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Improving pastures through regenerative agriculture

A low-input strategy is paying off for this central Alberta producer

Anderson cattle graze in early winter an area of the stockpiled annual forage blend that wasn’t cut for swath grazing.

Brendon Anderson took over the family farm near Rimbey in central Alberta a few years back and is now focused on regenerative agriculture to improve soils and forage production. Ultimately he would like to get to a system of year-round grazing, but that may not be possible in some winters that deliver nearly four feet of snow.

“But a person needs a goal,” says Anderson. “What we are doing so far includes an element of trial and error, because every place is different. Not every good idea works — a person has to tweak some things to make it fit their own farm.”

Anderson and his wife Melanie bought the family farm in 2012. As the name — Triple A Legacy Farms — suggests, he is the third generation on what used to be a mixed farm with cattle, grain and hay — selling some of the hay.

“That didn’t quite fit our goals,” he says. “We wanted to become more independent from input requirements and reduce our costs of production. We wanted to recreate and improve natural cycles of water and soil nutrients, with less dependence on synthetic inputs.”

Within a couple of years of taking over, the Andersons phased out the grain operation. They also raised sheep for a while but found it too labour-intensive, so they decided to stick to cattle and forages.

“The main focus for us, however, has been the land,” Anderson says. “Cattle are a tool to improve the land, but a saleable tool. The land, rather than the cattle, is our basis for success or failure.”

The Anderson family check on winter grazing — Brendon and Melanie Anderson and their 8-year-old twins Henry and Ellie. photo: Courtesy Brendon Anderson

Most winters are cold in west-central Alberta. “This winter has been mild so far, but we always need to be prepared for four feet of snow and long-term temperatures of minus 30 C,” he says. This can be hard on cattle, and the people taking care of them.

The farm has three types of forage production areas. There are long-term permanent pastures in areas not suitable for annual crop production. These are older brome and orchard grass pastures now supporting native grass species as well. There are perennial forage stands that were at one time dedicated hayfields but in more recent years were seeded to alfalfa, orchard grass, brome and timothy. And there are about 150 acres seeded in the past few years to annual forage blends, and that can be used as pasture, swath grazing or baled for winter feed, depending on growing conditions.

A flexible system

“We’re developing a very flexible system that includes the annual cropping program,” Anderson says. “That involves planting some diverse mixes with a minimum of five and up to 15 different species in our annual blends. We’ve been doing that for seven years and see great benefits in the soil.”

He says plant diversity has improved soil biology and many natural functions. It has helped attract earthworms and other beneficial organisms and added root masses to improve organic matter in different root zones, in turn improving soil texture and water infiltration.

The annual forage blend always includes peas, oats, ryegrass, hairy vetch and crimson clover. And some years it has also included sorghum, sunflowers and brassicas, with varying results.

“Our standard blend is also quite cost-effective,” Anderson says. “We’ve had several really dry years in the past eight, and even if we don’t have other pasture, we can always utilize the annuals, helping to relieve grazing pressure on our permanent pastures during a drought. With a longer rest period, the permanent pastures rebound quicker.”

The stand of annual forages affords the farm plenty of flexibility. About 80 acres is saved for swath grazing, while the other 70 acres could be used for a combination of grazing or cut and baled for hay or baled silage as growing season weather dictates.

“We swath-graze those annuals, providing a low-input winter feeding system the cows can utilize into late winter,” Anderson says. The mature cow herd has a May/June calving season, while heifers still calve out starting in March. Everything heads out into a rotational grazing system, usually around June 1, and depending on the growing season usually is moved to swath grazing in early November.

“If they start in November it usually carries them until mid-January,” he says. “This year we didn’t start swath grazing until mid-December so it should carry the herd until mid-February.” Once the swath grazing is done, the herd is switched over to bale grazing.

A hot wire is used to limit feed Anderson cattle as they graze swaths of the annual forage blend. photo: Courtesy Brendon Anderson

Much of the land is in permanent pasture because terrain and inaccessibility make it impossible to farm. “In the past, these pastures were fertilized and used quite heavily in a three-pass grazing system,” Anderson says. “This wasn’t the most efficient way, because we were buying fertilizer and inadvertently selecting for forage species that could handle that amount of abuse. Usually these were not the most productive species.

“So we stopped the added inputs, and after removing the crutch of synthetic fertilizer, initially it appeared that some pastures stopped growing because they were so used to having those nutrients. With proper grazing management, those pastures are now making a comeback. At first you think you are losing production, but the amount of diversity of species that has come back in those pastures — without seeding — is amazing. We’re seeing some legumes we’ve never seen here, and the pastures are producing more forage. One pasture in particular had very low production but now some cicer milkvetch has come in on its own, and clovers are also coming back.”

Stored feed

Anderson feels it’s important to have some stored feed available for a bad winter, but he no longer has any dedicated hayland.

“We might bale a first cutting and graze the regrowth,” he says. “Then we bale-graze in that same field, keeping nutrients from manure on the field. The next year we cycle that field through the grazing rotation. For instance, we might graze 50 per cent of the former hayland one year (with no haying) and then on the other 50 per cent bale the first cut and graze the regrowth. Later in winter we’ll bale-graze cattle in that field again returning nutrients to the soil.”

The bale grazing can be moved around to target those nutrients on poorer areas in that field.

Anderson says they’ve also been working on improving the layout and design of grazing cells or paddocks. “We have 11 wells with permanent watering points,” he says. The farm has installed Frostfree Nose Pumps at each well.

“It’s not a perfect solution because they are in permanent locations, which means we need to create alleyways so cattle can reach watering sites from different pastures. But the permanent water sources that don’t freeze up over winter, do make it possible to move the bale grazing to more areas of the farm.”

Anderson says while conventional production practices are still quite common, more crop and livestock producers are looking to see how forages, cover crops —and cattle where possible — can all be used to help revitalize or regenerate more natural production systems.

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