When Ian Grossart harvests alfalfa on his farm in southwestern Manitoba, he knows where most of the nutrients he’s just removed are going to end up — back on his land.
“With the cattle we compost all of our own manure, so that becomes a big part of our fertility program,” he said. “And because we’re not shipping it down the road… it’s more of a closed system.”
Using natural cropping methods and organics, Grossart’s farm is practising conservation agriculture, which Professor Martin Entz notes has three major components: minimal soil disturbance, permanent ground cover and plant diversity.
“It’s a movement across the world and across the planet, and when you think about the things that really allow conservation agriculture to flourish, it’s perennial plants, because they give plant diversity, they give permanent ground cover and they result in minimal soil disturbance,” said Entz, who teaches and researches natural cropping systems at the University of Manitoba.
Livestock need perennial crops, like grasses and alfalfa, which can be key to conservation by replenishing nutrients, he emphasized.
So much so, that geologist David Montgomery believes much of the soil degradation seen around the world can be traced back to farmers moving away from incorporating animals into their production systems.
“One of the things that actually led us down the path to the place we are with agriculture today is the divorce of livestock husbandry and cropping,” he said.
And while some areas of cropland may be suffering from nutrient deficiencies, others are awash in nutrients resulting from concentrated livestock facilities such as feedlots, Montgomery said.
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“(Manure) becomes a pollutant, instead of a nutrient just by the virtue of concentrating it in huge amounts in small areas,” he added.
The resulting perception is often that livestock production and sustainability are somehow incompatible. But that isn’t always the case.
Outside of the Red River Valley, Entz notes that mixed farms are still common and that more growers are moving towards methods that can be integral to conservation, like no till.
But the overall tendency of North America to rely on grain-fed livestock means that animal production often involves intensive feeding areas that don’t assist in building up soils and can result in serious nutrient management issues, he said.
The flip side of intensive grain-fed livestock operations is that they require equally intensive grain-growing operations to support them.
“The conventional livestock system, in which animals are eating a lot of grain during their lives… and mixed farms, those are very different agricultural landscapes and the one that is very grain based is very fragile — extremely fragile and we see evidence of that around the world,” said Entz.
“Farmers who have only grains they tell me that, well I’m not interested in livestock, I’m a grain farmer… I remind them that if they’re growing wheat or canola or soybeans or corn, they are neck deep in the livestock business, because at least half of what they grow goes for livestock feed,” he said.
Beyond ecology, some farmers are also drawn to conservation agriculture for financial benefits, creating incentives for producers to incorporate conservation techniques like cover crops into mixed farming operations, said Steve Groff who has a 200-acre vegetables farm in Pennsylvania.
“You would have to really screw it up bad not to make cover crops pay in livestock. Livestock, cover crops, they’re gonna pay, it’s just a no-brainer, this is the low-hanging fruit,” he said.
Back in southwestern Manitoba, Grossart is trying new methods of increasing conservation, while also improving his margins.
This year he’s incorporating a grazed green manure that uses oats, rye, peas and vetch.
“Our hope is that we’ll be able to graze it in the next couple weeks and then the vetch and the rye will keep going,” he said. “So when the rest of the pastures are done in the fall, they’ll still be something green there, so that’s what we’re hoping to take advantage of.”
Grossart hasn’t always been a practitioner of conservation agriculture; he started out as a conventional farmer. However, he said organics and conservation agriculture have proven an ideal fit for his farm.
“The revenue is better, because we’re relying on biology rather than putting chemical fertilizers and all that on. There’s more dollars left in your pocket,” he said. “Now we’re looking at building our soils with our green manures and all that… when we were conventional we really weren’t looking at that. You put on enough fertilizer for the year and you weren’t looking to improve the soil in the long term.”
He said he has noticed an increase in available nitrogen, which he tests for each fall, since moving towards a more integrated, natural, cropping system.
“We’ve even got a couple fields where phosphorus is starting to be released, so there’s more that’s showing up as available as well,” Grossart said.
Entz would like to see more farmers look at how to integrate livestock into cropping systems in a way that sees nutrients returned to the land with minimal disruption. But he realizes it will require changes to how livestock is raised, who sells and processes it, and how consumers choose what they eat.
“But the changes are worth fighting for, because of the benefits to the environment, to human health and the benefits to animals are worth it in anybody’s measured opinion, because the data speaks for itself,” he said.