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Prairie farmers adopt holistic farm management

Holistic management places emphasis on family and relationships, as well as agriculture.

McCORD, Sask. — A recent holistic management tour in McCord, Sask., attracted farmers from across the Prairies to learn what it might do for their farms.

The tour, held June 24-26, drew 75 people, who stayed the three days. It included some farmers from Alberta and a large family from eastern Manitoba. The kids had their own program, where they learned about plant sugars, diversity and soil health.

Calvin Gavelin, Adrien Lanoie, Ralph Corcoran, Bluesette Campbell and Avery Shepherd spoke about their success using holistic management, which places emphasis on family and relationships, as well as agriculture.

Cover crops

Using holistic management methods, Gavelin has increased his cattle feed production, even with the intense drought they’ve dealt with the past two years.

Using cover cropping, mixed intercropping, soil management and planned grazing, he has proved doubters wrong and hoped to make more believers when the bus dropped the group off in his pasture and fields.

“All I’ve heard the last five years of me doing this, is ‘it doesn’t work,’” said Gavelin, who has seeded numerous variations of cover crops the last five years.

He said people have told him that certain plants he is using won’t grow in southern Saskatchewan, that others are wet plants and won’t grow in dry conditions, for example.

Saskatchewan Agriculture organic specialist Dunling Wong was just one person he made a believer. Gaveline took him and now retired cover crop and forage specialist Terry Kowalchuk out to his cover crop last fall.

The Prairies were mired in drought and there was hardly plant growth anywhere. Gavelin said he struggled to get the specialists out to look, but when he finally dragged them to his farm, they were shocked.

“Wong crawled out of the vehicle and leaned against it. I said, ‘now what do you see?’ And he said, ‘this is an oasis in the middle of a desert,’ ” said Gavelin.

A cover crop with a variation of 16 vastly different species, many of which aren’t typically grown in Saskatchewan, stood tall in an otherwise ghastly scene for crops in the area.

Wong couldn’t recall his exact reaction when asked about his experience, but did say he was impressed.

“It was a strange thing,” said Wong. “I think it was great in such a dry year, the cover crops grow so well.”

Gavelin fed 200 head of cattle off an 88-acre plot of land for five and a half weeks. He spent around $45 an acre to seed it and added no fertilizer.

Wong suggested that Gavelin seed a bit later, which allowed the seeds to sit dormant in the ground until a later rainfall germinated the seed. Earlier-seeded crops germinated and had died already. As well, he seeded a quarter to a half-inch deep.

According to Gavelin, the crop was put in June 3, and had five millimetres of rain June 5 for it to germinate. He said it held enough moisture and survived until the August rains came about.

“Cover crops help with soil retention by helping build organic matter,” said Avery Shepherd from Imperial Seeds. “Most of your organic matter is built through root exudates (a variety of molecules released by the plant into the soil).”

Shepherd uses cover cropping with his bison and has found success.

“We’re getting more and more guys every year,” said Shepherd. “I’d say 80 to 90 percent of people that try it continue on with it.”

He said that in “a perfect world” mono-crops will often outperform poly-crops. However, how often is the crop growing in a perfect world?

Wong said he and Kowalchuk visited an organic farm near Gavelin’s that plants multiple cover crops as well, and believed an earlier seed date might have caused them to noticeably underperform Gavelin’s.

Increasing feed supplies is only one of the benefits to cover cropping, according to Gavelin and Shepherd.

The seed blends Shepherd and Imperial Seeds make are custom fitted to the field and purpose. Each plant helps the other, transferring water and nutrients between and through each other.

“Grass can actually transfer phosphorus to the legume and the legume can transfer nitrogen to the grass,” said Shepherd, “just like the internet transforms information for us simultaneously.”

Cattle feeding off the crop benefits the soil, putting the nutrients straight back into the soil after it is eaten but the cows also see noticeable benefits too.

Both Gavelin and Wong said the mixture of feed improves their health as well.

“What I never expected and what I learned afterward, there was a super ovulation with the cow herd because of the abundance of nutrients,” said Gavelin. “So, when we preg-checked on Sept. 30 … the cows that were on that cover crop and grazed it, we had 97 percent conception, and on those open replacement heifers, we had 95 percent conception.

“The math is just mind-blowing, the potential.”

So why do farmers in the area seem hesitant about using cover-cropping for feed?

Gavelin’s wife Marla Gavelin said she had the answer.

“Most people are so used to seeing monoculture plant growth,” she said. “Often it’s only one species of grass in the prairies, especially where ag has always been for as long as any of us can remember.

“They don’t realize all of those plants are working together to create a much better environment for the other. I think that’s why they can’t get their heads around it. They just simply don’t see it.”

Calvin said he hoped that more people will come to see it soon. He said he’s invited universities and research centres to come see his cover crops.

Pasture planning

Adrien Lanoie practises holistic management as well, but in a different way.

The McCord holistic management tour first stopped at Lanoie’s farm near St. Victor, Sask., to get an understanding of his practices.

But it was actually his fiancée, Cheryl Hepworth, that got him started on the idea.

