Pasture changes pay off

Kristelle Harper says it’s a relief having forage for her cattle, which she believes is the result of careful pasture management. | Ed White photo

BRANDON, Man. — Kristelle Harper crouches down in the pasture and runs her fingers through the greenery rising above the dry soil.

“Let’s see what’s growing,” she says, checking out the variety of plants her cattle will be feasting on in a few minutes.

Fortunately for her, this area of southwestern Manitoba isn’t as parched as the province’s cattle-rich Interlake region, which has received almost no rain this summer. In that area, between lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg, the grasshoppers burst out in hordes, the pastures are crunchy and many of the cattle are being moved prematurely to auction because farmers can’t find anything to feed them now or over winter.

There’s been more rain in the rest of the province, even if it’s far, far below average.

But Harper’s greenery is also a result of the intensive pasture management she and her family have been developing for years. Like much of the grazing that gets described as “regenerative,” Harper’s farm moves cattle frequently between small strips of field (often three times per day) and tries out many different ways of managing the pastures and handling the cattle.

On a tour of seven southwestern and western Manitoba cattle operations, there was a surprising quantity of forage growing in pastures, often beside fields with little, or brutally stunted crops.

Matt Van Steelandt has one of those farms, in a sandy soil area near Medora that contains lots of sandhill cranes, birds of prey, parched pastures and some crops that will yield next to nothing.

Yet he isn’t worried about being able to feed his cattle over winter.

“We’ve been working (for years) towards planning for the drought, so it hasn’t been awful,” said Van Steelandt as he lifted electrified wire to let 300-plus cow-calf pairs through from one section of a field to another. On the one they were leaving, almost everything was clipped down close to the soil, while the new patch, which the cattle surged into as soon as they got the chance to chow on new feed, had a healthy if low and thin stand of forage plants.

“The most important part of the drought is protecting the (soil) resource,” said Van Steelandt, who is often moving his animals more than once per day.

“I think we have enough grass to make it till December,” he said.

At Forrest, Ryan Boyd was busy moving cattle between pastures, keeping up with his careful management of the forage-producing land his operation depends upon.

Ryan Boyd checks the fresh pasture on which he’s moving his cattle. | Ed White photo

“It’s really showing this year what management can do to grow a little more forage,” said Boyd, whose area is mostly in crops, not pasture.

The local area is lucky to have had better rainfall than many areas, and local canola and wheat crops look smaller than average, but not dreadful, as in many other areas across the Prairies. With today’s prices, anybody getting an OK crop of canola or wheat will make good money this year. That can make it hard to justify turning land to pasture and cattle rather than crops.

But Boyd is happy to be following his own customized form of regenerative farming, expecting to get decent results this year because he has sufficient forage and feed. He wants a long-term farming system that is more stable and low-risk than most of today’s crop and cattle production.

“It’s a work in progress,” he acknowledged.

Squeezing every drop of value out of every drop of rainfall is a focus for many farmers practising this intensive pasture management. Some of that is achieved by keeping pastures cattle-free for many months. Some farmers are trying to only put cattle on any patch of pasture once per year, allowing them to quickly practise “severe” grazing, then allowing the pasture months to regrow and recharge with any moisture that falls. If too much falls, the strong root systems channel most water down into the soil rather than off the edge of the fields.

For a climate that appears to be suffering more volatility and less predictable rainfall, long periods between grazing are helping store up the soil’s potential for plant growth.

“By having this long recovery period, you’re pretty near guaranteeing that you’re going to experience one of these extreme weather events, and all we need is one more-than-three-inches rain and we recharge our soils,” said Boyd.

The farmers on this tour of like-minded producers feel like their years of intensive management in trying to develop a low-risk, low-input, high stability form of cattle farming are paying off during this drought. Right now, they have enough feed.

But nobody could do much about the situation happening in the Interlake, where most farms until the second half of August got virtually no rain.

“When you’re in a bad, bad drought like the Interlake is in, there’s not much that’ll work,” said Van Steelandt.

“You do need some rain.”

For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

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