Producer puts plants to work as solar panels

Saskatchewan producer says he has found ways to keep things greener longer and capture more energy from the sun

LACOMBE, Alta. — When Blain Hjertaas converted from grain production to holistic grazing management, his main goal was to fix the soil on his Saskatchewan farm.

“There is no place on earth that we know about where we can’t fix land,” he said at a recent holistic grazing management conference in Lacombe. “I do it with evil, methane-belching cows.”

In 2011, he calculated more than 89.5 tonnes of carbon was sequestered per acre on his place. By 2014, there was more than 93 tonnes per acre.

Every farm is unique, but Hjertaas argues soil can be improved to the point that yields increase and there is more water-holding capacity. The soil clumps into aggregates and the biology under the surface thrives.

Describing the diverse plant community on his farm as solar panels, he has found ways to keep things green longer and capture more energy from the sun.

“Most croppers only want to run their solar panels 70 days of the year. We need to figure out a system to keep it greener longer.

We have the potential to capture energy somewhere between 220 and 250 days a year,” he said.

From the minute the snow melts, green shoots appear and these should be put to work.

Using a diverse community of perennials provides ground cover so there are no bare patches of soil exposed to the elements. Bare soil does not absorb as much water, temperature control is altered and diseases can set in.

Besides diversity on the surface, graziers like Hjertaas also talk about what lies beneath. Nematodes, arthropods, protozoa, fungi and bacteria have the ability to feed the plant and in return, the plant produces sugar.

Healthy soil also contains mycorrhizal fungi, the thread like tendrils that seek nutrients in the soil and feed the plants.

One cubic metre of soil could support about 25,000 kilometres of fungal hyphae that tillage and nitrogen fertilizer can destroy.

About 90 percent of what happens in the soil is governed by soil microbes, said Richard Teague of the Texas A & M AgriLife Research.

“Their biomass exceeds the biomass of the animals above it.”

Teague also promotes healthy vegetation and use of grazing to rebuild soils.

“We like to talk about sustain-ability, but if we have actually degraded soils and ecosystems, why would we want to sustain that?” he said at the conference.

He is a proponent of adaptive multi paddock grazing, a form of rotational grazing involving short durations and long rests.

Known as AMP, grazing research is showing how improvements can be made to improve soil, rebuild plant species and move water and energy.

This system can also help producers manage through drought.

“If there is an adaptive management approach, you can keep going through these trouble periods and actually keep on going up,” he said.

Stock numbers need to match the forage availability, and short grazing periods minimize the impact on the plants and provide better nutrition for animals.

No grazing is not the answer. There is not much energy is fixed in plants when the land is left fallow. Bare ground appears and plants grow tall and shade out the lower canopy. There is almost no litter on the ground.

In recent years, Teague has been working with a research team on four Alberta ranches where livestock grazing management included year round cover crops to build organic matter, improved nutrient cycling and more crop diversity.

One of the results is improved carbon sequestration.

Research has shown the amount of carbon sequestered far exceeded the amount of cattle emissions under managed grazing systems.

“We can be a significant sink. A research project in Edmonton is trying to calculate the amount of extra carbon that can be put back in the soil with regenerative grazing and cropping practices,” he said.

The research has yielded promising results but the scientists are looking for more ranchers to participate in a managed grazing survey.

The research team will come and measure the soil carbon and return the information to participating producers who may use it to make management changes.

To participate, click here.

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