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Open Gate learning at Sunnybrae Acres a focus for local producers interested in Holistic Management

Holistic Management practices are becoming more popular amongst those in the cattle industry as pockets of knowledgeable individuals spread.
Holistic Management Field Day
A group of approximately 50 individuals attended an Open Gate Learning Day at Sunnybrae Acres, a ranch owned by Neil and Barbara Dennis who follow a Holistic Management plan.

                Holistic Management practices are becoming more popular amongst those in the cattle industry as pockets of knowledgeable individuals spread. As a way to further educate those in agriculture on Holistic Management practices an Open Gate Learning Day was held at Neil and Barbara Dennis’ ranch, Sunnybrae Acres, on Wednesday, July 22, in conjunction with Holistic Management International (HMI) and Holistic Management Canada as one of nine learning days.

What is Holistic Management?

                Essentially Holistic Management is focused on working with nature. This means integrating the Water Cycle, Mineral Cycle, Biological Community, and Energy Flow into the management of grazing cattle.

                “Nature functions as wholes,” Ralph Corcoran, one of the presenters, explained. “We ranch as a whole, if we can improve one thing it improves it all.”

                The idea of Holistic Management is to utilize pasture management in simulating how bison once roamed the prairies.

                “If we can mimic how the buffalo moved across the country; using fences to mimic the way coyotes would surround a herd and move across the country then we can improve the health of our pastures,” Corcoran said. “What we’re doing is just mimicking nature.”

                “If we take care of the land first, good things will happen. If we can plan for nature and still be profitable by leaving trees and sloughs, then we should so we can all share.”

                This is typically done by increasing the stock density on a particular piece of land allowing them to move across the field slowly. By doing this, cattle eat the full variety of vegetation then move on as a moveable fence is removed to allow them to expand their territory.

                The first paddock is then allowed to recuperate as the cattle move on through the pasture.

                Holistic Management also sees ranchers utilize their pastures earlier in the year.

                “We were out on the last day of March, but I know now I could have put them out on March 15,” Corcoran told the crowd.

                In fact many in the crowd shared their dates, saying they supplemented the pastures with bails, but that the bails were oftentimes barely touched as the cattle rooted through the snow for their food.

                The group also learned about the importance of plant diversity meaning a higher density of plants, increased growth time allowed for vegetation, and an increased total leaf area covering the ground. Each of these factors increases energy absorption by plants which in turn increases the amount of carbon dioxide they use in photosynthesis, while creating a healthier plant which produces a higher sugar content which is enjoyed by the cattle.

At Sunnybrae Acres

                During the field day the group visited different paddocks near Sunnybrae Acres homestead. Neil and Barbara Dennis, trace their land back to Neil’s grandfather who homesteaded to the area in 1900. Over the past 30 years Neil has been exploring different ways to make his land as productive as possible.

                Neil was once a purebred cattle and sheep producer, as well as a mixed farm operator, but as he began focusing on the health of the land in his care he is a success in Holistic Management having rejuvenated a pasture seeded in 1949 through high stock density and increased land recovery time. Through this he increased the biodiversity of a pasture that had once been a crested wheat crop to now boast nearly 40 varieties of plants, while increasing the land’s water infiltration. In return this has improved the mineral cycle and has improved soil carbon sequestration.

                Neil took the group out to what he called his worst pasture, where he was moving cattle – which only takes 15 minutes out of his day. Utilizing electric fences, Neil simply rolled up what had been dividing the pasture and the cattle happily moved themselves to their next paddock.

                “This is the poorest land I have,” Neil explained. “It was cropland and I’m now growing it back. There’s not much litter cover, but I’m growing it back and am trying to get the manure and urine dispersed evenly on it.”

                “I’m using higher stock density to turn it around quicker, but quality of life comes first.”

                When Neil first began increasing stock density, he was told that it wouldn’t be good for the cattle, but has found that they have become happier and healthier as a result of his changed practices.

                “We’ll soon see regrowth on this piece here, but because of the manure and urine they will stay on the new field and not come back this way, although if I were concerned I could put the fence back up,” he explained. “This will then get 80 to 100 days to recover.”

                Neil grazes his pastures taller, either while flowering which leads cattle to eat this portion of the plant making it grow back more lush or when the field has gone to seed because the cattle then pack the seed heads back into the pasture.

                “I have about 600,000 pounds of beef out here and I give them 10 acres every day,” he said.

                Following lunch the group was taken to a different field just east of the homestead.

                Everyone was surprised by the statement that the nearly waist high grass, though a monoculture pasture, had been grazed twice already. The land had a thick canopy covering it with rather thick ground litter, which helps keep the soil from drying out.

                While walking through the field, Blaine Hjertaas, a Certified Educator with Holistic Management International, drew attention to the difference of walking on the first field to walking on this one – the latter feeling much like walking on a soft carpet.

                “I’ve grazed this pasture twice already, and although I don’t want to, I will graze it a third time because it’s beside the house and I don’t want to be burnt out,” Neil added.

                Here Hjertaas took a shovel and uprooted a small area. The roots went deep and the soil aggregates were attached in clumps to the roots.

                “The plant is taking in the sunshine it captures and is turning it into sugar through photosynthesis, which feeds the fungi and bacteria,” Hjertaas said. “The fungi and bacteria then aid the plant in taking minerals out of the soil that they can’t usually process well.”

                “Glomalin is then produced which acts as superglue for soil aggregates and the deeper the roots go the deeper the carbon sequestration is occurring.”

                Back at the quonset, Hjertaas had set up an example of soil differences between cropland and Neil’s pastureland. Taking a small section pulled up with a shovel he placed a fist sized portion of soil from cropland on a grate in water as well as a fist sized portion of Neil’s pastureland soil. At the end of the day the cropland was no longer intact – it lay at the bottom of the jar – while very little of the pastureland eroded off of the fist sized chunk to settle in the bottom.

                Although he didn’t use non-Holistic Managed pastureland in the water test a portion was sitting out as an example next to portions of the other two examples that had been dug up. Neil’s pastureland had the deepest root structure out of the three and the best overall soil aggregate by sight comparison.

                Thus, Hjertaas said that in the event of a flood, Neil’s land would best stand up to erosion.

                The final pasture the group was taken to involve what was once a straight crested wheat field. Now the area boasts a large variety of vegetation, which assists in the energy capture which correlates to plant and soil health as has been described above.

                “Recovery is key and this is a success story,” Hjertaas said of the pasture which used to be a straight crested wheat field.

Concluding the day

                As the day came to an end the group was amazed by the difference shown and described throughout the day between conventional grazing practices and Holistic Management at the Dennis’ ranch.

                Hjertaas’ soil visualization was undeniable, while it is unlikely a pasture can be grazed three times in a year which Neil is planning to do on the one paddock.

                “My goal is to make the land better for my grandkids,” Neil explained. “When our grandfather’s came here the land easily broke for them and they were able to grow great crops in those first 40 or 50 years without putting anything back into the soil. We’ve been mining it for 100 years now though and it was time to start improving the land’s health.”