Ryan Boyd knows his family farm doesn’t look like others in the area.
Located just east of Forrest, Man., he’s become an early adopter of a number of innovative farming techniques at SG&R Farms, a 2,000-acre grain and 300-head cow-calf operation. He operates it along with his wife Sarah and his parents.
A decade ago he started rotational grazing. Eight years ago holistic management practices began to appear. Four years ago he started to experiment with cover crops in an effort to more completely integrate livestock and cropping activities.
“Our goal is to create a flexible, low-stress life while improving the health of the land, community and our family,” he said.
So far he’s satisfied with the results he’s observing, he said during a presentation at the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba’s annual general meeting held in Brandon on March 12. For example, he said when he started planting cover crops, it only took a couple of seasons to see that something was happening.
“I am seeing some massive changes in the soil,” he said. “The structure has completely changed, there is better water filtration and the animals that are grazing these fields are healthier with less foot rot, pink eye and I don’t have to supplement as many nutrients because they are getting more minerals from the plants.”
By the dozen
Boyd told the meeting his operation doesn’t rely on a single cover crop, preferring multi-species mixes for greater diversity and functionality.
“We are seeding at least 12 different species together. I usually include peas, hairy vetch, turnips, radish, sorghum sudangrass and buckwheat,” said Boyd. “I really like the peas because they help provide early-season nitrogen to the whole system, which in turn encourages the growth of the other plants.”
According to Boyd, any time is a good time to seed a mixture, but for mixtures containing a large component of warm-season crops he generally begins seeding at the beginning of June with a single disc opener and doesn’t let season specifics get in the way of crop selection.
“Because we have such a short growing season, I think you can get away with planting warm- and cool-season crops together,” he said. “The main reason to do all of this is to build organic matter in the soil. The more diverse the plants are, the more diverse the biology in the soil will be and the more effective nutrient cycling will become.”
Boyd says in his experience, when it comes to building soil, diversity trumps total biomass.
“Diversity is what has really got the soil going. Growing two species isn’t that great of diversity, but two is still better than one. The different root systems work with each other in the soil and many positive things happen including reduced soil compaction and improved water infiltration and retention.”
Last season, his third year working with the diverse cover crop mixtures for grazing, Boyd’s soil was tested to have six per cent organic matter.
“Instead of having the bulk of the roots in just the top six inches of the soil, I like to focus on expanding the black topsoil well below that,” he said. “If we can activate the soil biology in that next level of soil, you will have an entire new pool of nutrients to pull from and the benefits of increased organic matter will be magnified that much more.”
In his 10-plus years of planned grazing cattle, Boyd hasn’t been afraid to experiment, testing out a number of different methods — bale, stockpile, standing corn, and mob grazing.
“I am working on figuring out the best way to keep the cattle on the fields all year long in a way that is both good for the cattle and provides maximum benefit to the land,” he said.
The grazing plan has helped get the soil biology fired up and Boyd said the feed that these pastures are providing is more balanced nutritionally and they’re seeing improved cattle performance.
Although he doesn’t actively weigh his cattle, Boyd says the condition of the animals has been notably better since integrating with cover crops. The nutrient-dense feed has also reduced his need to resort to mineral supplements.
“We believe the mix of the cover crop feeds a more diverse soil food web,” he said.
Each plant gives off different root exudates for the soil biology to utilize, he said, and this is helping balance the nutrients available to the plants. Animal health is improving as the plants themselves are more nutritious and he’s observed a notable reduction in pink eye and foot rot.
Boyd has also transitioned to summer calving, in June. His first year to calve on grass was in 2007 and says it has reduced infrastructure needs, labour demands and winter feeding requirements.