Update: Since this story was posted, Dean and Catherine Manning were named national winners of the Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference. Congratulations to the Mannings as well as the other nominees, and thank you for all your good work.
This story was originally published by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and is republished with permission.
Well you don't want too many snapping turtles laying eggs in your vegetable garden, but for Dean and Catherine Manning of Falmouth, Nova Scotia, it is one of those little indicators that steps they've taken over the years to protect waterways and riparian areas are increasing the biodiversity on their beef and vegetable operation.
Farming in an area where turtles hadn't been seen for some time, they were impressed to find a few of the reptiles making a reappearance, while similarly screech owls are now among the list of creatures calling the farm woodlands home.
The Mannings are full-time farmers, running about 80 head of commercial and purebred beef cattle on about 500 acres along with a greenhouse and market garden business as well.
About 25 years ago they left their off-farm careers to return to the second-generation family farm where Dean was raised. They've carried on and expanded the conservation practices that Dean's parents, Malcolm and Gail, had started, creating an efficient and profitable mixed farming operation that works very much in harmony with the environment.
"It seems that vegetables and crops need cattle and vice versa," says Dean. "And those enterprises also do very well with many of the conservation measures we've implemented over the years.
"Part of what we do here on the farm is about economics. We need to make a living, but I think the bigger motivation we've always had is to leave the land in better shape than we found it for the next generation. And we're not thinking about the next generation as being just our children but also the community and society in general.
"I go for a walk across our land and there are fish in the streams, and all sorts of wildlife using the riparian areas and woodlands as habitat, and I can physically see the changes and benefits of using good environmental practices," he says.
That overall awareness of farming in harmony with nature has earned the Mannings recognition as the Maritime Beef Council 2021 nominee for the Canadian Cattleman's Association Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA).
The farm in the Annapolis Valley is one of six regional nominees from across the country from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime region competing later this month for the national TESA honour.
The Manning Family Farm includes a beef herd of about 80 mature cows. About 20 females are purebred Red Angus, while the rest are commercial crossbred cattle — predominantly Red Angus females crossed with Simmentals. In recent years they've managed two calving seasons each year, with part of the herd calving in April and May and the other part calving in August. All calves are backgrounded over winter and sold into selected markets the following year.
It made sense to be calving cows in good weather and on pasture, rather than in February, and also it spreads out the workload. As the spring group is calving, the Mannings are also spending time getting the market garden ready for vegetable crops.
Their 500-acre farm includes about 40 acres of annually cropped land to produce silage corn and grain crops such as wheat or fall rye. About 300 acres are cleared and seeded to forages to be used for either pasture or hay production. Another 10 acres are devoted to a greenhouse and market garden for vegetable production that's marketed through a couple of weekly local farm markets, an online store which was set up this year, and they wholesale their vegetables to other farm markets in the area as well. The balance of the farm, about 150 acres, is woodland or bush pasture used mainly as shelter. Brooks with adjoining riparian areas flow through their property.
Ongoing work in progress
Developing the overall production system they have today is a work in progress, says Manning. "We have worked on it gradually over the years and a lot of it has been trial and error," he says. "We try different things and find out what works or doesn't work."
One of the very first conservation measures on the farm started by his dad in the 1990s involved fencing cattle away from natural water sources and riparian areas.
"There was a good brook system on the farm and he didn't want to see that damaged by cattle, so he started fencing the streams out and creating off-site watering," says Manning. "It was sort of in that transition time before we came home to farm full time, so I'd be around on weekends and help with fencing, we'd put in some waterlines and install frost-free water valves and bowls so the cattle could water. And over the years we've just expanded that system."
The most suitable land had been cleared for pasture, hay and crop production, but the Mannings realized that the wooded areas, some of which was a bit swampy at certain times of the year, also provided natural shelter for cattle. The areas afforded some grazing, but mainly protection from the weather both summer and winter. Again these areas were managed so they are not overused or abused by the presence of cattle during the year, and actually benefit from the return of nutrients to the soil.
"Up until about 10 years ago we ran a pretty conventional system," he says. That included calving early, putting cattle out to pasture for the summer and fall and then bringing them home to be fed stored feed such as hay and silage all winter.
"The herd would be in a drylot or the barn and fed from November to May 20 and then they would head out to pasture again," says Manning.
It was after their area of Nova Scotia experienced some dry growing seasons, that Manning began thinking it might be a good risk management tool to stockpile some forages. Some pastures were more intensively managed, while others were set aside to grow and not be used until after the growing season. If needed that stockpiled forage could be cut and baled, it could be grazed in the fall, or used the next spring — it provided some options.
For the past few years Manning has also worked on extending the grazing season. To accomplish that plan he seeded cover crops, such as a winter cereal or in some cases a forage blend on cereal and corn stubble after grain and silage corn was harvested. The cover crop could be grazed later in the fall. And he also saved part of the corn crop as standing corn for winter grazing.
As cattle were brought home from summer pasture and calves weaned in late November, at least part of the cow herd is moved on to cover crops or stockpiled grass for grazing and then onto standing corn. In the 2020/21 fall and winter the grazing corn carried those cattle from November right through to April.
"We also supplemented the corn by hauling out grass silage bales," says Manning, noting that he makes sure the cattle have a good hair coat and are in good body condition. "But the cattle were out all winter."
The corn-grazing field is adjacent to wooded areas, so cattle could graze then have shelter among the trees. "I have walked back there on a cold winter day and they are very comfortable among the trees and out of the wind," he says. "It may be more comfortable there than being in the barn."
Manning says the combination of fall grazing on cover crops, winter grazing on standing corn, and good shelter in the wooded areas appears to work well for a year-round grazing program. He hopes to expand it to include the entire herd. There are also wooded areas that stay a bit wet. He's thinking about using woodchips to create dry pack mounds among the trees so cattle can use these areas as well.
A big part of his thinking is to develop a grazing and cropping system that considers risk management. With climate change and more volatile and extreme weather, he has to develop a system that is flexible as weather conditions change.
As cattle are out more on pasture, manure and urine is of course naturally distributed over the land. But anywhere they congregate for feeding or bedded down, that manure and straw is collected and composted. The composted material can then be used in vegetable crop production or applied to the annual cropland.
The compost not only benefits the soil, but since the Manning farm is adjacent to an urban area, they are also very much aware of being considerate of their urban neighbours by reducing the odour that comes with manure spreading.
The Manning beef and farming operation works in conjunction with the environment and not against it. They can produce good quality and high-yielding crops and a high-producing beef herd, while protecting water quality and a wide range of habitat for a growing list of species, including snapping turtles and screech owls.
And there are always further improvements to be explored including trying different crops that complement the corn that can provide diversity for an extended grazing season, adopt management practices to increase the use of shelter belts and wooded areas, expand wetlands and water storage to benefit wildlife, get involved in more soil testing to determine how management practices affect soil health, and use genomic testing to improve the feed and production efficiency of the beef herd.
"From a stewardship point of view we need to look after our lands and water so they'll be in good shape for future generations," he says. "From a management point of view good stewardship is an investment in our own futures as producers. We want to be good land managers in order to be good farmers."