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Learning to grow more grass in Saskatchewan

Art McElroy has been farming in southern Saskatchewan, about 50 miles east of Alberta, since 1996. He started seeding some of the place back to grass in 1998. In 1999 he and his oldest son took the Ranching for Profit class as a home study course and started doing some rotational grazing. In 2005 he decided that the continuous cropping was not working, with the cost of machinery, fertilizer, etc.

“I realized we had to do something different, even though we had made some improvements with continuous cropping; we started to get some cover on the ground and the water infiltration rate had improved, breaking through the hardpan with the root systems.

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“When we first came here we had only one half of one per cent organic matter in the first soil tests. What this land actually started with, I have no idea, but the early farming efforts here had probably reduced the soil fertility,” says McElroy.

“There wasn’t enough organic matter for any biological life to live on. We began to think about the critters below the ground, versus the livestock above the ground. We realized that continuous cropping was better than half-and-half summer fallowing, but it would not get us to the place we needed to be in order to really begin to build soil organic matter and biological life in the soil.

“In 2006 my wife and I and one of our sons took a Holistic Resource Management course with Don and Bev Campbell here in Frontier. At that time we also decided we had to seed the entire place back to grass,” he says.

Along with their own cows, they started custom grazing, bringing in 1,200 yearlings from a neighbour. This helped add manure to the soil. In 2008 they started putting the 1,200 head on 2.7 acres for two to three hours, moving them up to six times a day.

“Don and Bev Campbell taught us financial planning, and how to balance our lives as a family, and how to look at grazing. We had done some rotational grazing, but not to the extent of what we are doing now. All of these things came together about the same time,” McElroy explains.

“We also decided we had to learn how to handle cattle properly. We’d been around livestock all our lives, but realized we had more to learn. I went to Texas twice with some of our children, to learn stockmanship from Bud Williams. Our place is divided by one-wire electric fences and we are moving them continually. This was one of the most incredible things we learned — how to teach animals to respond to pressure and release, and how to settle them in a pasture.”

When working with 1,200 head in such close contact, he says it didn’t take very long to get these animals settled. “They adapt very readily.”

One of the advantages to this region is that ranchers can usually winter graze seven or eight years out of 10. “With our own cow herd, we started trying to save some grass and winter graze. We did some swath grazing, and do some bale grazing when snow gets too deep. In 2003 I was calving cows in late March and into April and I’d go outside in the middle of the night when it was minus 29 C and I realized that if I can’t enjoy calving and it can’t be a blessing, then we are never going to do this again. That year the bulls didn’t get turned out until August 20. We decided to calve later, due to some of the inspiration from Dave Pratt and the Ranching for Profit course,” McElroy says.

“I also took Dick Givens’ low cost cow-calf seminar and he encouraged calving in sync with nature.

“All of these things were coming together, and in 2008 I went to Colorado and bought my first bull from Kit Pharo. We realized we had to downsize the frame on our cattle, plus we needed animals that were more adapted to surviving completely on forages — and doing it all on their own,” he says.

Today the farm has 150 cows with grass-based genetics. “They completely look after themselves.

“The only thing I might do differently now is add another species for grazing. For many years we were mono-cropping (which is not the best for the land and ecosystem) and now we are mono-grazing. If one of my children wants to come home to this place, another enterprise we could add to the livestock would be sheep or goats. I think this would continue to enhance what we are doing here now,” he says.

“Many things have come together in our lives the past 10 years that helped us change. I was 55 when the revelation came to me that the rate we were going in continuous cropping wasn’t sustainable. The quality of life since we made the change has been amazing. I can do as much as I want during the winter. In the summer we are quite busy, which is a wonderful time to be busy, but the winter is easy. We move a string of wire every day to graze cows, and keep 200 head of calves/yearlings around and they are coming and going with sell-buy marketing,” he says.

“We are grateful to be able to still do what we are doing, at this stage of our lives, and running the farm rather than the farm running us!”

“Every five years now we will do a test to see what kind of advances we are making in storing carbon in the ground — to see if we are really making progress,” he says.

“Right now the real progress we see with our grazing is probably due to the fact that many of these pastures are only grazed for two to three hours each year. They have a very long period of rest. Where my cows grazed this past year in February was grazed for three weeks in early May the year before, but it hadn’t been grazed at all the year before that. That piece of land had some bare ground on it so I let it grow the year before to produce seed. Then I put the big group of yearlings in it early in the spring when it was wet, to trample in seed from the previous fall, and to use up that grass. Then there were no more animals in there again until the first of December 2014, and then we rotated them through it,” McElroy says.

“We got five inches of rain late August-early September last year, which is unusual in this part of the world, to get fall rain. The flush of new seedling grass was phenomenal and it was hard to imagine that much new green grass. With the rain, the cool conditions and the amount of organic matter and litter, the grass flourished. We’ve grown so much seed over the past several years; some of this land goes to seed every year. Where we did have some bare ground, it will be interesting to see how this continues to fill in.” Grass has an amazing ability to spread and cover the bare spots if it has a chance.

“Some of the first grass I seeded was a monoculture of crested wheat. That was a mistake, but Neil Denis says you never make any mistakes; you just have a pile of learning experiences! When I still had my no-till disc drill, during the last years I was seeding grass, I went into that stand of crested wheat in early November and dormant-seeded alfalfa. Again, I probably should have added more species, like meadow brome, at the same time,” says McElroy.

“People told me I would never be able to get anything else to grow in a solid stand of crested wheat. But I figured I couldn’t make it any worse and decided to try it. Early the next spring, I put big groups of cattle in there and chewed that crested wheat right into the ground. That gave the alfalfa a chance to get going, and also increased the animal impact — not only fertilizing it but working some of that ground to get the alfalfa seed growing,” he explains. “Now that piece of ground actually has too much alfalfa growing on it!”

He has another piece of ground where he seeded Russian wild rye as the grass and cicer milkvetch as the legume. Again, I should have added four or five other species of grass, but last spring when the big groups of cattle grazed it, I broadcast seed from the back of my quad, seeding meadow brome and alfalfa on that piece to try to add more diversity. I’ll see how that turns out and whether it works. Some of these things you have to be patient with, but I’ve never had an absolute failure yet on any of these experiments.”

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