Livestock producers Brett McRae and Leanne Thompson take soil seriously, working to improve land in a way that provides ecological and financial benefits.
The producers, who farm separately, recently spoke of their management practices at the Western Canada Conference on Soil and Grazing in Edmonton.
Their operations are different in many ways, but the principles and methods to increase organic matter in the soil are the same.
“We try and use environmental stewardship as a starting point in how we grow our plants,” said Thompson, who operates Living Sky Beef with her husband, Ryan, in Minton, Sask.
“We share the landscape with other wildlife and plant species, and it’s some pretty fragile landscape. We have to take that into account by looking at season-of-use and how intensive we are using those pastures,” she said, speaking to producers at the conference.
The Thompsons have a commercial cow-calf herd, as well as do backgrounding, custom cattle feeding and baling.
Thompson graduated with an agriculture degree and a master of science degree in animal science from the University of Saskatchewan, later doing consulting and communications work before purchasing the farm in 2010.
With their farm, she said they tend to do more intensive grazing on tame pastures. With their native grasslands, they plan to implement such practices but at a less intense level.
She said they plan on getting the land fenced and to improve water infrastructure. They want paddocks to be no more than 80 acres in size.
“We are working our way to smaller paddocks to give us a greater degree of management, so we can have a better handle on the grasses that are there,” she said.
They face typical struggles, she added, such as cattle being selective with their food.
“I would like them to eat half of the plant, but they do not do that,” Thompson said. “We are working towards making paddocks on native pasture so we can get that uniform graze.”
McRae, who operates McRae Land and Livestock near Brandon also faces challenges not unlike many in the industry.
He has 450 acres of crop land and 820 acres of perennial pasture with 50 head of purebred Angus cows, as well as a variable number of stockers or custom grazing cattle.
He’s passionate about regenerative agriculture, but he said he has challenges with keeping the living root as long as possible in soil. Profitability and cashflow can also be difficult, he added, because he is younger.
However, he has undertaken a number of his own trials to address these problems.
McRae custom grazed standing corn this past year to bring in extra cashflow. As well, he inter-seeded the corn with forages to add diversity. Nutrients were cycled back into the land after the crops were grazed.
He said the trial worked well, adding he may need to add more cows to finish off the crop.
In a separate trial, he seeded a variety of forages (Italian rye grass, crimson clover and red clover) into his wheat, oats and canola.
In this trial, McRae said, he managed to carry the living root into the fall. It largely did what he wanted, but he added he will have to fine-tune things in the following year.
He is still figuring out the dollars per acre of input costs.
“Planning ahead paid off huge,” McRae said, speaking to producers during his presentation. “It was fairly easy to do in the heat of seeding season.”
He said he wants to try a rotation of corn, corn, canola, cereal, cereal and soybean, as well as corn, corn, canola, grass, grass and soybean.
He’s also shopping for a disc drill and is wondering if inter-seeding with oats, peas and sunflowers may work.
“With my operation, we try to base decisions on principles first,” he said. “Methods are many and principles are few. Methods may change but principles never do.”
Thompson with Living Sky Beef said said she and her husband like to think of themselves as adaptive grazers. They look at their parameters and adapt accordingly.
“We try to avoid the up-and-down cycle,” she said. “We take everything into account to come up with a plan that is more sustainable.”
They aim to ensure only 50 percent of the paddock is grazed so it has time to rest and recover. In the winter, they feed on pastures that need further stimulation. Manure from the cows and any leftover feed, for instance, cycles nutrients back into the soil.
As well, they re-seed with a variety of grasses in partnership with their neighbours. The neighbours re-seed and the Thompsons graze their cover crops.
“Our philosophy is to look for opportunities and try not to get stuck in a mindset of this is what we are,” she said. “We market that way and try to learn that way. It has worked well for us. There are always ways to improve and learn from someone else.”