The Nerbas family of Shellmouth, Man., isn’t interested in a whole lot of inputs for their forage-only Angus herd.
Arron and Shane Nerbas, along with their wives, Amber and Sacha, their children, and their parents Gene and Cynthia, run a 525-head commercial herd and 75 head of registered breeding stock under a mix of summer strip grazing and winter bale grazing.
Now the operation has been singled out by the Manitoba Beef Producers for that organization’s annual Environmental Stewardship award, and is headed on to the national competition.
“They have a process and a belief in off-site watering and bale grazing and seeding extra complementary pastures and extended grazing,” Manitoba Beef Producers general manager Brian Lemon said. “I think what really struck us was their commitment to try and ensure that they operate with those principals and they have very much a forward-looking operation that takes the environment into account.”
The award is the “centrepiece” of the commodity group’s efforts to showcase its environmental aspects, Lemon added.
The award will launch the Nerbas family on to the national stage. As provincial winners, Nerbas Bros. Angus will go up against similarly selected producers from across Canada at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in Calgary August 15-17, 2017.
On the Nerbas operation, attention is paid to doing things the natural way and leveraging Mother Nature to the benefit of the producer.
Water troughs, when possible, run on alternative energy, synthetic fertilizers are passed over in favour of nutrient cycling and the family has developed a winter system they refer to as “pod grazing,” which centralizes up to three weeks of feed in areas they have singled out for a boost of organic matter or nutrients. The herd is then rotated to another “pod.”
“We were always a bit of a low-input-based operation, meaning that cows would just calf on their own in spring and everything was wintered out on the range and not in confinement or feedlots, so we just kind of evolved that to the next level when we took our holistic course and decided to kind of tweak and improve on it as we went,” Arron Nerbas said.
About 10 years ago, the Nerbas brothers attended a course with holistic management educators Don and Bev Campbell of Meadow Lake, Sask., bringing back a more intentional system of grazing management. The following year, both Gene and Cynthia completed the course.
“We took the rest and recovery a little more seriously and documented the time of grazing and how long it recovered and tried to be just a little more stringent in how we monitored that,” Arron Nerbas said. “And we also took our herd density, or grazing density, and we tried to put more animals on smaller acres to get a little more utilization. You get the hoof action, the trampling. It all helps in terms of rejuvenation of the soil.”
Today, Nerbas Bros. Angus operates about 100 paddocks in summer, with herds rotated regularly.
“We just have them on, for example, an 80-acre piece for three to five days and then move them to the next one and sometimes those paddocks will only get grazed once a year, sometimes twice a year, just depending on the moisture of that particular year, how it was grazed the previous year, a lot of different factors,” Arron Nerbas said.
Such “mob grazing” has been advocated by the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association and soil ecology specialists as a tool for building organic matter and soil health. In 2014, a similar 128-paddock system, run by Brian Harper of Circle H Farms, was highlighted through a partnership between the forage association and federal Commission of Environmental Cooperation.
More recently, the practice has been pitched for potential carbon sequestration, something the Manitoba Beef Producers has targeted in its official carbon policy.
In the winter, by contrast, the herd is moved less often. When they were first experimenting with bale grazing, Nerbas said, bales were laid out in a grid and cattle might remain in the same area for only three to four days. The constant shift of electrical wire quickly grew tiresome, however, leading the Nerbases to extend the period to 10 days to two weeks and, later, to 21 days.
The result, Arron Nerbas says, was some of the most dramatic improvements to their soil. Under the system, their naturally light and sandy soils have seen a dramatic rise in organic matter, nutrients, a thick layer of thatch and a higher rate of water infiltration in areas that were bale grazed.
“Through nutrient cycling, we don’t think that we’ll have to go back to those areas ever again potentially because we’ve rejuvenated so much that there’s now a fertility storage bank there and it has a way higher ability to retain moisture,” Nerbas said.
Over the years not only the production system has evolved — so has the product mix.
Solely a cow-calf operation at first, the Nerbases say they mostly stumbled into the registered breeding business for their own farm’s needs. After failing to find bulls up to their standards, the Nerbases decided to develop their own.
The forage-only breeding stock have found a foothold among similarly minded producers in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan.