Jerry Baerg farms grain and cattle in central Alberta near Linden. He grew up on the family farm and worked with his dad, then worked off farm for a while. On his return, he bought into the farm and began farming full time.
While attending a soil health/grazing conference five years ago, he began thinking about regenerative agriculture production practices.
“Some of the ideas they talked about were new to me, but it got me thinking about different ways to do things,” says Baerg. “Since then I’ve been to more conferences and seminars, and toured some farms to see what other people on this journey are doing. The more you learn, the more there is to learn. I also look back and wonder why we did some of the what now appears to be bad practices for so long.”
Baerg has always had cattle, but five years ago he started including them more into the grain farming enterprise, realizing that cattle activity can dramatically improve the soil on annually cropped fields. “They complement each other,” he says. “We can get where we want to go in improving soils on our grain land a lot sooner by including cattle.”
While he has permanent pasture, he is also developing a rotation that includes seeding forages on more of his grain land so more fields can be exposed to cattle.
“On the grain side, I have been managing fields and livestock so that the cattle are on more of our cropped acres, partly for pasture as well as swath grazing,” he says. “Another thing that works well is dropping residue piles in the field after we harvest barley or wheat. We winter-graze on those fields and cattle utilize those piles for most of their winter feed. We might supplement with a little protein and energy, which are easy to haul out.”
The cattle have plenty of fibre in the crop residue and with supplements, it makes a balanced ration, he says. He also custom-feeds some cows to increase numbers and add more cattle impact on fields that most need it. Swath grazing and chaff residue enable him to get cattle over most of the cropped acres.
About one-third of the cropped acres have chaff residue that cattle will clean up over winter. In the spring those fields go back into crops. Manure from feeding chaff piles returns organic matter to the soil. Cycling crop residue through the cows returns nutrients to the soil a lot sooner than just spreading the straw behind the combine and letting it break down.
Last year Baerg experimented with interseeding clover into some of the grain fields.
“We did several quarters of barley and before we planted it we broadcast-seeded crimson clover with hopes that the added ground cover would compete with the weeds and the legume would also add nitrogen to the soil.” They planted crimson clover with the barley and some subterranean clover with the wheat.
Baerg says it’s been a learning experience. “We found out later that these clovers are actually a perennial in other parts of the world but when grown here they act more like an annual. Being perennials, they are slower to establish than we’d hoped — they did not take root and provide the ground cover and weed control like a true annual.”
“The subterranean clover did better than the crimson clover because it doesn’t grow as tall. The crimson clover grew to knee height. It wasn’t a bad thing, but I’m not sure I would plant it again,” he says. “It didn’t cause much problem with harvesting of the barley.”
One benefit was that all the crimson clover was added to crop residue piles, providing a higher-protein winter feed for cows. Along with the feed value, Baerg also liked that clover kept growing after harvest, which benefits the soil. One of the keys of regenerative agriculture is to keep some type of crop green and growing on the land right up until winter freeze-up.
“Having a polyculture or species blend on the land has value in improving soil health while the legumes will add nitrogen to the soil, as well,” says Baerg. “We also played with another crop combination, planting oats and peas together to generate some supplemental protein for winter. Oats and peas work well because we don’t have to roll the field after seeding. Growing a cereal and a legume together has several benefits.
Good feed combo
The oats and peas made a great combination. “One would shoot up and then the other would shoot up, and they did that all the way until harvest,” says Baerg. “They matured about the same time so we swathed and combined the crop, and they combined well together. The crop residue also made excellent feed for the cattle, and I also have a bin full of oats and peas that I’m feeding as a supplement over winter. Straight oats is not a perfect supplement because even though it provides energy, it doesn’t have enough protein, but with peas the protein level is adequate.”
Baerg hopes regenerative agriculture practices will eventually lead to reduced use of crop inputs including fertilizer, insecticides and fungicides. Last year, rather than the conventional seed treatment on the cereal crops, he used a different product which is more of a biological stimulant.
“We liked how that worked, and plan to do it again,” he says. “We don’t want any more pink seed treatment that contains insecticides.” Along with true pests, those treatments can also kill beneficial insects, and slow down the biology in the soil, which can be even more detrimental.
“We prefer to spray on foliar stimulants later, rather than use a fungicide,” he says. “Last year on some fields we also tried using less nitrogen at time of seeding, and then applied a foliar application of melted urea later.” It takes some experimentation to figure out what works best.
Baerg feels that as soil productivity improves through the use of regenerative agriculture practices, the farm will be able to rely less on traditional production methods that can have an adverse effect on soil health.