Saskatchewan producer Blain Hjertaas owns 800 acres of pastureland, which gives him the equivalent grazing capacity of 3,200 acres. How does he achieve this?
By maximizing the collection of solar energy on his land and using that energy to help improve soil health, which ultimately translates into better productivity. If that sounds too simple to be true, it’s not.
Hjertaas was a conventional farmer for 25 years of his career. He poured on the chemicals and subscribed to every new technology that came along, but the work wasn’t getting any easier and he certainly wasn’t getting any richer. He added livestock, seeded grass and tried a rudimentary rotational grazing system, but it wasn’t until he took a Holistic Management course that he learned how he could achieve his goals of maximizing the productivity and health of his land, his livestock and his family.
Improving soil health is where it all begins says Hjertaas who farms at Redvers in southeast Saskatchewan near the Manitoba border. “In general soil health is declining,” he says. “It now takes 10 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. Over half of prairie soil organic matter has disappeared in just 100 years and one ton of soil is lost per person per year.”
Reversing this trend, says Hjertaas, was crucial to the many elements that have given him a naturally balanced system of production. Careful management of the system helps him achieve his goals, which form the foundation of holistic management.
It has taken Hjertaas 10 years to achieve four times the usual carrying capacity of his land and has meant careful planning of his grazing system to maximize the potential of the land and its available resources and cycle them effectively through his animals.
At a recent Planned Grazing workshop in Brandon, hosted by the Manitoba Forage Council and Ducks Unlimited, Hjertaas walked a number of Manitoba livestock producers through compiling a comprehensive Grazing Plan. The workshop was funded though the Agri-Extension Environment Program under Growing Forward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative, which is a program designed to encourage behaviour and attitude changes towards environmentally sustainable agriculture practices and to encourage adoption of environmentally sustainable agriculture practice on farms.
Hjertaas emphasized the importance of preparing a gross profit analysis for each individual component of farm operations. This needs to be done every year says Hjertaas, and should be based on historical data, which becomes more accurate and representative of the true picture with each year. The gross profit analysis is based on Animal Days per Acre (ADA) The importance of this calculation is that it should illustrate clearly the components of the farm that are making the most money.
The grazing plan should take into account all of the following elements, without which livestock producers will fail to make the ultimate use of their resources, says Hjeertas. There are many variables in grazing, but a good plan will help producers be more prepared for them.
Energizing the land.
“All you have to do to be successful in agriculture is collect solar energy,” says Hjertaas. An annual cropping system makes use of about three months of solar energy, whereas a perennial system can capture solar energy for a lot longer, at least seven months.
Maximizing that energy involves matching the nutritional requirements of animals to plant growth. “Cows peak requirement for feed is several weeks after calving, so why not make the two peaks meet; peak demand and peak plant growth in mid June,” says Hjertaas. Better nutritional quality can be achieved by moving animals more frequently during periods of fast plant growth and less frequently during periods of slow growth.
“Usually five days on a paddock is the maximum that I will leave (my animals),” says Hjertaas. “After five days the plants are starting to re-grow and I don’t want them to take a second bite as the plant will then be over-grazed. In May and June it could be only two days to re-growth, so you have to monitor that.”
A high stock density improves productivity in a number of ways. High stock density gives more even grazing and distribution of manure, greater animal impact, provides more plant litter and results in better animal performance, improved land and tighter plant communities.
Hjertaas maintains a stocking density of 200,000 pounds of livestock per acre on his land. He has found that the nutrient level of the grass is higher because increasing the stock density and moving the animals more frequently prevents overgrazing and the increase of species that are not as palatable or nutritious to the cattle.
Making better use of water.
Precipitation as rain or snow provides much of the water on the farm and although there is no way to control how much falls there is plenty of scope to affect what happens to it afterwards, says Hjertaas. Run off, infiltration, evaporation and transpiration can all be controlled, to a certain extent, by keeping the land well covered with green plant growth or plant litter to retain as much moisture as possible.
Capturing just one millimetre more rain per year gives one more litre of usable water per square metre. “A good percentage of our water also comes as snow and it’s important to take advantage of all that nature gives us,” says Hjertaas. “Snow keeps the soil warmer allowing quicker green up in the spring. Having the land litter covered will allow the snow melt to enter the soil and be useful for plant growth, rather than running off and contributing to problems downstream.”
Improving organic soil matter Litter on the land is an important part of both building and maintaining the organic matter in the soil. It doesn’t matter whether the litter is green or brown, says Hjertaas, who uses bale grazing to help build litter. “I have achieved 800% more production after year two in the areas where I have bale grazed,” says Hjertaas.
Studies at the University of Saskatchewan have shown that with a bale grazing system 31 per cent of the nitrogen from manure ends up on the land, as opposed to only one per cent of manure from a corral feeding system.
If he needs additional feed Hjertaas will purchase hay and believes the reason he nets over $100 an acre on his grassland is because he is not exporting any nutrient value through the removal of annual crops.
Reducing winter feeding costs One of the biggest costs in livestock production is winter feeding. Reducing that cost means keeping cows out on pasture 12 months of the year and not over-feeding.
Hjertaas bale grazes throughout the winter and his cows have grazed through two feet of snow on stockpiled grass. And he feeds his cows to maintain or lose some weight over the winter. “Winter, in nature, is a culling time. If you keep cattle artificially heavy in winter it reduces their longevity,” he says.
The fewer species that exist in an ecosystem the less stable it is. But, as important as growing a diverse mix of plants, is understanding them. “Management is the key. You need to know how plants grow and how much time they need to recover after grazing,” says Hjertaas.
Plant community dynamics help balance out a holistically managed system, which is all about mimicking nature, which means, says Hjertaas, that the less you do, the better it is.
And isn’t that what every farmer would like farming to be about?