Farming The New Old Way

The beginning of the spring is always an exciting time. The world around us is finally starting to turn green after months of whites and browns. The birds are returning and new life is coming into the world everywhere that we look. We at Gateway Research Organization are preparing to seed the trials that we spent the winter planning. We are readying ourselves to prepare the heifer pasture for entry day. Farmers all around us are doing these things. Taking care of their animals, welcoming calves, piglets, lambs and kids into the world. Getting ready to move animals onto their seasonal pastures, or getting ready to plant seeds in the ground for the crops that will sustain the farm come harvest. Most farms in our area either concentrate their efforts in cropping, or their resources are dedicated to ranching. Is it possible to integrate the two and return to the mixed farming methods of our grandparents?

I think that when we speak of integrating livestock into crop systems, we need to first differentiate between a diversified system and an integrated system. In a diversified farming system we have a few, or many different profit centers, but they do not work together. This is a great way to ensure that during downturns in crop or cattle prices we have another farming enterprise to fall back on. There are a couple of drawbacks to a diversified system though. One of them is the fact that your time is now split between multiple enterprises. Equipment costs are generally higher as well, because quite often we will invest in separate pieces of equipment for each enterprise.

In an integrated system you can have the benefits of being diversified without as many of the drawbacks. In a cropping operation this may look like inter-cropping, so planting more than one crop type on the same field. This can be a combination of cash crops, or a cash crop with a cover crop. The intention being to provide benefits for the cash crop. We have a farmer near us that grows oats, peas and barley in the same field for livestock feed. This comes with great benefits, such as a reduction in pests, nitrogen fixation, an increase in organic matter, an increase in resource utilization caused by different roots and root depths, not to mention the increase in soil life. An inter-cropping system does require more management, planning and knowledge, but can have the same benefits as a diversified system with the additional perk of adding nutrients to the soil. I am definitely not an expert in inter-cropping, but find the concept very thought provoking. If we look at the way that nature works in the wild we never see plants growing in a mono-culture. There are poly-cultures everywhere that we look. Could we make inter-cropping work on a large scale and receive the benefits that come from the natural model?

Another integrated system that has been coming into play more often is a livestock integrated system. There has been so much talk about healthy soils in the last few years and with that has come a rise in popularity for practices such as bale grazing, swath grazing and silage grazing. One of the things that I love about integrating livestock into cropping systems is that it looks different on each farm. Because there is such a variety of animals and crop types, there is so much room for learning and growth in this area. First Nature Farms in northern Alberta even utilizes pigs in their organic cropping system.

Quite a number of farms in the province are doing swath grazing. On our farm we will sometimes bring our custom cattle to neighbours’ fields to swath graze salvage crops or crop residues. Doing this we not only get a decently priced feed for the animals, but the grain farmer receives an additional income from his crop, as well as the extra nitrogen and benefits that come from having animals on the land. I know of a number of farmers that swath graze their own animals with success on their own land. You do need to plan out a swath grazing field, and have a plan for weather that does not want to cooperate. Some areas in Alberta definitely work better for this grazing system than others; as things like snow cover, rapid thaw and freeze cycles and access to water can play a big part in the success of swath grazing.

Bale grazing has also become quite popular in recent years. This method of livestock integration is incredibly beneficial to hay land and very economical. The biggest issue with it that I have seen is sourcing enough cattle to cover a large number of acres.We see the effects of bale grazing on our land for years after feeding on it. This is a fantastic way to give a nitrogen boost to that hay land that is starting to fade, or those pastures that are just not doing as well as you would like.

There are many new developments happening with integrated systems. Here at GRO we are excited to be trialing Kernza (perennial wheat) and ACE-1 perennial rye, which could eventually be a very economical way to get both a cash crop from your land, a forage for grazing or haying, and best of all you would not need to reseed it the next year.

With people trying different integrated systems all of the time, there seems to be a constant stream of new ideas and information coming out about these farming systems. Is it possible to return to a mixed farm system and stay profitable in our current agricultural society? I definitely think so, and I think that it’s absolutely necessary if we want to be not only sustainable, but regenerative. It will just take us producers stepping outside of our comfort zone to try something new. Every one of the farmers that I know are incredibly hardy, resourceful people. Let’s use that resourcefulness to try a new practice out on a small plot of land. If you have any ideas that you think would make for a good trial, GRO is always open to new ideas as well and would love to hear them. We look forward to hearing from you!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization