Mentorship program leads Manitoba producer to regenerative ag

After participating in the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program, Brett McRae rejigged his mixed farm to abide by the five principles of soil health

Brett McRae and his wife Chantel on the farm in southwestern Manitoba.

Brett McRae is a fifth-generation rancher in southwest Manitoba, near Brandon, but not the fifth generation on the same ranch.

“I was born and raised here and my parents are still actively farming. I farm next to them; we farm separately but share equipment, labour, facilities and ideas. It’s the best of both worlds; we each do our own thing but we also can share experience or new ideas,” he says.

McRae and his fiancé Chantel were married in July at the original McRae homestead where his great-great-grandfather started ranching.

Growing up, McRae’s family had purebred Angus and Simmental. “We had a conventional purebred operation — calving in January/February, selling yearling bulls and putting up our own hay and silage.

“In 2014 I was lucky enough to get selected for the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program and was paired with Steve Kenyon as my mentor. That was the start of my path to regenerative agriculture and my introduction to holistic management, ranching for profit, etc. Steve’s three recommendations were that I should take his school for year-round grazing, and the Ranching for Profit course and read Allan Savory’s holistic management book. These opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

McRae lists Steve Kenyon, Jim Gerrish, and Burke Teichert as major influences on his cattle operation. Dwayne Beck of Dakota Lakes Research Station and Paul Jasa of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been the biggest influences on his grain farming methods.

The cattle

McRae has 50 purebred Angus cows that calve from May to early June. He also sells two-year-old bulls.

His cows graze most of the year, and when they are not at pasture they are bale grazing. “This is a huge saving on feed costs.”

The biggest change was moving the calving season. “It came with some challenges but I did that to match the cattle to the forage cycle and there have been a lot of secondary benefits that came along with it,” McRae says.

Cash flow was a challenge, as going from selling yearling bulls to two-year-olds meant skipping a year of income. But he feels he has a much better product for his customers. The two-year-old bulls are much more ready than a yearling and don’t need to be pushed to be big enough and mature enough to breed cows.

“I can grow these bulls slowly, with more time to cull the ones that aren’t going to fit. And since they are older, semen testing is much less of an issue,” he explains.

After three years of selling older bulls instead of yearlings, customers are starting to appreciate this and are willing to pay more for the older bulls.

The bull sale is always the second Wednesday in March. He and his parents sell their bulls at the same time and he also sells some bred heifers.

“My cows are intensively rotation-grazed. Jim Gerrish has been a big influence on my grazing system. I try to graze each pasture about 2.5 times per year — twice during growing season and once during the dormant season. Rotations are quick in the spring when grass is growing fast, and then slower during summer; I try to stockpile enough to have some grazing left for after freezeup, along with a little stockpiled forage for the next spring,” he says.

During winter, cows are on cornfields.

“Last year I custom-grazed corn with 50 of my cows plus another 250 cows custom grazing. When I figured gross margins for my crop acres, the corn was my best-producing, highest-margin crop,” McRae says. “It’s hard to feed a cow in Manitoba very cheaply. I was charging my customer $2.25 per head per day. When you compare that to the cost of dry-lotting a cow here, it’s pretty good.”

Rotational grazing

With a little preplanning on how fences and fields are laid out, with the electric fence technology available today, rotating cattle is easy.

McRae bale grazes after spring breakup, which makes it easier to feed during calving and avoids the mess of corn grazing at that time of year. photo: Supplied by Brett McRae

“If the fields are set up right, it is very easy to strip graze as little as one acre per day.” Fences can be moved quickly and efficiently.

“An idea I learned from Jim Gerrish was building an acre-counter into the fence system — using parallel corridors with specific post spacing. It’s easy to divide these by acres. It works well with custom-grazed cattle because I can just go ahead of them and count fence posts and can tell the owners that in about 20 days they will have this pasture grazed,” McRae says.

McRae bale grazes “a little differently than most folks,” he says.

“I generally graze corn in winter and save bale grazing for spring breakup (at) the end of March — basically April and May when the frost is coming out and the ground is soft and muddy. Corn grazing at that time makes a mess.”

