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Windy Lake Farm receives conservation award

Moving to holistic management practices was the key to the operation’s success

Windy Lake Farm is the recipient of the 2016 Pembina Valley Conservation District (PVCD) conservation award.

Located near Swan Lake, Windy Lake Farm is Andrew and Corinne Grift’s operation, where they run a 75-head cow-calf herd, free-range Berkshire hogs, free-range chickens and sheep on 600 acres. Their son Joshua, who wants to farm, is also starting a herd of his own.

The Grifts have been selling their meat products at farmers’ markets, through the Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative, and farm gate sales, for several years.

Andrew and Corinne moved to their farm — an 80-acre plot of grazing land with a tree-lined marshy pond — in the spring of 1989. They started raising Yorkshire-Landres pigs and Simmental-Angus cows in their first year, establishing some makeshift pens outside as there was no barn on the property. The couple set to work establishing infrastructure on their new home, including the barn and the house they now live in, which Andrew built using 100-year-old lumber from old buildings that he, his father and brother tore down. The following spring they purchased their first four cows and built their herd from there.

For years they grazed their cattle conventionally and were feeding cows early in the fall using up all of their winter rations early. In 2007, the Grifts were able to take a holistic management course with Don Campbell, which they credit to improving their farm’s sustainability for the future. They began rotational grazing practices giving their pastures ideally 60 to 65 days of rest. Each paddock is between five and seven acres, and the cow-calf pairs are allowed to graze five to seven days before moving to another paddock. This gives the area time to recover before it is grazed again. They have increased their herd size to 50 and cattle are able to graze well into October on 130 acres of pasture divided into 15 paddocks.

Then the cows bale graze on the pastures to further fertilize and add biomass to the soil. From January to mid-April, the cows are confined during calving, because they have very little natural protection from the elements. Then they are once again put out to pasture to bale graze until the grass is ready.

The biodiversity and volume of forage of the land is remarkable. Their animals are being used as tools to increase the fertility and therefore the carrying capacity of the pastures. The image of the stand of plants above the ground is mirrored below ground level with its root system, so the taller the plant the deeper the roots reach for moisture and nutrients. Moisture is retained because the soil acts like a giant sponge rather than it running off.

The farm is located near lowland areas which are sensitive. The area around the lake has been fenced off from the cows to protect it, but they have found that foxtail is becoming a problem. However, in another low area they grazed the cattle and have found with timely grazing, the cattle can control the foxtail. So they decided to try putting the sheep on the lakefront to control the foxtail since their hoof action is not as detrimental to the area as the cows. The chickens are controlling the growth of weeds in the yard by adding nutrients to boost the growth of the grass so weeds have difficulty competing.

Andrew and Corinne also had tried their hand at organic production, but have since let their certification go. They do however, continue to use organic practices and what they have learned to improve the land. Alfalfa is turned under as green manure rather than spraying it out, which is a healthy alternative to sprays and overuse of fertilizer.

Windy Lake Farm views land as a precious resource. They recognize that a lot of damage can occur in a short time but it can take years to repair. Conservation and proper land use are very important to the Grifts so with their sustainable practices, they are hoping to bring the land back to a rich, productive state without the excessive use of chemicals.

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