Bringing in livestock key to rebuilding soil

More farmers are starting to use livestock to help regenerate soils, which can reduce inputs and produce higher yields down the road.

They spoke about their livestock integration plans during the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health and Grazing held in Edmonton Dec. 5-7.

Cody Straza and Allison Squires have an organic grain farm near Wood Mountain., Sask., and aren’t afraid to admit that they’ve degraded their soils by using rigid rotations and tilling green manure crops.

But now they want to rebuild the soil. They’ve begun cover cropping, seeding more diverse crops and instituting longer rotations.

However, they plan to go further by introducing cattle next year.

“We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Straza said.

So they are partnering with a neighbouring rancher who will graze his cow-calf pairs on the couple’s cover crops slated to be terminated.

They plan to see 10 acres grazed per day, and it’ll all be done free of charge.

“We get our cover crops terminated for free and he gets all the free grazing,” Straza said. “It’s going to be a lot of trial and error this coming year. We’re going to make mistakes but the goal is to improve from those mistakes.”

But trial and error is part of the process to see what works and what doesn’t, said Ray Archuleta, a soil scientist with the Social Science Society of America.

“Bringing livestock into the situation really changes everything,” he said, pointing to research that shows having cattle on land improves soil, as long as grasses aren’t overgrazed and that the animals generally graze in tighter groups.

“The amount of fertilizer in every manure pie is incredible. You want that manure, hoof impact, cover and urine.”

Ray Middleton, who farms near Morinville, Alta., knows first-hand the benefits of integrating livestock.

When he took over the farm, he decided to turn a section of it from forage to crop production. But when fierce winds and floods came in 2005, he soon realized he had made a mistake.

“We had three days of 100 km-h winds gusting to 120 km-h. It sheared a crop of borage off, just like you took a sand blaster to it,” he said. “I did have reckless disregard of respect for the soil.”

So, he grew shelter belts and turned the section back into pasture for custom grazing.

“I never wanted livestock, but 4-H is like the gateway drug to farming livestock,” he said with a chuckle. “Now, we’re doing pasture-fed pigs.”

Archuleta said he hopes more farmers adopt livestock into their operations, whether they buy their own or have custom grazers come in.

“The environment is really collaborative,” he said. “When we can get them to mimic the buffalo and have that flexibility, we’ll get quicker recoveries and even more cascading effects upwards.”

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