When it comes to managing a grazing operation, bigger isn’t necessarily better.
That’s according to Dr. Allen Williams, a grazing specialist, grass-fed beef advocate, sustainable beef expert and the instructor at a two-day grazing workshop in Brandon Aug. 14-15.
“They have a lot more options than they ever realized that they had in terms of how they can use their land — use every acre — and if you have a lot more options, that also means you have a lot more opportunity for profitability,” Williams told about 30 attendees.
“The second thing… is the concept of soil health and that if you start with a foundation of soil health and build that first, everything else that you do… becomes far more profitable and productive.”
High-density grazing systems and soil health formed the backbone of the workshop, with topics moving from cover crops and minimal tillage into biodiversity, maximum forage production, forage mixes, economics, and first-hand advice finishing cattle in grass-fed systems.
Michael Thiele, Ducks Unlimited grazing club co-ordinator, said the discussion revolved around basic principles and concepts including how producer management can have a compounding effect.
“Once you start a system going in a positive direction, there’s usually compounding, cascading, effects so that you get multiples of changes — things just get better and better and better faster and faster and faster once you get out of the way and let nature do its job — and then the principle of disruption, so don’t do the same thing year after year after year,” Thiele said.
High stock density, or “mob” grazing, was once again a key point of discussion.
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Proponents claim the tactic mimics the pre-agriculture environment when herds of bison would move in, feed intensely for short periods, then move on again.
Advocates have linked the practice to soil organic matter increases, gains in root growth and positive impacts on soil biology and structure.
Cover crops and perennial forages in grazing have also repeatedly appeared on the grazing club schedule.
Soil experts have identified soil biology as an emerging topic and soil health conversations now often drift to things like mycorrhizal fungi and micro-organism environment.
For the farmer, however, Williams said most soil knowledge remains chemical, not biological.
“In all fairness to them, that’s how they’ve been trained over the last several decades, just to look at chemistry, but they have a real knowledge gap in terms of biology, how biology works in the system and how powerful biology is — that you can actually, rather than just having the linear responses, you can actually have exponential results,” he said.
Quorum Laboratories, one of several labs to begin offering biological soil testing, hopes to help change that.
“What we look at through metagenomics (studying genetics directly from an environmental sample) in the soil is we’re looking at it strictly from the biological point of view,” David Bartok, Quorum Laboratories CEO and another of the workshop’s instructors, said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that we look at only biology, but we want to know how the biology interfaces with the chemistry of the soil and how it interacts with the physical part of the soils. Up to this point, all of the testing has been done primarily just through chemistry and that doesn’t work.”
The U.S. lab has gone a step further in biological testing and uses DNA sequencing to mark specific micro-organism types in a soil sample.
The lab can identify soil managed under different systems and hopes to better identify effective combinations to build soil health.
“There’s a lot of testing that’s done now, we call it biological testing, that gives us a very broad view of the biology and it’s a good test,” Bartok said. “It tells us that we have some biology and it’ll classify it a little bit. It really doesn’t tell us if it’s good biology or if it’s bad biology. The testing that we’re doing through metagenomics, and we’re doing this with bacteria and fungi primarily, is we want to quantify and qualify the microbes in the soil.”
The Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association submitted samples to Quorum Laboratories this year from a site north of Brandon.
“It’s another level of precision,” Thiele said. “The current testing doesn’t tell you much about specific functional groups of bacteria and that’s what this (does). I think this is kind of the future of soil testing for biology.”
A recent soil health workshop, hosted by the Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiative and taught by Marla Riekman and John Heard, also explored biological soil testing.
There have been some problems translating test results into management recommendations in Manitoba, Riekman said, although she hopes to better tailor the process by getting local producers to compare test results later this year.
Bartok said some metagenomic analysis has been aimed at Prairie soils and he is currently working on more, although specific recommendations are “very difficult for us to do.”
“We often hear from agronomists or fertilizer companies. They’ll say, ‘Well yes, you have a lot of nutrients in the soil, but they’re not available to the plant,’ and I agree. You’re right, but why are they not available to the plant? That is because the biology that carried on the nutrient cycling that happened for millions of years, we have stopped that nutrient cycling,” he said.
Tests are becoming more relevant as more data is collected, he added.
In what may seem as surprising advice from a forage advocate, Williams told attendees to avoid having a designated hayfield, telling them to instead harvest excess forage from fields where grazing is also incorporated.
Machines often cut stands too low, he said, hindering root system growth. If a designated hayfield is necessary, (for example, if hay is grown as a cash crop), Williams advised farmers to cut higher off the ground.
Advising farmers to do away with hayfields may appear ill suited for Canada, where longer winters require more winter feed. Williams, however, was unconcerned, although he noted that farmers overstocking their pasture might hit a feed shortage.
“If you’re grazing properly, you are going to significantly increase your forage biomass production and therefore, if you’re not adding a lot more livestock and you’re keeping your livestock numbers constant, you’re going to have a lot more excess forage and you’re not going to have a problem producing enough forage for the winter months,” he said.
Producers will also need less feed as land management extends active grazing further into spring and fall, he added.
Monoculture alfalfa also took a hit from Williams, who argued that even cash crop forages could be diversified.
“If you have the complexity and the diversity, then you’re going to automatically have greater soil health and better productivity out of the soil and the cost of producing that hay is going to be cheaper and you’re going to produce more total biomass of that hay and, if it’s the same feed quality, then there’s no problem selling that hay,” he said.