With low cattle prices and the labour intensive process of calving in cold weather, many livestock producers could be forgiven for thinking they are working for their cattle, not the other way around. But Linda and Ralph Corcoran believe an holistic approach to managing their ranch near Langbank, Sask., will ensure their cattle continue to work for them.
The couple have been followers of that concept since their daughter took an holistic management course, and she began making suggestions to her father on how to improve the family’s ranching operation.
Ralph and Linda soon adopted many of those new ideas. “It was an easy sell,” says Linda, as the couple saw value in their daughter’s practical suggestions. Since then both Linda and Ralph have not only taken holistic management training themselves, they are now in the process of becoming certified trainers.
And by adopting the holistic approach, the couple say their workload has been reduced and the ranch’s finances have improved significantly. “Our lifestyle has changed dramatically,” says Ralph. That is due in large part to delaying calving until warmer spring weather arrives, which makes it possible to virtually eliminate the need for close confinement in winter.
The Corcorans have been bale grazing their herd in winter on selected pasture sites rather than in a corral. That results in improved summer grass stands from the manure left behind. And by selecting wintering sites in areas that have suffered from low fertility, they can target locations where soil improvements are needed most. “Our soil is really improving,” adds Ralph. And the health of the cattle herd health has improved, too. Problems requiring a veterinarian’s services are now rare.
Remarkably, those and other gains didn’t require any extra expenses. In fact, they actually eliminated some previous costs, like corral cleaning. “Our corrals have never been cleaned since we took the holistic management course,” says Ralph. “Every year, that’s $3,000 in our pocket.”
Ralph and Linda now focus on custom grazing yearlings in the summer, but they still want to maintain some cows. They don’t want to give up wintering cattle and miss out on the fertility boost that comes with winter bale grazing.
Partly to show what is possible with holistic management and encourage others to adopt the approach, the couple hosted a field day on their ranch in August. Those on the tour were producers who have already adopted holistic practices. The advantage for them was getting a first-hand opportunity to compare their own results against those of others who also employ holistic management.
That’s in keeping with the holistic philosophy, which encourages continuous learning. In fact, most producers using the approach regularly get together to compare notes — and pastures. “That’s what these things (field days) are all about,” explains Ralph. “That (continuous learning) is what makes this holistic management so much fun.”
Despite the fact many producers, like the Corcorans, have used the holistic approach to improve the profitability of their livestock operations, the concept has been a hard sell to many others, likely because it involves abandoning some long-established and widespread practises, like close confinement in winter and continuous grazing in summer.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” explains Ralph. The principle of holistic management is simple: Find ways to take advantage of natural processes to increase productivity and profit.
“Our business in agriculture is capturing solar energy, which is free,” says Don Campbell, an holistic management instructor and Canadian Cattlemen columnist who helped host the tour. Managing grassland to maximize plant growth is how producers can take advantage of a natural process and capture as much free energy as possible. The way to do that, according to Campbell, is through planned grazing, which is central to holistic pasture management.
Planned grazing involves moving cattle to new paddocks at regular intervals, usually every three to five days, sometimes less. That gives pasture plants time to fully recover from being grazed before the cattle have a chance to bite them again, allowing for increased growth. That significantly expands a pasture’s carrying capacity.
But without adequate soil fertility, growing lush plant stands isn’t possible, no matter what practices are used. And after a century that has seen the use of traditional agricultural methods, which led to extensive wind erosion in previous decades, some research suggests as much as half the original fertility of prairie soil has been lost.
On one of the tour stops Campbell points out the extent of modern soil degradation; and holding up some samples of local sod, he asks, “When the pioneers came here, they built thatch (sod) houses. Could you build a thatch house (from the soil) on your farm today?”
The Corcorans have now established management practices they believe will return their pasture sod to something akin to the unbroken prairie of the 1800s. And as far as Don Campbell is concerned, that is critical. “That’s where the profitability and sustainability is in agriculture: rebuilding the soil,” he says.
Scott Garvey writes from his farm near Moosomin, Sask.