds the soil biology. They have a good fit for the fall time and also in the spring, especially when we are trying to deal with excess moisture,” Boyd said.

Last spring he turned his cattle out onto a 120-acre field of a fall rye stand for a couple weeks to graze it and then direct-seeded the field.

“It’s bad enough when I put my cows out in the spring in my crops. The neighbours really question what I’m doing, if I’m grazing my grain crop.

“Then I went out and seeded into it. And I didn’t just seed anything. I seeded soybeans, which all the neighbours say you can’t plant soybeans on stubble — it’s gotta be black, warm. They certainly wouldn’t be doing this,” he said.

Once the soybeans emerged he sprayed off the rye and the soybean crop took off and became competitive with any bean crop in the area, he said.

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Relay cropping, where two or more crops are growing on the same field with the planting of the second crop after the first is already well established, is also part of Boyd’s management plan.

“We have some winter wheat in the ground at 15-inch spacing. Next spring, the plan is to go out and seed a mixture of forage I’ll graze in the fall. When the winter wheat is about to start canopying in, I’ll go out and try to seed with RTK (real time kinetic) in-between those rows to get an annual forage established underneath I can graze in the fall time.”

The idea is to establish the forages under a wheat crop while not overly restricting the wheat, instead of taking a field out of production for a full year to grow annual forages.

Boyd has had success with a mix of corn, soybeans and hairy vetch.

“The protein is limiting on that corn so we threw in 20 pounds of soybeans in the mix, just planted it all with the air seeder. The soybeans grew good and tall in the mix; they stood up. The cows picked the pods and ate the soybeans. It seemed to help balance their diet.”

Boyd is not afraid to experiment with different growing techniques.

For instance, he adds a small amount of canola when he plants peas to reduce disease pressure in the peas and it makes the peas easier to harvest because they climb up the canola.

“We’re managing it as a pea crop. I say it’s a pea crop with canola for moral support.

“It’s not a big cost extra. It’s an old open-pollinated Clearfield variety, so it’s really cheap seed, and it actually saves us on fungicides. If we were to grow peas on their own, I’d probably consider treating the seed and spraying a foliar fungicide. We don’t do either and we seem to get away with it,” Boyd said.

He said he doesn’t clean the canola out because there is often only around five to seven percent dockage on the peas at the elevator.

Minimal soil disturbance is crucial in building soil, Boyd said, which is why he uses a disk drill. He believes shanks disturb the soil much more than disks do.

He said his disc drills work best when the soil is firm and when living roots help reduce excess moisture.

“If we can have living roots there and improve the structure of the soil, that disc drill works at its best if there is something growing there, something green holding the soil together.”

Instead of using harrows to manage crop residue, Boyd said there is an opportunity to use cover crops to help break down the residue.

If growers use the $10 or $15 per acre they spend on harrowing to instead broadcast winter cereal or other cover crops, he said the same goal could be achieved, plus growers will get the extra benefits cover crops provide.

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“If the residue is spread evenly out the back of the combine and breakdown is the issue, I’m sure we can accomplish that with plants. If you have a lush green plant growing, it’s going to help break down that residue the same way that stirring up the soil to add the straw back into the dirt is going to do,” Boyd said.