You can graze cattle on cover crops planted with help from Ag Action Manitoba — as long as they’re not your cattle, that is.
Ag Action Manitoba is the province’s vehicle for funding under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program. Cover crops are among the beneficial management practices (BMPs) it promotes to improve the environment. Others include fencing riparian areas off from livestock, improving watering systems, relocating pens away from water bodies, adding perennials to crop rotations, reusing drainage water and managing farm run-off.
“Cover crops protect soil, air and water by capturing nutrients, reducing soil erosion and run-off, increasing water uptake, and sequestering carbon in soil,” Ag Action Manitoba’s farmer guidebook says. The province offers to foot the bill for a quarter of seed, seedbed preparation, equipment and labour up to $10,000 to establish a cover crop.
Why it matters: A program designed to increase crop diversity doesn’t apply to mixed farmers.
The catch for at least one mixed farmer is that the assistance only applies to “stockless farms.”
Michael Harms, who raises cattle and elk near Mather, had already bought into the benefit of cover crops. Having sought out various speakers, field tours and research on the subject, he was convinced that cover crops would help improve his soil. He was already managing livestock with rotational grazing and experimenting with cover crops. Harms hoped to increase cover crops to 300 acres this year with help from Ag Action Manitoba, and asked for just over $5,100 to establish a five-species mix of tillage radish, purple-top turnip, phacelia, balansa clover and oats. Ag Action Manitoba requires a cover crop mix to include at least three species.
Harms argued the mix would improve soil aggregation, fight compaction with taproots, feed pollinators, fix nitrogen and encourage mycorrhizal fungi, as well as provide fast-growing species for good grazing in the fall. Any plants that overwintered would be sprayed out before the field was sown with cash crops.
The plan had “considerable merit,” according to a letter Harms received from the province, but was not approved for funding due to his livestock.
A government spokesperson said by email that, “While the cover crop could be grazed, the program is not designed to provide direct funding for feed production, which is why it is intended for stockless farms.”
“I think excluding livestock from grazing land, whether it’s grassland or annual cropping land is a little short sighted,” Harms said.
He pointed to work on benefits to soil microbiology and fertility through grazing, which has gained support among the leaders of the regenerative agriculture movement.
Maintaining green growth from early spring to killing frost and followed by grazing, “is a good thing for our soils,” Harms argued. Using similar rationale, both the Manitoba Beef Producers and Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association often highlight the benefits of systems such as swath grazing, cover crop grazing and rotational grazing.
With 6,500 Manitoba operations reporting cattle and calves in the 2016 Census of Agriculture, the program would exclude 44 per cent of the farms in the province,
The province itself has encouraged livestock producers to look at alternative grazing, and incorporating those strategies is usually a positive note in an Environmental Farm Plan or an audit for Verified Beef Production Plus.
Harms has written letters on the issue to his MLA, MP, Premier Brian Pallister, Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler, Manitoba Beef Producers and Keystone Agricultural Producers.
He has spoken to a representative from Manitoba Agriculture and was told that livestock producers were excluded from the program due to the added financial benefit available to them by grazing those cover crops.
The province did not release the number of farmers who had applied for cover crop funding or how many applications had been denied because they had livestock.
Manitoba Beef Producers declined to comment on any single CAP funding application, but, “We are open to hearing how BMPs (beneficial management practices) can be improved to best meet the needs of our members, and we can take producers’ ideas and concerns forward for discussions with government,” executive director Carson Callum said.
“In order for us to fully understand the reasoning behind denying particular applications, we need to have clarity on the government’s specific rationale behind each BMP under the CAP,” he said.
Harms is still a firm advocate of the province’s beneficial management funding, despite his current issue. He has used similar funding to upgrade fuel storage, improve his dugouts to protect riparian areas, dig drainage ditches and other projects.
“It is a good program,” he said. “It has helped me in a lot of other things I’m doing and trying on my farm.”
Grazing is an “added benefit,” but not the main reason he turned to cover crops, he added, and the lack of funding has not forced him to re-evaluate his winter feed plan, despite the province’s general lack of hay.
He is still going ahead with cover crops, although the cost has forced him to reduce acreage to about a third of the original plan. Manitoba’s growing season is too short to confidently invest that kind of seed cost without the buffer of funding, he said.
“It’s not cheap to do for the goals that I have, for the mixes that I’m sowing,” he said. “I know I could probably do far cheaper stuff, but I don’t think I would get the full benefit that I’m trying to receive.”