“She had taken the course in 2005 with Don Campbell, so at dinners and different time we’d be talking and I got interested in it,” said Lanoie.

“In January of ’18 she remembered a lot more. We found the course and took the Holistic Management training on Feb. 14, 2018.”

Lanoie runs about 150 cow-calf pairs and some grain acres, and he seeded one quarter to diverse cover crops and multiple to mixed crops to be separated this year.

However, the tour was focused largely on his grass management techniques. He said he has more than doubled his grass production by using holistic management.

“We’re doing the planned grazing, but we’re also bale grazing on those paddocks,” said Lanoie, “so over the years we’ve had between 600 and 900 bales put out.”

Lanoie has about 34 paddocks for his cattle to graze, leaving them in each one for no more than three days to prevent the overgrazing of his pasture land.

“Like you saw, we moved cows after three days and there was still like five, six inches of native grass left we were leaving behind,” said Lanoie. “That grass gets to re-establish without taking it right to the ground.”

Ralph Corcoran, a cattle producer near Moosomin, Sask., who was on the tour as the holistic management educator, has been practising planned grazing for about 20 years.

“It doubled the production and we added cows, we kept adding cows. Even to this day, I don’t know how many cows my land can graze.”

Corcoran moves his 250 head every day to keep his pastures fresh.

As for bale grazing, rather than having the cows feed nearby, he keeps them in those same paddocks for winter, placing 20 to 30 bales in each one.

This creates a windbreak, traps snow for the grass to get started next year and allows the cows to put the nutrients into the soil with the manure.

“We put all the bales out there in the fall so you don’t have to start a tractor all winter,” said Lanoie.

He said he probably gets funny looks from neighbours and farmers nearby when he’s seen bringing the bales back out into fields rather than pulling them off, but he trusts the process.

“The holistic management part has greatly benefited my farm,” said Lanoie. “We’re running around 150 cows on four quarters of land that we were only running about 80 on.

“Now the grass is amazing because it goes to seed and reaches its full potential every year.”

Both Lanoie and Corcoran emphasized how stress-free their lives have become since making the switch. Moving cows every day might seem like a chore, but they’ve found it’s been more relaxing.

“The stress disappears,” said Corcoran. “We’ll call it stress or mental health, but the stress disappeared in my animals. Very seldom I have a sick animal. I don’t treat anything anymore.”

Lanoie said moving the cows allows him to easily check them, especially because they all move through under the same spot in the fence.

During winter, they can relax knowing the bales are in their field and the cows are fed.

“The quality of life that we’ve got right now is amazing,” said Lanoie. “We get to spend time with each other, with our kids and stuff like Christmas we can take off for a week somewhere and not worry about the cows.”

During the McCord holistic management tour, organizers made one thing clear: family and relationships are an important pillar of holistic management.

Bluesette Campbell, a mentor on the tour, focused her speech on succession planning and family support.

Lanoie and Gavelin said they couldn’t speak about their grass management or cover cropping without bringing up the importance of family.

While Campbell spoke to the adults in and around the tour about relationships and people, Corcoran spent his time educating the children who made the trip on the purpose of holistic management.

“They’re going to look at plants differently from now on,” said Corcoran. “They’re going to pull a plant out and look at its roots, they aren’t just going to throw it aside. When they get around eight years old, they get interested in that stuff.”

The children spent their time checking the sugar levels of plants with a refractometer, studied water infiltration into the soil, studied different tiny plants in the fields they visited and conducted other science projects along the way.

“The family was number one,” said Corcoran. “It’s a whole, everything works with the other.”

While Corcoran was spending his time with the kids, Campbell spoke to the adults about the importance of relationships.

“Most people have a tendency to neglect the people side of their farm or ranch and that’s probably the reason so many struggle,” said Campbell. “And then inter-generational transfer is so difficult because it hinges on those relationships.”

Her speech on the last day of the tour was to help farmers realize succession planning needs to be planned.

“Most transfers really struggle,” she said. “Often it ends up in homesteads, or family businesses being divided and no longer viable, or there’s just no means of creating successful transfers.

“So, I talked a bit about the process, that it’s overwhelming, seems daunting and a bit scary. But there are simple things to do, like having a family barbecue, which is a good start. It doesn’t have be ‘let’s bring in the accountants and lawyers and such.’”

Campbell and her family have practised holistic management for over 35 years, and credits it as a key reason they are still in business to this day.

“We run three times as many cows as this place used to, just by improving the land, creating more nutrients, dense vegetation. So, we’ve been able to increase our profits so we can support three families, not just one.”

She said tours like the one in McCord are crucial for relationship building, spending nearly three days with a bunch of people often in the same situations as you, but haven’t shared their story yet.

In fact, Corcoran made a connection of his own on the tour. He said the large family from eastern Manitoba asked him if they could stop at his farm in Moosomin, Sask., on the way home.

They stayed the night, took a pasture tour and created their own pasture plan before they headed home.

“I always say, I don’t need to help the whole community, even if I want to,” said Corcoran. “(I) just need to help one ranch at a time.”