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Grass farming suits this environmentally sensitive area of the country

Environmental stewardship is a family affair on the Simonson ranch in the Missouri Coteau south of Dinsmore, Sask., where Daryk, Bonnie and their children, Denae, Karmen and Shae, ranch with Daryk’s parents, Elmer and Faye. The family was the recipient of Saskatchewan’s 2009 Environmental Stewardship Award.

Daryk and Bonnie are the fourth generation on the family farm that began as a one-quarter section homesteaded by his great grandfather in 1913. The area has never been known as cattle country.

Elmer and Faye reintroduced cattle to the farm in the early 1990s, when they sowed 400 acres of cropland to mixtures of crested wheat-alfalfa-intermediate B wheatgrass and smooth brome-alfalfa, then cross-fenced the area into 50-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. The combination of beef and forage helped to diversify farm income and made better use of these fields with steep slopes, potholes and lots of rocks.

In 1994, Daryk and Bonnie purchased 10 quarters, 400 acres of which was still native grass. The remainder was rocky, hilly, light farmland. Within three years they knew they preferred ranching to grain farming and initiated a plan to convert 900 acres to perennial forages.

Though both of them studied agriculture at university, they have never hesitated to tap resources of organizations that could help them design the best pasture system for their specific location. Through the years they have worked with Ducks Unlimited, the provincial department of agriculture, Saskatchewan Wetlands Corporation, Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration and the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority to develop their ranch and management strategy.

They strategically selected forage mixes based on their annual growth cycles and planted them according to where and when they could be grazed at the proper stage of maturity. Turnout is about May 1 on the crested wheat-alfalfa mix paddocks, moving to the meadow brome-alfalfa mix paddocks as summer progresses. The native grass paddocks are grazed only once each year as late in the season as possible, which could be anytime from August to October. They continue to research forage options with an eye on adding later-maturing varieties that hold their nutritional value for late summer and fall grazing, such as cicer milkvetch and Russian wild ryegrass.

Despite the many challenges facing the industry since 2003, the Simonsons have picked up another 12 quarters of land giving them a base of 4,600 acres of tame forages and 900 acres of native grass on 42 quarters. Two-strand electric wire divides the land into paddocks ranging in size from 30 to 160 acres, which are grazed or hayed as the weather and rotation dictates.

They grow their own oats and barley on one quarter and 750 acres are reserved for annual forages for swath grazing. They have tried millet but prefer the smooth-awned forage barley AC Ranger.

Bale grazing has been a learn-as-they-go project throughout the past three winters. Now that they’ve tried it, Daryk says he couldn’t be convinced not to bale graze. They are observing positive returns to the pastures with increased litter cover, improved water retention and nutrient replacement.

The breeding herd has grown from 90 head in 1994 to 600 females. They also graze yearlings to total about 700 head each summer. Just last year they’ve started looking at downsizing the cow herd and grazing more yearlings. This would give them more flexibility to increase or decrease their herd size to better match forage production from year to year because it’s easier to buy in and out of yearlings than cow-calf pairs. Overall, it would reduce the amount of hay they have to purchase.

The ability to efficiently handle drought conditions is one of the keys to the ranch’s longevity. Typically, the area receives five to six inches of rain through the growing season and a foot of snow cover during the winter. Traditionally, they have relied on runoff and pasture dugouts for stock watering in the summer and snow during the winter.

The dry years at the turn of this century made them realize just how vulnerable their growing beef operation had become. In the spring of 2002, they made a long-term investment in the future of their ranch by installing 10 miles of shallow pipeline running from the well in the farmyard to 17 watering sites. It is a low-flow pipeline with 2,600 gallons of portable water storage. The pipeline gives their grazing system a lot more flexibility and opens up options for future pasture and herd expansions, Bonnie adds.

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