Cows and crops: A perfect combination, experts say

Fifteen years ago, Marc Boulanger and his family took a closer look at what was happening on their operation near Grande Clairière, Man. — and didn’t like what they saw.

“In the late 1980s, when grasshoppers were a major problem, we’d spray — then we were watching how the grasshoppers died, then the birds were dying, then the cats were dying,” Boulanger said at the recent Ecological and Organic Farming conference at the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm.

“We saw that input costs were on the rise, margins were decreasing, and we were thinking of the health of family and friends.”

Subsequently, the Boulangers made the transition to pesticide-free, certified organic crops and hormone-free beef production. Today, their operation includes 700 acres of cropland — which includes tame and native hay, along with tame and native pasture land — along with 190 cows and 240 yearlings and fat cattle for finishing.

“Flexibility is the key to success. It’s my dad’s favourite word,” Boulanger told the crowd of more than 100 participants.

“You have to be flexible when it comes to organic farming. You can’t seed on the first of May if the land isn’t ready. You have to have more than one option.”

Another “key to success,” for the Boulangers, is ensuring the even spread of manure by moving feeding stations.

“Manure is a major asset,” he said. “The use of manure is our most important tool. We’re trying not to spread manure on the same field over and over again, but spread it over more acres.”

Boulanger also listed two other key strategies.

“Every time we grow a cereal there should be a legume or a forage with it,” he said. “And family meetings.”

The Boulanger operation has grown flax, spelt, millet, oats and poly crops, and has three main buyers for its organic fat cattle. According to Boulanger, organic crops fetch good prices, as does organic beef.

“There are opportunities locally, nationally and internationally,” he said.

Nitrogen science

Boulanger was one of several advocates of crop-livestock integration at the day-long conference.

Harun Cicek, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba, discussed the value of ruminants in breaking down plant tissue and delivering nitrogen back to the soil.

“Nitrogen in the plant cell is protected by a very strong membrane, the cell wall. How do we break this? How do ruminants help with this process?” asked Cicek.

The answer is billions of bacteria in the rumen.

“The bacteria use some of this nitrogen, the animals use some of it and the animals excrete most of the nutrients they ingest,” said Cicek.

Once deposited on the soil, the urea is transformed into ammonium and then nitrate forms by the activity of soil micro-organisms.

Cicek concluded that grazing increases soil nitrate overall, and that more nitrate is available after grazing ruminants on legumes than on non-legumes.

In three-year studies he performed on crop-livestock integration, grazing livestock on green manure did not reduce yields of wheat and fall rye in subsequent years. In one study, wheat yields increased.

Apart from the potential to increase yields, this type of integration ensures increased efficiency.

“Normally farmers would do a green manure year just to incorporate green manure into the soil,” said Cicek. “But if you put livestock into the system you get profit out of it through livestock weight gain — you get meat out of that biomass.”

Because livestock adds another level of diversity to a grower’s operation, crop-livestock integration adds resilience to a cropping system, he said.

There are other benefits, as well.

“In the most practical sense this is all about utilizing biomass — crop residues and any type of biomass they cannot harvest are incorporated into the weight gain of livestock,” said Cicek. “Those farmers who use cover crops in their rotation should definitely consider having animals in their system.”

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