Lance Walker says incorporating the livestock enterprise into more of the grain component on the family’s central Saskatchewan farm in recent years is already showing signs of increasing production, while reducing input costs.
He’s excited to see where increasing the synergy between the two enterprises — that includes feeding cattle on cropland, multi-species cropping and cover cropping — will take the farming operation over the next few years.
“Once you start applying what’s known as regenerative agriculture practices, really, I think, the sky is the limit in terms of opportunities,” says Walker, who is part of family run Walker Farms at Borden, northwest of Saskatoon. “Right now, our biggest concern is managing the logistics and ensuring profitability of these practices in a large-scale farming operation.
“In theory, someday it may mean we will be able to completely eliminate inputs, but I think that is unlikely for the foreseeable future,” he says. “I believe we can continue to make progress towards that end, as long as we keep profitability front and centre.”
Walker, who farms with his parents and siblings, is the fourth generation on the mixed farming operation, which crops about 8,000 acres of grains, oilseeds and pulse crops along with running about 2,000 head of cattle. There has always been some interaction between the two enterprises, but that became more deliberate in recent years.
“There has always been some crossover between the cattle and crops,” says Walker. “But about five years ago, we shifted our focus to a production system that would reduce the use of synthetic inputs, lower our cost of production and work to build soil quality and soil microbiology.”
He has tried a number of different practices and admittedly not all were successful, but all provided a learning experience. He says the more he can incorporate cattle activity and livestock feed production on annual cropped acres, the more he is able to look at reducing input costs.
With intercropping (seeding two crops in the same field at the same time), on between half and two-thirds of their annual cropped acres, Walker says he’s been able to eliminate the need for fungicides and insecticides in annual crops. And on annually cropped land where he can also feed and graze cattle, he’s been able to reduce the amount of applied nitrogen by up to 30 per cent. These are both indicators that with more experience and trying new crop production practices, costs can be further reduced.
Started with volunteer canola
Intercropping was one of the first production changes they implemented and it has grown now to where it is applied to between 4,000 and 6,000 acres of annually cropped land each year.
“It started one year when we happened to have a lot of volunteer canola growing up in a pea crop and we didn’t have any herbicide options to take out the canola so we just let it go,” says Walker. “And then we observed some benefits. The peas stood better, there was minimal disease and at harvest, we actually had two saleable crops.”
Since then, Walker has expanded intercropping acres to include combinations such as lentils and canola, lentils and flax, oats and peas and oats, peas and flax. The combinations always include a nitrogen-fixing pulse crop. He seeds them together targeting a three-quarter-inch seeding depth, which should be a “happy medium” for any seed size.
And the seeding rate depends on the crops and the year. If he wants one of the two crops to be predominant, he will use a higher seeding rate for it, otherwise he seeds both at roughly half the usual seeding rate. And he always uses a calculation to figure out the amount of seed depending on his plants per square foot target.
He cites several benefits of combining two crops. “I look at intercropping as a risk management tool,” says Walker. “Not every year has good growing conditions, so if it is too wet or too dry, usually one of the crops will do well,” he says. The crops stand well, often one crop helps the other, and density of each type is reduced so disease and insect pressure is reduced, hence the elimination of seed treatments and fungicide.
And with legumes in the mix, he can reduce fertilizer rates. If he is growing the intercrop on land where cattle have overwintered for example, he will reduce the nitrogen rate by 30 per cent. And if the crop is grown where there have been no cattle, he plans for a 10 per cent nitrogen reduction.
He also expects with an intercrop that the combined tonnage to the two crops will be 10 per cent higher than if he had grown a monocrop on that field. “Overall, my confidence is high that with intercropping I can achieve a higher yield per acre with a lower cost of production,” he says.
Intercropping is not all roses, however. At harvest, the two crops do have to be separated which creates a “logistical bottleneck” for separating, cleaning and storage. “It is not as easy as pulling up to a bin and loading a single crop,” he says. That’s why he hasn’t seeded the whole farm to intercropping. “It is a huge learning process and we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he says.
Walker hopes to get there someday, but will need to be “creative” in cleaning and separating.
Impact of cattle
To integrate the impact of cattle more into the cropping operation, he has gone to more winter grazing on annual cropped land. Because some of the farmland is a distance away and unfenced, not all of the cropped acres are suitable for cattle. Walker says they are open to opportunities to consolidate the farm base if they can find cropland closer to home operations.
Along with using cropland as an “open range feedlot” in winter, he also includes annual pasture on cropland as part of the cropping rotation. He’ll seed about 10 per cent of cropped acres to a forage blend that includes 10 different species of annual forages, which will be grazed or put up as winter feed. He likes the diversity of the blend as different species with different root systems and growing characteristics help to build soil quality.
Also, each year he makes a point of seeding a cover crop on about 30 per cent of the farm, aiming to “keep something living and growing and sinking carbon back into soil” for as long as the growing season allows. He has under-seeded the spring-seeded grain or oilseed with a cover crop, although he usually tries to seed the cover crop in the fall once the spring crop has been harvested.
The species of cover crop will depend on the year and growing conditions. The fall of 2020 was dry for example, so to reduce input costs he seeded barley on canola stubble. Seeding the cover crop is also a good time to fall apply fertilizer for the coming growing season. And if the barley gets off to a good start, it also provides fall grazing for cattle.
Other times, he seeds fall rye as a cover crop, that he’ll often harvest as a grain the following year. The fall rye provides some diversity and disease break in rotation, the fall rye can also take advantage of moisture if conditions are wet, and the natural weed control feature of fall rye, known as allelopathy, appears to suppress weed pressure the following year.
Walker also likes the fact that with fall rye as a cover crop, it is a grain he can harvest relatively early the following season, “leaving plenty of time to get another cover crop seeded,” he says. “If conditions are favourable, I would probably seed a multi-species forage crop after the fall rye that can provide fall grazing for the cattle — so it is almost like we are able to get two crops in one season.”
Walker says there is still lots to learn about ways to incorporate more impact from the livestock herd into the cropping operation, but he is already seeing the benefits of combining cattle and regenerative cropping practices.
“I’m starting to see lower input cost and lower fertilizer requirements,” he says. “The soil appears healthier, more robust, with improved water holding capacity and I’m also seeing higher quality livestock feed as well as annual grain and oilseed crops. As crop diversity helps to build soil organic matter, it helps to keep the soil biology humming along and with better soil structure it acts more like a mop rather than a hard surface where moisture runs off.”
Walker says applying new practices makes it exciting and challenging. He is looking forward to the year ahead to see what the results of more acres of intercropping and multi-species cropping bring.