The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Since 1996, TESA has been recognizing beef producers from across the country who go above and beyond standard conservation practices to care for their land and environment.
Each year, producers are recognized at the regional level. A national TESA winner is then chosen from the regional recipients. This year the national winner will be announced during the Canadian Beef Industry Conference, slated for August 31 to September 2.
Watch for a feature about TESA's 25th anniversary in the August issue of Canadian Cattlemen. In the meantime, we'll be featuring the regional winners on the website. This story was originally published by the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and is republished with permission.
Southern Manitoba rancher Matt Van Steelandt says transitioning a conventional ranching operation over to regenerative agricultural practices isn't something you do overnight. But, he figures his family's commercial cow-calf operation is making progress toward a planned objective of optimizing beef production in harmony with the land's natural ability to grow forages.
They're not quite there yet. And in fact he says there really is no finish line…"you're just always working to improve things," says Van Steelandt.
"You don't just get up one day and decide that today this will be a regenerative agriculture farming operation," he says. "It is a process. It is a progression. But our ranch is well on its way to becoming a 100 per cent extensively managed regenerative grazing operation."
That's a transition from what might be described as a conventional beef production system that involved calving in or near the farmyard in late winter, grazing on pasture summer and fall, and then bringing the herd home for the winter with stored feed hauled out to a winter feeding site. That was the old system.
"The only time our cattle see a dry lot now is to be processed or to be gathered up for marketing," he says. "The rest of time they are on pasture." They calve on pasture, spend the summer and fall grazing forages, and then in winter they continue with bale and swath grazing. It saves the time and money of starting equipment in winter to haul feed to the herd, and keeps nutrients (manure and urine) distributed on the land. Any supplemental feed is delivered to the animals with a feed wagon as needed.
A lot of time, labour and expense has gone into creating the "extensively managed regenerative grazing operation", says Van Steelandt and further investment is needed. "But over the long term I'm confident that what is good for the ecology, good for the environment, is also good economically."
Two ranch locations
Matt Van Steelandt and his parents Dan and Alana are the principals of Triple V Ranch that operates over two locations in southwestern Manitoba. The south ranch and Triple V headquarters is in the Prairie Pothole Region of Manitoba near Medora where Dan and Alana reside. About 35 minutes to the north is the north ranch in the Lauder Sandhills where Matt resides.
Their efforts over the years to ranch sustainably with nature has earned Triple V Ranch recognition as being the Manitoba Beef Producers' 2021 nominee for the Canadian Cattleman's Association Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA).
Developing a regenerative agriculture ranch that is in harmony with the environment is a concept that was started by Dan and Alana Van Steelandt, and perhaps became more focused when Matt returned to the farm in 2012 after graduating from veterinary school and decided to ranch full time.
Together the Van Steelandt family operate a 500 head Angus-based cow-calf operation. The south ranch, in an area more suited to annual cropping, has clay soil, prone to salinity. That's where about 180 acres are seeded each year to corn for winter grazing and cover crops for swath or standing grazing.
Most of the feed for the operation is grown on the south ranch. The Medora-area ranch is home to about 200 head of cows, while another 300 head remain full time at the north ranch in the Lauder Sandhills. Soils at the north ranch are predominately sand and gravel making it a marginal area for annual cropping and more suited to cattle and forage production.
Overall about 30 per cent of the land is in tame hay and pasture and 70 per cent in native grasslands.
Both herds calve out in May/June on pasture. After fall weaning, all calves are backgrounded at the Medora ranch location, and then put out to grass the following spring, ultimately sold as feeder cattle the next August/September.
Between the two ranch operations, the Van Steelandts have about 5,200 acres of deeded land and 2,500 acres of rented land.
Getting started with regenerative agriculture begins with attitude, says Matt. "It begins with right mindset," he says. "It has to be something you believe in and want to make happen. You need to be prepared for changes in management."
Water retention on the ranch
The Van Steelandts have relied on a wide range of resources and expertise to help them develop plans for Triple V Ranch. "A lot of credit can go to all of the great speakers that we have been able to bring into Manitoba through the DUC Grazing Clubs and the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association Regenerative Agriculture Conference," says Matt. "By picking up a few tips from each speaker over time we found ways to change management so we were ranching more with nature."