Much of McRae’s land is tight clay with saline seeps, and some pastures barely grow any forage, he says. “So I started bale grazing there during calving, putting bales in those areas when the land is dry enough. During calving this makes things easy. Cows are in that small area with bales, with lots of feed in front of them, and leaving all the nutrients where I want them. It makes chores during calving very simple. It takes only 10 minutes to move a fence, every second or third day,” says McRae.

Bale grazing has also made “a huge difference” in that paddock, he adds.

“There’s at least three times the forage out there now than before.”

Growing crops

Last year he was selected for the General Mills Regenerative Ag pilot program.

“It’s a three-year program. They initially look at all aspects of the farm, including soil tests and ecological-indicator tests, to see where I’m starting. They will monitor the soil for three years, then take another bunch of tests to see where we’ve taken the soil in terms of carbon content, organic matter, minerals, etc. They also look at bird and insect populations and every aspect of each field — the whole picture,” says McRae.

Since 2016 he’s aimed for a regenerative goal using the five soil health principles: low soil disturbance, covering the soil, keeping a living root as long as possible, a diverse rotation and having cattle on the cropland.

“This is the first year I’ve gone 100 per cent low disturbance, low till, with a disk drill, and so far I like what I’ve seen. With the General Mills program I’m also getting mentorship and looking at how we can make the whole system work.”

Long-term McRae wants to follow the five soil health principles as closely as possible.

“Dwayne Beck said look at your grasslands — they are mostly grass with a few broadleaf plants. A cropping system should be the same.”

The rotation McRae is planning starts with two years of corn for grazing, inter-seeded with various cover crop species. That will be followed by a year of a broadleaf (usually canola), followed by two years of cool-season grass, such as wheat, oats or forage grasses for seed production. He’ll finish with a year of a warm-season broadleaf such as soybeans. That rotation gives him herbicide options and a species-diverse rotation.

The rotation ends up being two-thirds grass with high-carbon species, and one-third broadleaf lower-carbon species. Corn and wheat residue or forage grass residue can be grazed, for the necessary animal impact, hopefully three or four years out of six. This helps the soil, cycles the nutrients and provides more grazing — a win-win with everything working together.

Last year McRae built his own interseeder. He started with a row-crop cultivator, removed the cultivator shovels and added on disc openers (the fertilizer openers off a corn planter). He then hooked an old Valmar (gandy box) to it.

“This enables me to seed in between the rows of corn. My corn is custom-planted by a 16-row planter and with this eight-row interseeder, I can follow the same planter tracks and seed between the rows. I try to plant a diverse mix, with several different seed blends each year. Last year I spread my seeding over five weeks to see when the best timing might be, using a couple different blends to see which species seem to work,” he says. Planting right after the second spray pass seems to work well.

“I have a 10-way blend this year, and a couple random bags of seed I’m going to try on about 80 acres. I’ll have two or three different trials and compare, to see what might work best in the future. Some species of interseeding or annual forages I know will work every time, and there are some others I want to try — in case something comes along that works really well. That’s how you learn,” he says.

Switching to managed grazing has been a big help, following the five soil health principles. Innovating has led to progress, but there have also been a few things that didn’t work.

“I’m not a big fan of broadcast seeding. If I had an irrigation pivot it might be a different story, but here on my ranch I’ve been disappointed in the results,” he says.

Future plans

There are several other things he’d like to try.

“I’d like to have more species on the farm like sheep, pigs, goats or chickens, but currently don’t have time to do it. If someone were to tell me they’d like to do that and didn’t have any land to do it, I would gladly work with them and even modify my own business to add this diversity and help them get started, to have more diversity of animals on the farm,” McRae says.

“Another thing I’ve wanted to try is backgrounding calves on corn. People graze cows on corn and it’s been proven to work, but I think there might be potential for calves and yearlings in the backgrounder stage. If you are feeding them silage, you have to haul it three times. You haul a wet, heavy product from the field to the pit, then from the pit to the bunk and from the bunk back out to the field, as manure. I wonder if it might be possible to background calves on corn and let them harvest their own feed.”

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