Why is it that Ireland is called the emerald green isle and we are called muddy Manitoba when the annual rainfall in Ireland is 730 mm and in Manitoba it is only 440 mm?
The answer is quite straightforward. They have 80 per cent of their agricultural land (17 million acres) in managed forage crops, another 11 per cent in grazed native grass and only nine per cent of the land in annual crop production. Manitoba on the other hand has over 70 per cent of its land (16 million acres) in annual crops, only six per cent in managed forage crops and 24 per cent in grazed native grasses.
Look at the rainfall patterns. We get a lot of rain when we are hoping to seed an annual crop in May and June. We hate rain because it stops our intended production pattern. If we had most of our land in grass we would love a misty morning.
What do we do with all that grass? Cattle, sheep and even pigs and poultry can be grazed.
In Ireland the grass is eaten by 6.5 million cattle and 4.8 million sheep. Our cattle numbers are at about 1.5 million head and we have only 0.8 million sheep. We have concentrated our efforts in pig production with an average of 2.8 million head. Ireland also has pigs but not as many with an average herd of 1.8 million. We are similar in our poultry numbers: Manitoba 10 million, Ireland 13 million.
What are we going to do with all those cows? Yes, that will be
a marketing challenge. So, is there something else we can do? We could “perennialize” some of our traditional annual crops and plant them only once every five years.
Wes Jackson at the Land Institute ( www.landinstitute.org) is working on developing perennial versions of cereals, oilseeds and pulses in “natural systems” agriculture which has two predominant characteristics: perennial plants and mixtures of plants.
Doug Cattani, a recent hire at the University of Manitoba’s Plant Science department, is also taking up the perennial grains challenge. He is currently documenting the native perennial plants we already have and is looking to select some of them for domestic production.
Doug has also planted some perennial wheat and rye in Manitoba to confirm that it will overwinter and thrive here. There is a lot of breeding and selection that still needs to take place before any of these perennial plants become viable crops.
A jump from what we have now to Wes Jackson’s vision of agriculture is a huge leap that cannot be taken in one step. Perhaps adding more winter annuals and perennials to our rotations would be a first step. The question that will be asked and must be answered is, “Is this economically viable?”
A question to give us an incentive to think about “natural systems” agriculture is, “Is the current system economically viable?”
Gary Martens is a plant science instructor in the Faculty of
Agricultural and Food Sciences at the University of Manitoba.
Aquestiontogive usanincentiveto thinkabout“natural systems”agricultureis, “Isthecurrentsystem economicallyviable?”