The Van Steelandts are also committed to lifelong learning. They became educated about biologically-based agriculture which contributed to a more profitable business. Dan and Alana are alumni of the Ranching for Profit course. Matt has received training in holistic management, The Soil Health Academy from Understanding AG, Soil Health Foundations, a master class with Integrity Soils, Real Wealth Ranching: Total Grazing and a Permaculture Design Certificate with Verge Permaculture.
"You can't change everything at once, so start somewhere," says Matt. "In my experience just start with stockpiling forage. Particularly if there are pastures that have been overused, start by allowing those pastures to grow and recover. It is grass that can be used later in fall or winter after the growing season is over, or in spring before the new growing season begins."
The ranch family strives to follow the five principles of soil health on their operation:
- keep the soil covered,
- minimize soil disturbance,
- grow diverse species of plants,
- keep a living root growing in the soil as long as possible,
- and integrating livestock on the land.
Cover crops and perennial forage rotations onto cropped acres have assisted the operation to work towards soil health goals.
“Since I started farming, I have seen improved water infiltration on the land since we started using forages and cover crops," says Dan Van Steelandt. "This is drought-prone land and it will respond quicker if it has better microbial activity and the amount of bare ground is minimized."
One important tool to reduce the risk of overgrazing on pastures with improved livestock distribution has been development of watering systems on pasture. "When increasing stock density, we have found it doesn't really work to have one watering point for half a section of pasture," says Matt. "You need to develop perhaps six to eight watering points and that's expensive."
Over the years they have installed about five miles of water pipelines to improve cattle distribution over the pastures and the system will be further expanded as funds allow. Over the years they've also developed off-site water systems as cattle have been fenced away from dugouts and sensitive riparian areas where possible. They have plans to further enhance riparian area management.
Another important aspect of improving the efficiency of their operation is the beef herd itself. It's not just a herd of good quality Angus cattle. They've also worked to select for a particular set of characteristics that match their management and environment.
"We've been raising our own bulls and females to develop a line of stock with adaptive genetics that are able to thrive in a higher density, longer season grazing with minimal supplements," says Matt. "It has been a challenge that is moving toward success. It's not about maximizing weaning weights, but about producing animals with high fertility and an inherent fleshing ability on the ranch's available forage."
Their management over the years has resulted in several observable benefits. Improved plant growth and diversity in both native and tame forage species; increased grazing days with the beef herd and reduced input costs — having calves born on pasture has drastically reduced morbidity and mortality in calves compared to a traditional dry lot system.
This system change has resulted in a large reduction in the use of antimicrobials to control pathogens. They've also eliminated the prophylactic use of ivermectins and other parasiticides in the herd. On the cropping side, they have eliminated fungicides, pesticides and reduced the use of herbicides and tillage in an effort to improve the soil food web.
Van Steelandt feels the key in Western Canada is to develop systems on the broad acre scale to regenerate soil life and restore organic matter, especially on marginal lands.
“My parents were always fairly concerned with marginal (land), “ says Matt. “I grew up on the family farm, and we were always fairly conscientious about land use management on marginal land and through my whole life and probably my father's life and my grandfather's life, there's been a lot of marginal prairie land broke that was better suited for range land than annual cropping. I always thought that way. I was raised that way.
“The interesting thing with managing for soil health is we can quickly begin to restore natural systems in the soil food web," he says. "It makes ranching a lot easier, when we start working with Mother Nature and observe her wisdom.”
Moving down the path of forage establishment on marginal land with grazing, cover crops and animal integration onto the cropland, it’s obvious the Van Steelandts have recognized that there is a huge opportunity in the future to return ruminants to the landscape. Using no-till agriculture and animal integration, the Van Steelandt’s believe they can work towards a more resilient system where the nutrients are cycled in place and we are less dependent on inputs. This will result in an ecological and economical improvement simultaneously.
“In the long term doing what is right ecologically will always win economically,” says Matt. “Cattle are important because a huge percentage of our agricultural land is rangeland and that is what it's suited for. Those animals have a rumen and they can eat those cellulose plants that we can't eat. They upcycle them and turn them into nutrient-dense protein that we can eat. In the process, they create fertilizer at the same time. It's a beautiful system of ruminant animals that's been around for eons. Anybody that tells you that ruminant animals are unhealthy for the earth is a lunatic. They're the best thing. That's how our soils were formed. It produces nutrient-dense food. To me, cattle are the best thing. We need a lot more of them, not less.”