Healthy soil a priority

Cattle drink from a portable water tank on the Branvolds’ ranch. | Supplied photo

Cheryl and Trevor Branvold raise registered Angus on their farm in Saskatchewan that’s been in Cheryl’s family since 1888.

Over the years, it was a mixed farm with grain and cattle but today the focus is on holistic management, improving the soil with cattle.

“Our neighbour down the road is Ralph Corcoran, a holistic management educator,” says Cheryl. “In 2010, he invited us to take the course he taught. He was gathering together some local couples who might be interested and asked us to join them. Our farm operation was already moving that direction with spring and summer calving, and rotation grazing,” she says.

Trevor had already been using the internet to explore more about cover crops and other regenerative practices to provide more forage for the cattle and to improve the soil.

He and Cheryl were using bale grazing to try to improve soil and pastures.

“We adopted that practice as soon as we started out on our own on this ranch because it was so difficult to feed hay in the winter with the old tractor and loader we’d bought. We’d managed to get the cattle fed, but it was difficult with a lot of snow trying to feed cattle every day. So wanted to start either swath grazing or bale grazing instead of hauling feed to the cows,” says Trevor.

Within a couple years they could see other benefits, with added soil fertility, as well as savings in equipment costs and diesel fuel.

“So we found ways to bale graze all our pastures,” he says.

Now they are raising more of their own feed again, but as a summer crop or cover crop that stays in the field for grazing. That way the nutrients stay there and are not taken somewhere else when harvested.

The Branvolds try to leave at least 50 percent residue on a pasture after grazing. | Supplied photo

“We want to keep the fertility on our land,” Trevor says.

“Treating the land in a more responsible manner and looking at the whole system and how it affects the people you sell your product to, seems to be a growing idea and goal among more and more farmers. We are realizing how all of this fits together. For me, this is very reassuring and we feel we are doing the right thing,” he says.

“When people in the cities are becoming cheerleaders for organic production, and starting to know what regenerative agriculture is about, this is encouraging. More people are realizing the effect this can have on soil health and how it affects their health. We want healthy land, healthy cattle, producing healthy meat,” he says.

To add more animal impact and improve the soil and pastures more quickly (and to use the extra grass as the pastures have become more productive), they’ve also done some custom grazing, bringing in yearlings — but keeping them separate from their own cattle for biosecurity purposes.

“We move the cattle daily if we can, but we have some pastures with a lot of bush. More than half of our land is tame pasture and the rest is native pasture with a lot of bush. There are some areas where it would be impossible to have high stocking densities without doing a lot of clearing to create open areas for fences or developing new water sites,” he says.

These pastures are managed as part of the rotation.

Rotation grazing was an early entry into holistic management. | Supplied photo

“We do try to keep our numbers as high as possible in each pasture, even in those larger areas, for a better impact on the land,” says Trevor. Many of those bush pastures are big enough that the cattle have to be on them for a week or two at a time. The grazing there is not as controlled as the areas of tame grass where the cattle can be moved every day or two.

“We try to leave more residue behind, on the daily moves, than we graze. Our goal is to leave at least 50 percent residue after grazing.”

The paddocks are fenced with a single strand of high tensile wire and poly wire, and it works well, Trevor says. The cattle are well trained to a hot wire and don’t try to go through it, partly because they are moved so frequently to new fresh pasture.

“The custom-grazed yearlings are kept separate in their own rotations, but we run our own yearlings (steers that didn’t make bulls, feeder heifers and replacement heifers) with our cow herd. The sale bulls are the only ones that have their own pasture. We try to keep them grouped up as much as possible for more impact, with fewer groups to look after and move,” he says.

With the grazing operation, they usually move cattle every day, sometimes twice a day, but there is also room for flexibility.

“We are flexible enough to be able to do the other things we love to do. We love tending our cattle; this is our livelihood and our passion, but it’s good to be able to have fun, too.”

When they were first married, Cheryl worked off the farm as a veterinary technician for 10 years.

“I also worked another job, in an interior decorating business. We finally got to the point that we realized I could work from home and get back to what I’d trained for, as a veterinary technician. We were improving things enough that I could work at home rather than work for somebody else,” she says.

“I slowly transitioned into working here, helping move the custom yearlings we graze in summer. I needed to get back to what I was passionate about.

“I am very passionate about our farm and trying to improve it; taking holistic management and putting those ideas to work here at home. I wanted to be able to commit to it wholeheartedly,” says Cheryl.

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