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Restoring depleted soils with cattle

Adding grazing back into the equation increases soil organic matter, doubles forage production

Michael Thiele’s mission today is to acquaint more farmers and ranchers with a holistic view of agriculture.

Thiele grew up on a farm west of Dauphin, Man., just north of Riding Mountain National Park. His father had a small grain farm and a few cows.

“We were busy trying to farm and make a living and like all the other farmers around us, we were creating a monoculture of grain crops — mostly wheat, canola, oats and barley,” says Thiele.

“When I went to university, I thought soil was simply dirt,” he says. People didn’t realize how alive soil is, teeming with life and activity, and how much we depend on a healthy soil system. Now Thiele is trying to help producers understand that the way we farmed created unhealthy soil.

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In his part of Manitoba there were rich, fertile soils with 10 to 14 per cent organic matter. “But those soils are now between two and four per cent. We’ve made withdrawals from the soil carbon ‘bank’ for the past 100 years, not realizing that we’ve been robbing the soil in order to make money farming.

“Now we have some soils that are highly depleted, and it is difficult to grow a crop without adding NPK every year,” he says. This is partly because we have removed grazing animals on soils formed by thousands of years of grazing, he adds.

Managing grazing to rebuild soil

Thiele has been involved in several grazing clubs, encouraging better grazing management. He’s been working on grazing studies, demonstrating how short grazing periods, long recovery periods and higher stock density can create amazing results.

One of those studies focuses on a depleted pasture that had been farmed for many decades and then owned by the Brandon research station and used for plot work. It was later sold to a local farmer who put it into hay.

“He grew hay for seven years and then started grazing — the land was highly depleted. For our project, we just changed the grazing management over the past three years and monitored organic matter, soil biology, nutrients, forage quality, water infiltration, profitability, even bird species.”

Thiele helped spearhead the three-year project with the farmer, Brian Harper of Circle H Farms, using high-density grazing, short grazing periods and adequate recovery before grazing again.

“On average, we are now pumping 7.5 tons of carbon per acre per year into the soil measuring down to 40 centimetres,” Thiele says. The total biomass of bacteria, fungi and protozoa are increasing, and the fungi-to-bacteria ratio is closer to 1:1.

He has before and after photos of some of the results. The before photo (below) shows worn pasture with short grass and plenty of dandelions. After three years of intensive grazing management, with higher stock density and longer rest periods, the grass is past the cow’s bellies (photo at top of page).

The same pasture before three years of intensive grazing.
photo: Michael Thiele

“We’ve doubled forage production, improved forage quality and we’ve doubled the pounds of beef per acre,” he says

Growing and leaving behind forage benefits wildlife, too, Thiele says. The number of bird species has increased in the last three years.

“We have turned the system around in a short time, and all we did was change how we managed cows,” says Thiele.

“We are growing more grass, improving the soil, making more money. It’s like buying the quarter section next door, without having to actually buy it. Proper grazing enables us to produce more on the same acreage.”

This type of management also solves big problems. “If we can get the 40 per cent of the world’s land base that’s degraded and dysfunctional working again, we can pump a huge amount of carbon back into the soil. We often talk about the problems, without a solution. The solution is regenerative agriculture but very few people know it yet. The solution for conservation, and for holistic management, is regenerative ag,” he says.

Being sustainable just means holding the line, says Thiele. The goal should be to improve.

“Conserving by itself is almost like admitting defeat, trying to hold onto the last little remnants of something. It’s not the answer, but it’s hard to say this to organizations that are only trying to conserve something,” he says.

Grazing clubs in Manitoba

Manitoba’s grazing clubs aren’t really clubs, Thiele says. There’s no president or treasurer, he adds.

“It’s just a group of like-minded producers who get together to talk about what they are doing, and organize events,” Thiele says. “There’s always a new person or two who shows up, but mostly just the regulars. We have workshops in the winter in a local hall in different locations around the area, and the ladies provide a nice lunch.”

He invites speakers to talk about various things, such as new ideas, cows and grass, regenerative ag, soil and soil health. For example, during a March 2018 meeting at Pipestone, Man., one of the speakers was holistic management educator Blain Hjertaas. Hjertaas told the crowd that farmers have the key to solving climate change by changing how they farm. Ground should never be left bare, with nothing growing, he added. Conventional annual cropping leaves gaps in early spring and in the fall after harvest where nothing is growing, wasting solar energy.

Instead, Hjertaas suggested that farmers use cover crops, intercrops and mob grazing to help the soil. Having green cover for a longer time can maximize the time for plants to photosynthesize, taking carbon dioxide out of the air and converting it to carbon as they grow. The plants pump the carbon into the soil to feed soil biology and rebuild soil organic matter.

Grazing animals have been the key to many regenerative agriculture success stories. Large-scale agriculture is increasingly specialized and big grain farms typically have not integrated livestock into crop management systems. Advocates for regenerative agriculture counter this reluctance with the idea that beef and grain producers could team up. A large opportunity exists for grain and livestock farmers to work together to benefit both farms.

Hjertaas suggested that a co-operative cattle herd, purchased by outside investors, might be a novel solution to that problem. This large pool of cattle could be managed by a group of existing cattle producers who have the knowledge to run the cattle. The cattle would be used on grain farms whose owners want to improve soil health with cover crops or rotational crops that could be grazed. Revenue from cattle that are fed and sold through the program would then be shared between the grain farmers, cattle operators and the investors involved with the co-operative.

These are the kinds of ideas that get talked about during the winter workshops Thiele is involved in. During the summer, the grazing club tours farms that are doing good work and looks at the reasons things are working.

“In agriculture, everything boils down to what you believe. We all have different versions of truth,” says Thiele. “What I believe now is that we’ve tried to tell a very simple story about a complex subject — farming — and we’ve left out a lot of chapters that are very important.”

Soil health is one of those missing chapters, Thiele says. “Modern agriculture has focused on soil chemistry with little mention of the importance of healthy soil or understanding that soil is alive. We were completely missing the role of soil biology.”

We need to be talking about the mineral cycles and soil biology, he adds, and understanding that the plant and soil are one.

Thiele acknowledges that many producers don’t want to move cows in an intensive rotation system with higher stock density. But he says it’s the best paid work they can do.

“I find human nature interesting. Increased profit isn’t motivating enough for people to change. Change is difficult and frightening, and existing ideas are powerful. The dominant paradigm is very hard to break free from,” he says. “The fact that this kind of change would make more money doesn’t help them deal with the uncertainties of change.”

What’s needed, says Thiele, are innovators and early adopters who will try it, despite what neighbours might think. Things are changing, one farmer at a time, he adds.

“It’s actually happening very fast, but starting small means that it’s going to take time. Even if we increase 500 per cent a year, it’s going to take a while, but this kind of education is gaining momentum and we are hopeful.”

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