A mindset of continual improvement led Ryan Boyd on an international adventure with benefits for his family’s farm upon returning home.
Boyd runs South Glanton Farms at Forrest, Man., with his wife, Sarah, and his parents, Jim and Joanne. He is passionate about implementing the principles of regenerative agriculture and the soil health movement, including livestock integration, into this mixed farm. The focus for their 300-head Black Angus herd has turned towards intensive grazing, but balancing the economics of integrating these methods into their operation has been tricky.
“That was a big motivation for me to apply for the Nuffield Scholarship, to be able to go out and learn how other people were making that work financially,” says Boyd, who received a scholarship from the Canadian Nuffield Agriculture Scholarship Association in 2019.
“To be able to put those pieces of the puzzle together, I think, is certainly part of the learning experience and one of the biggest benefits from the Nuffield experience.”
In 1943, British philanthropist William Morris, who held the title Lord Nuffield, established the Nuffield Foundation to advance agriculture through travel and study opportunity. The program was extended to a handful of Commonwealth countries, including Canada, in 1950. Today, Nuffield Canada awards scholarships that allow individuals in any sector of agriculture to embark on international travels designed for professional development.
Scholars are required to travel for 10 weeks minimum, focusing on a particular topic of study relating to their field and submitting a report of their findings upon completion.
Boyd’s travels as a Nuffield scholar took him to Australia, Brazil, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the U.S. He explored how farmers and ranchers in these countries integrate livestock grazing into cropping systems, make the most of their pastures and put it all together in a way that’s financially sustainable.
“It’s really a phenomenal program and it certainly had a profound impact on the way I look at agriculture,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities for Western Canada and Canada in general to learn from the experience of Canada’s Nuffield scholars.”
Boyd’s study topic, integrating grazing ruminants into Canadian farming systems, took into consideration how the soils of the Canadian Prairies evolved with the bison. While his travels provided examples of how producers around the world are doing this, the insight he feels had the biggest impact on his own grazing management came when he visited Jaime Elizondo, cattle and grazing manager of Living Web Farm at Crescent City, Florida. Elizondo uses an ultra-high stock density method he refers to as “total grazing,” in which large numbers of cattle graze one area at a time and are moved a few times each day.
“You can increase your stocking rate because of the better utilization of the forage, and then that regrowth from the forage is just incredible,” says Boyd.
“He’ll leave a long recovery period to let that regrow after the severe grazing, and the diversity just explodes, the life explodes and everything starts to function better. The landscape function is really improved.”
He’s found the most value in bringing this method home, prompting him to rethink conventional ideas on how much of the plant needs to be left after grazing for regrowth purposes.
“All the ancillary benefits of this high-density grazing — the even manure distribution, the hoof impact, the long recovery periods that allow the diversity to explode and the water to infiltrate and all this — largely outweigh this little bit of green leaf that we’d be leaving otherwise in a less-intense grazing scenario.”
Boyd and his family tried this approach on their farm last summer, using an automatic fence lifter that’s programmed to move throughout the day. They plan to continue adapting this method and experimenting with long recovery periods to see what works best for their pastures.
Throughout his travels, Boyd also explored the role of water management in these grazing and cropping systems, and seeing how precipitation is used in different landscapes offered ideas on how to do this on the Canadian Prairies.
“I think that we have a big opportunity to utilize much more of the precipitation in both rain and snow than we currently are doing here,” he says.
For example, Boyd visited a farm in New South Wales, Australia, that was originally landscaped by P.A. Yeomans, who developed the Keyline Scale of Relative Permanence. While this farm wasn’t actively using the principles promoted by Yeomans, it illustrated the original intent through hills that were sculpted to collect as much rainfall as possible, which could then be stored in ponds to be used later for flood irrigation
“We need to do everything we can to get all the water that falls as rainfall to soak in through the soil, where we can use it for crop growth and also to fill the water table back up so the plants can draw on that later.”
He also saw creative opportunities to make better use of the snow that blows off fields and pastures, generally drifting into ditches and windbreaks.
“In the U.K. I visited with a fellow that had rows of apple trees planted, and then he was growing his crops in between,” he says. “I think we have some opportunity to do a better job of capturing that snow out on the field and using that snow as a source of water to infiltrate later in the spring to grow some crops with.”
Insights into trials, genetic selection
As the ability to balance the economic feasibility of implementing new practices tied into each of these lessons, an Australian contact suggested that Boyd set up “safe-to-fail” trials when experimenting with new methods.
“Do it in a way that you’re safe to fail, but in a way that you can really test these new hypotheses or new ideas to see just how you are going to be able to make them work, if they will work on your farm, in your environment and in your own context.”
In order to support the changes to their grazing program based on these lessons, Boyd reports that his family is considering changes to supplementing their females on pasture to ensure their performance isn’t negatively affected by non-selective grazing. Selecting the right genetics for their breeding program is another part of putting this all together. As they direct market grass-finished beef locally, they aim to raise forage-efficient cattle that thrive in a high-density grazing situation.
“Most of the animals we’re dealing with here have been selected for feedlot performance,” he says. “There’s very few of them that thrive extremely well to the point that we would be able to increase our stocking rates, say, two or three times where we are now. So we need to start doing a better job of identifying those genetics, and it’s not something that’ll happen overnight.”
In addition to providing learning experiences that will help his family’s operation, Boyd’s travels enlightened him on more than just agriculture.
“After travelling and visiting these other countries, it really makes me appreciative for what we have here both in terms of our soil quality and just how advanced our agriculture is, but also just the quality of life that we have and the freedoms,” he says. “Some of the things we take for granted here at home just being Canadian, that was really hammered home as well travelling abroad.”
Boyd is grateful to everyone who helped make his Nuffield experience possible, from the sponsors who supported his travels to his family for allowing him to step away from the farm for an extended period.
“I am extremely thankful and have a huge debt of gratitude to my wife, who stayed home with our two young kids, and Dad and Mom, who held the fort down here at home,” he says. “For them to agree to that, that’s a pretty big deal and something that I think was a huge investment in me, and I think it’s going to pay big dividends for our farm and our community and hopefully the agriculture industry in Canada.”