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It’s all about the grass

For Blaine Hjertaas, it’s all about the grass. Wherever his eye wanders on his 800-acre farm near Redvers, Sask., it instinctively zeroes in on the grass, analyzing its height, its composition and, most importantly, its nutrient content.

“See that area there?” he said pointing to a 10×10-foot block of emerging grass. “We had chickens there last year, so they left all kinds of fertilizer that has given us about three times as much grass as we had in that same spot 10 years ago.”

It wasn’t always this way on the Hjertaas farm. From 1974 to 2000, the high-tech operation focused on expanding its land base, using large machinery and depending on chemicals to grow the southeast Saskatchewan grain farm.

But in 2000, Blaine and his wife Naomi decided to take a risk and run their operation in a way that depended less on fossil fuels and more on the gifts from Mother Nature.

Selling off their combines, air seeders and sprayers, the Hjertaases now operate their livestock operation with one skid steer and one grain auger. “We have so little money invested in overhead, and we don’t need operating loans, so we can make a good return on what we do produce.”

The products of their labour are grass-fed chickens, free-range pigs, naturally fed cattle and rangeland sheep. “We get a lot of calls from people who eat our meat and say they’ve never had a chicken like that since grandma’s day,” said the 60-year-old farmer. “Or, someone will call us up saying they had dinner at someone’s house and they wanted to find us to see where they can get meat like that.”

The secret to success for the operation, which now has taken son Martin and his partner Thyra into the fold, all rests on holistic management of the family’s 800 acres of pasture land. With a multi-paddock system containing 20 different species of native and tame grasses, Blaine claims his land produces four times the feed of a conventionally managed pasture of the same size.

The grass management system depends on a series of electrical fences that are repositioned one to two times per day, meaning the animals are moved every 12 to 24 hours. The farm is divided into eight one-mile-long strips, as the 300 custom feeders and 70 farm-owned cattle are moved twice daily during the growing season.

As Blaine walks quietly into the pasture the cattle pay little attention, and instinctively move to the new growth area, leaving behind their old stomping ground that is now flattened, but not overgrazed. “The land is the ultimate resource on any farm, so any decision we make has to improve the health of the land.”

The philosophy behind the short grazing periods lies in the theory that the cattle eat the succulents, while stomping down the taller grass and leaving litter behind for organic matter. Animal manure provides important nutrients, while also acting as a method for reseeding. If the plant mixture in any given pasture needs to be changed, Blaine simply adds seeds to the cattle’s salt ration which is then eaten by the livestock and passed back to the earth via manure. He finds a mixture of 20 pounds of loose salt to 10 pounds of legume seeds to be an optimal ratio. “Our system is working with nature so it doesn’t matter as much if it’s wet or dry or late or early because we can manage all that with the timing of our grazing.”

While Blaine does feed purchased hay to his herd for about three months of the year, the majority of the diet is grass which leads to meat with a higher concentration of healthy conjugated linoleic acid and beta carotene. He doesn’t feed his cattle grain at all, finding it to be an expensive additive and an unnecessary nutritional component that leads to meat that is higher in less-healthy omega-6 fatty acids.

Calving is also based on Mother Nature’s schedule and the availability of fresh grass, with the timing set as close to June 15 as possible when there is peak grass production. This date also gives the cows about a month to eat fresh grass that makes for healthier mothers, better milk production and stronger offspring.

The Redvers rancher became a certifiedHolisticManagement Educator in 2008 after two years of study. He speaks and teaches on the subject, having taught at the University of Manitoba for some of the first-ever university-level holistic management classes in Canada.

He takes a very scientific and quantitativeapproachtothe business of livestock production, carefully calculating how many pounds of beef per acre he can produce. He has found that his feeder cattle gain 1.2 pounds daily on grass that nets about $100 per acre in profits. With the only inputs being the time it takes to maintain and move the fencing, Blaine has calculated that he earns about $125 per hour for the time he spends moving fence.

While making a living is paramount, the holistic educator also prides himself on running a low-fuel-emissions operation which features peaceful animals, a quiet, quad-free environment, and a natural setting with lots of bush for shelter and three miles of underground piping for fresh drinking water.

“Now, that right there is peace and contentment,” he said. “We’re producing food and we’re making the environment better at the same time because we’re sequestering carbon dioxide as the percentage of organic matter in the soil goes up.”

As for the chickens, they’re placed in “chicken tractors” — chicken wire cages that are about 10×10 feet that allow the chickens to feed on the grass below and allow the Hjertaases to move them regularly to fresh grass. What is left behind from the chicken tractors is a nutrient-rich layer of manure that creates a visible trail of bright-green grass behind. As for the 130 or so pigs, they are left to feed free range all winter long and the sheep are grass fed in a similar daily-movement system as the cattle.

Overall, Blaine said his low-overhead operation produces more nutritional products at a lower cost and benefits the environment. “When you eat something you grew that you’re totally in control of, that makes you feel pretty good.”

The Hjertaases market their meat by word of mouth alone, selling at the farm gate and delivering to friends and neighbours within a 100-km radius. For more information on holistic agricultural management, contact Blaine at (306) 452-3882. †

About the author

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Christalee Froese writes from Montmartre, Sask.

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