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Regenerative agriculture for the next generation

Ryan Boyd uses farming practices that rebuild his soil without breaking the ban

When he came back to the farm, Ryan Boyd was looking for a lower-risk farming scenario. As a young farmer, “I didn’t want to stick my neck out and have a large loss in one year,” he told reporters and communications professionals gathered on the approach to one of his fields near Brandon, Manitoba in late September.

In the field behind us, sleek cows and calves grazed a diverse mix of annual forages. The Boyds’ mixed farm was one stop on a Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation bus tour looking at the changing landscape of agriculture in Manitoba. Ryan, his wife Sarah, and parents Jim and Joanne are all involved in SG&R Farms, which includes 2,000 acres of annual crops and 300 head of cattle. Ryan and Sarah also have two young children, Piper and Bingham.

It’s difficult to keep buying land and make it on the margins, Ryan said. But regenerative agriculture offers opportunity for medium and small farms, he added. It lowers risk, eases entry, and allows farmers to manage land so that they can get more out of what they have, he said. Younger farmers are thinking long-term and buying into the idea that they can produce crops differently, he added.

Regenerative agriculture includes farming practices such as no-till, cover cropping, intercropping and incorporating livestock. The goals include building organic matter in soils, improving water infiltration and providing other environmental benefits in a financially-viable manner.

The field Ryan’s cattle grazed was an example of regenerative ag on the ground. It had been annual cropped for as long as Ryan could recall. Then three years ago the Boyd family seeded it to an annual mix, which the cattle grazed in the fall. The next year they seeded it to wheat.

Last year it was seeded to corn and soybean, with a bit of vetch, and grazed in the winter. Ryan said they seeded soybeans and corn in the same seed row, with no ill effect on yield.

“It’s debatable when we graze it into the winter how much value we’re actually getting from the soybeans’ protein because some of the seed pods have dropped or opened up,” he said. But, he added, the soybeans added significant protein to the cattle’s diet before Christmas.

Last spring there was some corn residue left, along with some straw that they had unrolled on the field. They direct-seeded a 25-species annual mix, along with perennials, into the residue. They applied glyphosate to burn off weeds. They’ll leave the perennials for at least two more years to check wild oats and other weeds before putting it back into annual grain crops. The perennials will be grazed or hayed.

The Boyds have also intercropped. Pea and canola, an old intercropping standby, works on their farm. Ryan favours planting peas with “just a dribble of canola” and managing it like a pea crop. The canola remains “in the background, helping hold the peas up.” Based on his own observations, he thinks the canola helps keep soil disease at bay.

Ryan has also planted winter wheat and hairy vetch together. He then seeded peas into that mix in the spring.

“That actually worked quite well. The winter wheat and the vetch were there over winter and they kind of helped suppress the weeds and whatnot.”

Challenges and evolution

Still, it hasn’t been an easy journey for Ryan Boyd. In 2001, there was very little margin in farming, he said. Then, in 2003, BSE hit.

“The stress levels were high. Everyone was wondering what the future looked like. So they sent me off to university,” he said.

Ryan said choosing between studying agriculture and engineering was “like flipping a coin.” He was combining on the day he had to register for classes. It must have been a decent crop that day, he said, because he chose ag.

In 2005, Ryan finished his Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and came back to the farm. Ryan and Jim became partners on the farm, sharing gains and losses equally. Ryan said his father has always been open to trying new things — which has made it easier for Ryan to experiment a little.

One change Jim may have been less than thrilled about was Ryan’s approach to machinery. They sold Jim’s new CAT combine and used an old, pull-type combine to harvest 1,000 wheat acres. Ryan described that change as a “culture shock” for his dad.

“I’m really adverse to spending money on machinery, so we run older equipment,” he said.

A few years ago, they did spend money on a new single-chute air seeder. Ryan thought they’d soon be applying fewer chemicals and no fertilizer. But they haven’t reached that point and they can’t apply fertilizer in one pass.

They now use the sprayer to top-dress liquid fertilizer. However, that requires rain. Ryan said they left yield on the table after a couple of dry springs.

“We spent the money but we didn’t get the return because the fertilizer wasn’t where it needed to be. So that’s one thing I definitely would have done differently at the time.”

One other mistake was selling the family’s original cow herd, comprised of 120 to 140 cows. “I figured they weren’t the right type of cow for what we were trying to do.”

Ryan started buying new cows, but he had a very high fall-out rate. He said he would have been better off keeping the original cows, which were locally adapted, and buying bulls.

But overall Ryan is optimistic about the direction the farm is moving. He doesn’t like to dwell on mistakes.

“We make lots of them but we try to learn from them and move on.”

Time management remains a challenge, as the Boyd family juggles managing cattle, grain farming, effective grazing plans and childcare. They decided they needed to focus more on either the grain or cattle side to manage the workload, so in spring 2018 they under-seeded another 700 acres to perennials.

Ryan is an executive board member of the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association. “There’s a growing interest locally and in Western Canada for the soil health and regenerative-type things.”

He’s also been selected for a Nuffield farming scholarship. There are people all over the world looking at regenerative ag and he wants to draw on that expertise.

Farming is a learning process, Ryan said. “Every year is different and every year we learn something more.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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