Wildl i fe isn’t the enemy of profitable ranching.
In fact, if there’s a profusion of critters out in your pastures, that means you’re doing something right, according to Steve Kenyon, a custom grazer and writer from Busby, Alberta.
“I think they are all important, and I’m encouraging all of them to show up,” Kenyon said in a recent presentation in Pipestone.
Kenyon began his talk, attended by about 60 ranchers, with a disclaimer in case his views “made anybody mad” before praising what most people call pests and saying the biodiversity provides $80 per acre in free benefits.
Take grasshoppers. When they are bad in Alberta, the government hands out free pesticide, but Kenyon, who fears the effect it would have on his biodiversity, gives it a miss.
“Five per cent of the critters out there are pests, and 95 per cent are good. So what happens when you attack that five per cent? You probably hurt the good ones, too,” said Kenyon, who doesn’t own a tractor and earns a living by custom grazing on mainly leased land.
“Pests are a symptom of a failed management strategy that has created conditions favourable to pests.”
Grasshoppers, which love hot and dry, hate trees, so he leaves the trees be on his pastures. They stop the wind from drying out the soil, provide shade to keep it moist, and make good homes for hopper-devouring birds.
“Ideally, I like about 30 per cent bush on my land. Not all in one corner,” he said.
Bale grazing leaves trash cover, which confounds hoppers, too. Taller grass cover retains moisture, and fungal infections from those conditions kill them.
Not using pest icides means seagulls come to visit in massive flocks. Spraytainted grasshoppers may kill them or at least make them sick, effectively training them to avoid a traditional food source.
“Now, they go sit at McDonald’s and wait for people to throw french fries.”
Cowbirds, which eat lice and warble grubs, were once a common sight in ranch country, but lately they have dwindled.
Kenyon suspects parasite control chemicals such as ivermectin for this loss of biodiversity, and instead manages his cattle movements to break the cycle.
“When I stopped using chemicals, I got my cowbirds back. They are all over the place.”
Bluebirds eat pests, too. Building houses for them pays off over time, he added.
Bullets are selective pest control, working well to keep gopher populations down, and hunters are keen to volunteer. He doesn’t use gopher poison to avoid killing badgers, even though he hates the big holes they make.
To encourage hawks, he is experimenting with a 16-foot-tall raptor perch in the middle of particularly bad pastures.
“It gives them a perch to sit still on. When there’s no movement, the gophers come out, and they swoop down,” he said. “We’ll see if that works.”
Keep cattle out of dugouts, and freshwater shrimp and tadpoles will come back and keep the water clean. His came back about three years after he fenced off the water sources.
Even the smallest bugs help pay the bills, said Kenyon. Flies help cycle manure, and parasitic wasps eat the flies, so he doesn’t use a cattle oiler to fight flies in order to protect the wasps.
He noted that anywhere on earth where there is a long dormant season, such as a grassland or desert, nature put a ruminant animal. Rainforests, on the other hand, do their own recycling via bugs on the forest floor.
Why? Take the cow for example. To ranchers, she’s a stack of dollar bills, but to nature, she’s a walking bag of rumen microflora – a home for bugs to survive the long winter months.
Besides making money for the rancher, the cow’s job in a holistic system is to eat dry matter and deposit 80 per cent of it back on the landscape in piles, said Kenyon. Then it’s up to nature’s next work gang; dung beetles and soil organisms can convert it further into plant-available nutrients.
“The cow is a tool that we used to fulfil the cycles,” he said. “The cow just gets 20 per cent off the top for being there.”
Cow pies don’t break down by themselves. If they linger for what seems like forever, then turn grey and blow away, that’s because an important part of the nutrient cycle is missing, and precious value is being wasted.
“I think of earthworms and everything in the soil as employees that work for me,” said Kenyon.
“I just have to keep them happy, with room and board and a place to live.”
Overgrazing compacts the soil, preventing water infiltration and cuts off their water supply. Using dewormers, which have a 28-day residual effect, makes it harder for soil bugs to break down cow pies.
Kenyon admits that skeptics may think he’s “full of crap,” and call his economic analysis “fake numbers,” but he argues that economically sustainable ranching is all about management, and doesn’t come in a “box, bag, or a bottle.”
“It costs me zero to do it,” he said.
daniel. [email protected]
failedmanagement strategythathas createdconditions favourabletopests.”
– STEVE KENYON