Alta. farm champions regenerative agriculture

A fodder system allows cattle on the Sage Creek Permaculture farm to eat 100 percent grass all year round

AIRDRIE, Alta. — Nancy Hewlett hurls a heavy slab of sprouted barley into the pig pen. She then moves to the chickens, chucking in another slab. The animals devour it almost instantly.

The grass slabs, known as fodder, are constantly growing on the Hewlett’s farm, Sage Creek Permaculture, near Airdrie, Alta. She and her husband, Chad, began their regenerative farm here about four years ago, raising pigs, chickens and cattle.

The fodder first goes in a machine as seed and is watered for 16 seconds every hour. It comes out the other end as fresh green grass. The chickens and pigs consume it year round, while the cattle get it only during the winter.

“We’re basically harvesting every day and seeding every day,” Nancy said, “and it means the cows are 100 percent grass-fed.”

She said feeding the animals fodder is more cost effective because the grass is more digestible. Each cow gets one 18-pound slab per day in the winter, which costs 29 cents per animal.

“It makes a huge difference and this grass is so much better for them.”

The Hewletts’ operation is quite labour intensive. They move their animals in tight rotations, using them as natural tillers and fertilizers to improve their soil and grass.

The pigs, for instance, are moved about every two days. They use a tractor with a fork to move the animals’ metal shelter. The chickens can be moved without any equipment.

The cattle are cell grazed, a highly controlled method in which the animals can graze only a limited amount of space and are moved ever so often, depending on pasture conditions. The goal is to not overgraze and have an even spread of manure, essentially improving the land.

Nancy said she placed the chickens in a spot where the cattle were last year. The cows had compacted the pasture there, so she needs the birds’ nitrogen-rich poop to rebuild it.

“It’s cool to see how the land has changed. We had the chickens in different areas last year, and this year, that land they were on has improved. It’s much more lush.”

The animals are butchered and sold directly to consumers in neighbouring cities and towns. They can buy cuts of beef or pork by the pound, or by the whole, half or quarter. Chickens must be purchased whole.

The farm doesn’t fully sustain itself yet, though Nancy believes the family will be able to get there one day. Chad also has a veterinarian clinic near the farm, which helps with income.

The two grew up on farms, but wanted to go into regenerative agriculture because they believe in being environmentally sustainable. They also wanted to raise their own food and provide for the community, Nancy said.

“It’s been really great. It’s been a huge learning curve and some years I feel like I’m starting all over again.”

She’s looking to potentially go certified organic. She said their land has always remained as pasture, so it could be easier for them to transition.

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