By seeding all of their land to grass, the McElroy family was able to sell their farm equipment and make the cattle do the work
SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. — Art McElroy is a fan of intensive grazing.
It took him and his family some time to get to that point, but he now says the benefits of putting more cattle in smaller areas for shorter periods are obvious.
“We now have double the farm we started with without buying one more acre,” he told producers at the Foraging into the Future conference.
He describes the journey as a “tremendous leap of faith.”
The McElroys moved from the rich black soil zone east of Calgary to the thin brown soil zone at Frontier, Sask., in 1996.
They continuous cropped most of the land for 11 years while running a cow herd and yearlings.
The move to a grass-based operation began in 1998 when land that he said should never have been broken was seeded back to grass. The following year the first 5.5 kilometres of 3.8 centimetre water pipeline went in the ground. There are now nearly 30 km of line.
The spring of 2002 was a turning point as McElroy picked up newborn calves outside in – 29 C.
“This was late March, early April, and I was thinking, ‘this is stupid,’ ” he said. “That was the year the bulls went out for the first time on Aug. 20 for a June 1 calving.”
The 3,200-acre native lease was split into six paddocks to encourage the cattle to graze areas that were under-grazed and allow over-grazed areas to recover. Dugouts were established in each paddock.
“This was the beginning of our thinking about rotational grazing,” McElroy said.
About 600 acres of cropland had been seeded to grass by this time, and the family, which includes his wife and nine children, were still cropping 4,000 acres.
McElroy was combining in the fall of 2005 when he realized grain farming was “no longer viable physically, emotionally or spiritually.”
The family decided to move completely to a forage-based cattle operation. Two thousand acres were seeded to grass the next spring and the remainder the following year.
Every piece of machinery was sold as soon as it wasn’t needed, including the bins.
Electric fencing was installed, and water lines were laid down the centre of every quarter or half-section of newly seeded fields in 2007.
“We began rotational grazing, even though we didn’t full understand it,” McElroy said.
They started custom grazing for a neighbour, which still continues.
They also realized they needed to change their animals’ genetics so that they were smaller, better-adapted and could graze year-round.
Bale grazing has improved the poorest land.
The past five years have seen a shift to high intensity, or mob grazing.
McElroy had attended a conference where Neil Dennis, a strong proponent of the concept, had challenged him to improve his soil by increasing stock density for more hoof action on the ground to stimulate plant growth and shortening grazing periods for more recovery time.
“For us, that is putting 350,000 to 400,000 pounds per acre on average in one grazing mob,” McElroy said.
“This mob stays on between 2.7 and 5.4 acres between two to four hours. They receive a new break of feed between three and six times a day on average.”
The farthest the mob has to go for water is a quarter-mile. Water is pumped out of wells and dugouts using a propane-powered, remote-start generator and submersible pump.
The McElroys use an all-terrain vehicle fitted with an A-frame rack on the front to move and lift wires. He said he doesn’t build gates. The cattle learn that a machine lifting wire means new feed on the other side.
The McElroys had 750 paddocks of 5.4 acres each this past year because they had only 200 millimetres of rainfall during the growing season, and an early June frost took the promise out of the alfalfa.
“Most of our land only gets grazed, trampled, manured and peed on between two and four hours per year, except for some dormant winter grazing,” he said.
He believes he is able to run at double the suggested stocking rate for his region because the cattle aren’t allowed to graze selectively.
“Our goal is to take one-third of the plant, tramp down one-third, and leave one-third to collect free solar energy,” McElroy said.
“This must all be accomplished without ever compromising animal performance.”
A mob containing cows and yearlings moves to accommodate the latter’s needs because yearlings require more nutrition. Both the animals and the plants are monitored constantly.
McElroy said the soil organic matter was just .5 percent when the family moved to Frontier.
“Now the top six inches is a mass of teeming life that needs carbon to live on,” he said.
The soil holds more water and produces more forage because the animals are building it, he said.