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Tips and tricks for regenerative agriculture

Producers and agronomists take questions on regenerative ag at a Manitoba Forum

Interested in regenerative agriculture, and how you might implement it on your farm?

The Regenerative Agriculture Forum organized by the Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association in Brandon in November, brought together producers and experts to talk about these subjects.

A panel discussion included three farmers, Brooks White, Matt Vansteelandt and Arron Nerbas.

White and his wife Jen run a 600-head bison and grain farm near Pierson, Man. They were Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmers in 2018 and have been pursuing regenerative agriculture since taking over the family farm in 2012. Their practices include intercropping and managed grazing.

Vansteelandt runs a grass-fed, cow-calf operation near Melita, Man., where he uses adaptive multi-paddock grazing and extensive livestock wintering including bale grazing to build soil health.

Nerbas, his brother and his parents operate a purebred Angus operation near Shellmouth, Man. Since taking a Holistic Management course in 2005, they have focused on building soil health through tools such as planned grazing.

Also, on the panel were Scott Wolfe, an agronomist with Fresh Hemp Foods Ltd and long-time, Manitoba Grazing Club Manager, Michael Thiele, who also works with Ducks Unlimited to promote regenerative agricultural practices and is acting as a coordinator on the General Mills, Regenerative Oat Pilot project with 45 growers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota.

Matt Vansteelandt and Michael Thiele.
photo: Angela Lovell

Producers attending the Forum got a chance to ask some questions of the panellists. Here are some of the questions and answers.

Limitations

What is the greatest limitation in the pursuit of regenerative agriculture?

Michael Thiele: “I think it’s definitely understanding that we need to pursue a deeper understanding of what it means to do agriculture. I like this quote from Dr. Dwayne Beck [South Dakota plant science professor]: ‘Many of the farmer practitioners of regenerative agriculture refer to accepting this approach as having a brain transplant since it requires developing new skills and a different attitude. Most important among the industry is the need to realize that to be sustainable and profitable on a long-term basis, the farming system must be designed such that natural cycles and principles become an ally rather than an enemy.’

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“Instead of waking up every morning and saying, ‘What am I going to kill today; a weed, a bug, a disease?’ if you can start saying, ‘How am I going to work with these systems to take care of my water cycle, my mineral cycle, my energy cycle?’ it becomes a totally different mindset.

“We have been tremendously successful in production agriculture, we’ve grown a lot of food to feed a lot of people, but we also need to be objective and look at the other side of that equation. There have been consequences to what we have done globally in doing agriculture, like degraded soils, loss of soil carbon, decreased water infiltration, poorly functioning soil biology, loss of biodiversity and climate disruption.

So, I would say the number one limitation to implementing regenerative agriculture at a larger scale is understanding we need to start to look at these different systems.

Brooks White: “I think ultimately our biggest limitation is people. We spent a lot of time over the last few years learning as farmers about how to move down this journey and I met a lot of people along the way and learned a lot from them.

“What we’ve been missing on our farm is the labour force. To go to scale and be successful in this, it really takes people to be on board with what you’re doing. We’ve been changing our mindset, but maybe haven’t been training or thinking about how these people are going to respond to what we’re trying to do.

Major changes?

Are there any major changes that you plan to make as you move down the path towards regenerative agriculture?

Michael Thiele: “There is new information every day that is leaking into agriculture now from ecology, biology, systems theory, other disciplines that were siloed separately, which is tremendously exciting. So, I think change is a constant and my plan is just to try to keep up, so I can help the farmers I’m working with to implement these new ideas.”

Scott Wolfe: “We’ve seen hemp respond pretty well to high levels of manure in pasture breaking, so I want to keep encouraging the use of manure and livestock in a lot of our production. Also keep working with industry and innovative growers to push the bar higher and working together to build best practices for different cropping systems and scenarios.”

Brooks White:” It’s been part of our plan for a few years but we haven’t really pulled the trigger on it yet, but it’s going to be downsizing. Doing this at scale has a lot of challenges and we need to look at doing more with less. We can be more profitable on fewer acres in our farms, we can focus more and bring in more things. We have got a diversity of plants in our system and have been focusing a lot in the last few years on building infrastructure to have fence and water systems on every acre we own.

“The big change for us is going to be focusing on the acres that we own mainly due to the risk associated with implementing a lot these strategies on rented land. A lot of the things we have to put into place are long-term strategies and to invest in multiple-year strategies without the guarantee that land is going to be there to reap those benefits back to us in future years, or for my next generation, it’s a little bit out there until we find business partners maybe that will make that more viable for us.

“We’re still moving along with regenerative agriculture, doing things like intercropping and cover cropping even on the rented land, we just haven’t got to the point of integrating livestock on that side yet due to the cost associated with that and also because sometimes those parcels of land are a long way away.

“The other thing I think we’re missing is diversity of livestock, so we need to look at bringing other species in.”

Transitioning

Can you talk about your transition process and timelines?

Matt Vansteelandt: “It’s one field at a time.

“Ninety per cent of our land is in perennials, so it started with just stockpiling grass, which basically is putting up one wire of electric and not letting the cows go on there for a period of time, then I use that early in the spring. That’s the first thing I did.

“It starts with one wire at a time, build fence, short periods of grazing and then rest. You can build a lot of fence in a day with one wire. You can pick up a lift of 10mil rebar at any hardware store. I buy some insulators, screw them on and there you go, you’ve got an electric fence, it’s not that hard, but it is one step at a time.

“You have to find a way to do it that’s going to be profitable. Anybody that has perennials stockpiled is probably the easiest way, and the other way to do it is to start feeding the animals on the land. We calve on grass so they’re on the land all the time, but if you’re calving in the corrals, the first thing you can do is start feeding them on the land. You’re going to start cycling those nutrients rather than creating a resource concern.”

Brooks White: “We’re still transitioning. The perennials are an important part in the system and we’re trying to rotate the perennials through. A lot of these perennials were seeded down in our farm 20 years ago or more because they were the poorest producing fields. But all of a sudden now, you put them back in your annual crop production, and it’s amazing what they’re doing, and how some of these last few dry years, we’re still producing good crop off them because of all the benefits those perennials brought to the system.

“The risk, potentially, of what we’re doing is utilizing and burning up that carbon [in the soil], but if we manage it correctly and keep putting it back and functioning in our system, I don’t think we’re at a large risk of burning up that carbon. We are not tilling up those perennials, we’re direct seeding into them and continuously cropping them and then they eventually go back to perennial again.

“The other thing I would say about transitioning is certain fields are going to be easier to transition based on what’s available for nutrients. You can’t grow a cover crop if you don’t have the nutrients there, so if the nutrients aren’t there to actually grow a crop with minimal inputs, you’re not going to get this functioning system, you need to be able to grow something.

“We have been trying to figure out how fast we can turn the switch off, and it depends field by field on what’s available in the soil for nutrients to get us through a period where it can continue growing something, trying to keep some kind of plant growing and being profitable. Some fields we tried to turn the switch off too fast and it really hurt us, so it’s just a learning phase, experiment and try to figure out on your land what makes sense.”

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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