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Sustainability on the hoof

Across Canada, livestock must be part of a healthy agriculture

Forages and livestock can not only help you manage your soil for sustainability, they can also help you manage the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds, says Martin Entz, professor of natural systems agriculture at the University of Manitoba.

No-till farming has come a long way and has brought a lot of change to agriculture. But there’s one big change that it hasn’t made.

In most parts of the country, farming remains predominantly an annual grain-based system.

Now, the resilience of that system is in doubt, Entz said at the recent World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Winnipeg.

Weather had been at the top of the list of things challenging such farms. Drought in the early 2000s destroyed no-till farms in Montana, and the wet periods in Canada and elsewhere have played havoc on conservation farms, Entz said.

“When we look at the challenges, we think that perennial plants would be wonderful,” Entz said.

He points for instance to the farmers in eastern Manitoba and in the province’s Interlake area who experience excess water on fragile soils.

They have dealt with those challenges by putting more ground into alfalfa.

“They grow that because they know they need to deal with this water there. Planning for the wet conditions, this is a wise move,” Entz said. “The beautiful thing about having the alfalfa seed production is it mimics the native prairie plants, and that’s never a bad thing.”

Incorporating perennial forages into grain rotations is very effective in a number of ways, including providing superior yields, reducing nitrate leaching, and offering significant weed control and greater resilience to extreme weather.

But what are you supposed to do with all the alfalfa if you grow it?

Entz’s answer is straightforward: Feed it to livestock.

“All of these challenges bring us to the topic of livestock integration. We can’t avoid it. We can drain that salt land, we can try to tile drain that wetland, but things are changing,” said Entz. “We’ve had the warmest May in the history of the planet this year and May has been a particularly warm month for five years now. That means more rain during planting.”

Entz extolled the virtues of forages for ruminants, saying when livestock eat grasses, “things with cell walls that are tough, they actually make better milk, better cheese, better meat.”

So the shift from grains to forages for ruminant production has not only environmental and agronomic benefits, it has human health benefits too.

“And that to me is exciting and it’s a way of getting people’s attention. And maybe consumers are going to start demanding this more and more,” Entz said. “That would be great for the landscape, and I think it could be good for farmers.”

But do farmers believe this?

“We’re still focusing on expanding soybean production in this province. We think it’s good for agriculture. Well, it may be good for agriculture, but it’s also good for agriculture to think about producing food that’s really good for people. And we can do that using those natural systems.”

Removing perennials has been detrimental to agrology and weed resistance, and removing nutrients from forages through haying but not returning those nutrients with manure is damaging too. Entz recommended leaving animals on fields so those soils capture more nutrients, which will then result in greater yields.

Entz repeated some old wisdom from his German ancestors, saying that if you want to see how good a farmer is, go look at his manure pile.

In the West, winter grazing is another good idea, especially considering the Prairie landscape is frozen for about five months of the year.

“We accumulate a lot of carbon and then soil biota stops working because we have no heat. That’s a problem because sometimes we want to process that carbon, especially in a conservation agriculture system,” said Entz. “And the beautiful thing about livestock is those rumen, they are nice and warm. It’s why we think of the rumen as portable soil.”

This article first appeared in the July 2014 Country Guide special section on sustainability

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