Winter grazing not just about winter

Regenerative grazing key to year-round pasture management

Whenever Steve Kenyon gives a presentation on year-round grazing systems, producers immediately think only of winter grazing.

Bale grazing, swath grazing, crop residue grazing — Kenyon knows that producers who graze their cattle over winter love to talk about these things.

But he cautions that, despite their importance, these methods are only a small part of what makes up a year-round grazing strategy.

“Bale grazing is a form of feeding but we’re using a grazing mentality,” Kenyon said during a recent video presentation. “We’re bringing in feed and using a grazing mentality to graze through it. But it’s only a quarter of our year-round grazing plan. If we’re going to build a system, we’ve got to think about 12 months of the year.

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“If I can manage that well, that’s the majority of my year and the majority of my business.”

Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd., a 3,500-acre custom grazing operation near Busby, Alberta. He made the remarks in his presentation to the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s online annual conference November 18-19.

To prove the point, Kenyon took his viewers on a virtual tour of his operation northwest of Edmonton to demonstrate “regenerative agriculture” — growing soil from plants instead of the other way round.

Kenyon outlined five grazing principles based on using plants to build up the soil on his ranch.

• Water cycle — Kenyon says civilizations throughout history collapsed because their agricultural systems failed when they did not practise proper water management.

“We need to start managing our water better,” he said. “Our biggest challenge in agriculture is to create a positive water cycle.”

Kenyon said much of modern agriculture has a “broken water cycle” which leads to periodic droughts and flooding. As a prime example, he cited draining wetlands and riparian areas. Instead of draining these areas and later spending millions of taxpayer dollars on flood management, Kenyon advocates reducing run-off, limiting evaporation, slowing down infiltration and building a soil structure that retains water like a sponge to encourage plant growth — critical for good pasture management.

• Sunlight harvesting — Growing plants need to get as much sunlight as possible to thrive. Kenyon’s farm has a growing season of only 4.5 months, so he needs to get as much out of that time as possible. He knows he can’t lengthen the growing season, so he tries to get an early start in spring. Cold soils can hold back plant growth, so Kenyon wants his soils well insulated in winter so they warm up faster in spring. That means pastures need lots of surface residue from healthy plants that are not overgrazed. It also means keeping plants in an optimal state of growth during most of the season. Good water management improves soil moisture retention and produces a “soil armour” for resilience against drought.

• Recycling nutrients — Kenyon says much of modern agriculture, especially grain production, “exports” nutrients during the growing season and then “imports” them back in the form of synthetic fertilizer. Developing an effective grazing system requires producers to recycle nutrients so they don’t have to import any. This is where livestock play an important role. Kenyon says cattle are 80 per cent inefficient — most of their food intake goes out the back end as manure and urine. Thus, nutrients taken out of the soil in the form of plants are recycled and help restore the nutrient cycle.

“If you don’t have the nitrogen in the soil, it’s because the cycle is broken,” said Kenyon.

• Building biology — Kenyon argues that most agricultural soils do not have a fertility issue so much as they have a biological issue. He means a lack of soil organisms: earthworms, dung beetles, microbes, nematodes, fungi and bacteria. Kenyon calls them “very important employees in my operation” because they help break up the complex substances in decaying plants so living plants can use them.

• Polyculture of plants — Kenyon notes that modern agriculture is largely monoculture: growing a single crop or variety in a field or a farming system. A field of wheat with straight rows and no weeds may look nice but that’s not the way nature works. A polyculture, where more than one crop is grown in the same space at the same time, produces a number of root systems and better soil biology. For that reason, Kenyon doesn’t mind some weeds in a field because they add to plant diversity.

In addition to these five grazing principles, Kenyon adds five concepts for regenerative grazing.

  • Graze period — Make it short enough so plants are not grazed down. Don’t overgraze pastures or paddocks. Get animals off the field sooner so plants can regrow and regenerate.
  • A long enough rest period — Make sure plants’ root systems and energy stores are fully recovered before they’re grazed again.
  • Animal impact — Kenyon believes physical stimulation on the soil by animals’ hoofs and manure produces a “symbiotic relationship” between the biology of herbivores and biology in the soil. You don’t get that effect from a tractor and a set of harrows.
  • Stock density — Keep the number of animals on a piece of land high enough to get all the plants grazed, not just the good ones. This gives all plants the same playing field on which to grow. A higher stock density also distributes manure more evenly throughout the field instead of concentrating it at certain locations, such as around water holes and trees.
  • Building soil armour — Kenyon likens soil armour to skin on a body. It’s an external surface that protects all the internal processes.

The bottom line is that if you want to winter graze successfully, it’s not all about winter. It’s about managing the whole system year round, following the strategies described above, Kenyon says.

“I’ve been able to graze well into November, December, sometimes January just with good grazing management in the summer.

“That saves me a lot of dollars if I’m not having to buy feed, bring it in and use labour and equipment to feed those animals when they can feed themselves.”

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