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The big question

He worked hard, kept his head down, made progress. But more and more, Ryan Boyd was wondering, “What if I’m missing out on my best chances?”

Ryan Boyd wanted to know, “What if we’re missing our big chance?” As every farmer knows, it might be the toughest question in agriculture, but Boyd refused to shrug if off. He spent months on research, left the farm for weeks at a time, logged thousands of miles, and returned home to not only make substantial improvements, but also to inject more energy and determination than it has seen in over a decade.

When Ryan Boyd set out on an international tour in 2019, he was looking for ways to both challenge and improve the way he farms near Forrest, Manitoba.

Ryan and his wife Sarah, and his parents Joanne and Jim, own South Glanton Farms just north of Brandon, where they grow annual crops and raise a 300-head herd of Black Angus cattle in a forage-based grazing system.

Like on most Canadian farms, the Boyds are a family that have gone to school on what they have learned on their own property and much of the farm’s evolution has been in the same direction as overall industry trends.

The question is, should they have looked further afield? And it seemed there was only one way to be sure.

Ryan was “bitten by the soil health bug” early in life, he says, and has been a passionate advocate for regenerative agriculture approaches his entire farm career. The Boyds’ system grazes their animals together in large groups and moves them daily, much as the original herds of bison on the Canadian Prairies would roam in a natural ecosystem.

To Boyd, the results were clear. Wildlife, for instance, became abundant on their farm. And by rotating pasture and cash crops, they’ve also boosted soil health and biodiversity.

From a business perspective, diversification has lessened their external costs and lowered their market and weather risks, and their cattle have added value to the byproducts of their grain production.

It’s all because, after nearly two decades at it, Boyd had begun to ask if his way of thinking about things needed a refresh. He especially wanted to learn from others, who use such approaches, how they make the financials work.

“We’ve been moving down this generative track for quite a number of years, and the grazing thing is where my passion really is,” Boyd told Country Guide earlier this spring.

“But I’d been holed up on this farm, head down, working for getting on to 15 years since university was done,” he says. “I was in dire need of getting out and opening my eyes up again to the broader realisms of the world and agriculture in general.”

I was in dire need of getting out and opening my eyes up again,” Ryan Boyd realized. As the next generation, he and Sarah were tracking along. But there was this fundamental business doubt. How would they know if there was a better way? photo: Sandy Black

He was awarded a scholarship through the Canadian Nuffield Agriculture Scholarship Association in 2019, and seized the opportunity to expand his horizons and take his questions on the road.

As he’d later write in his Nuffield report: “The elephant in the room, or pasture, in this case, is how to make the numbers work. Obviously, if grazing ruminants allowed significant, comparable profit metrics to crop farming, the acres in perennial forage would not be declining.”

His newly published report, found on Nuffield Canada’s website and titled Grazing Ruminants: A Profitable Long-Term Solution to Agricultural Profitability, Productivity and Climate Change offers detailed descriptions of grazing systems on farms around the world, and the observations and recommendations of the farmers, grazing consultants and researchers he met.

Boyd’s travels took him to other farms in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Brazil as well as The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He was able to compare the implementation of grazing systems operating in vastly different growing conditions, from tropical high rainfall environments to regions under drought, and under very different market and even political environments, too.

“That was probably one of the biggest eye-openers,” Boyd says. “It was a reminder to me as a farmer of what is possible in these contrasting environments.”

What quickly became obvious was that the managers of farms he visited have a very strong understanding of the economics of what they do, and manage accordingly, he writes in his report.

They know how to capitalize on marketing opportunities and shared a willingness to embrace the complexities of operating these integrated farms.

Bigger ideas

The Boyds have begun to emulate the practices of some of the farms he visited, including those he saw utilized by Florida-based cattle and grazing manager Jaime Elizondo. Elizondo deploys an ultra-high stock density method he calls “total grazing,” in which large numbers of cattle graze one area at a time, then are moved several times a day to new areas.

The Boyd cattle operation has emulated the practices of some of the farms he visited. photo: Sandy Black

That method challenged his own ideas about just how much of a plant needs to be left afterward to regrow, Boyd says, explaining that Elizondo gives each intensely grazed area a long recovery period with remarkable regrowth results.

What Elizondo has been able to achieve are dramatically increased stocking rates — two to four times conventional — with animal densities of 500,000 pounds live-weight per acre or more.

Another outstanding grazing system he describes is that of fellow Nuffielder Andrew Fowler in Western Australia. The Fowler family use their cattle and sheep in their cropping system, grazing cash crops of canola and cereals in a vegetative state as well as crop residues. They attribute the consistent success they’ve had with their integrated system to shifting their land base over time from two-thirds pasture and one-third crop to two-thirds crop and one-third pasture — without sacrificing stocking rates, Boyd writes in his report. 

What especially impressed him about the Fowlers’ approach is that it’s basically an old-fashioned idea — albeit on a large scale at about 50,000 acres with huge herds of cattle and sheep — and they’ve had 20 consecutive years of profitability. 

“He attributed that to their diverse system,” Boyd says. “They’re using all the latest and greatest technology to grow their crops, but the marriage of those two, the livestock enterprises and the grain, makes for a very efficient system,” said Boyd. “It reminded me that sometimes there’s lots of things that we went away from that weren’t necessarily a bad idea, if one can manage that diversity.”

Bringing it back home

One of his key recommendations in his report related to making these kinds of systems work is optimally and actively managing and monitoring water availability, and ensuring water infiltration is maximized.

The main reason consistent margins with annual crop production have proved elusive on their own farm all these years, Boyd notes in his report, is due to the sporadic rainfall they experience, including prolonged periods when they get below-average precipitation.

On another farm in Australia he saw extensive measures deployed to store rainwater in ponds for later use in flood irrigation. If perennial grazing systems are going to complement and compete financially with the reduced water demand of annual cropping systems, he writes, then the water cycle will have to be managed much more efficiently.

The common denominator among those successfully integrating ruminants is their willingness to embrace the management complexities of these systems, he says.

As part of their own plan now, Boyd says they’ll continue to focus on developing a low-maintenance cow herd capable of grazing at ultra-high stock density. Importantly, they must identify specific animals that perform well under these total grazing conditions, because the right genetics is key to putting this system together.

It’s really put a lot of life back in our farm, and energy and excitement,” says Ryan, “just knowing what’s out there and what’s possible.” photo: Sandy Black

They are in early stages launching their farm brand Boyd Beef brand, and developing markets, even as most of their production still moves through conventional supply chains right now.

As for the question he took with him during his Nuffield travels, his conclusion is “it’s not a clear winner” when it comes to being a financially competitive way to farm — at least not yet.

“I don’t think it will be as long as we have cheap fossil fuels at our disposal, and by that I mean cheap fertilizer and fuel, to make our systems function as efficiently as they do. I think until those costs go up, whether through policy or just supply and demand, I think cattle will remain simply a value-add,” he said.

“But I think really astute managers will be able to make a grazing system competitive. And if you average it all out over five or 10 years, I think it does come closer... especially when you consider there’s less need for machinery, and the lack of need for fertilizer if you’re managing the grazing correctly to get the nutrients recycling.”

The neighbours too

Of course, the Boyd farm will continue building relationships with surrounding grain farms to bring the benefits of grazing ruminants to their farms in a mutually beneficial arrangement, he writes in his report.

He includes a piece of the best advice he was ever given in his report, too:

“It does not matter how fast you go, but merely that you are going [in] the right direction.”

“I have seen this time and time again in my travels and on our own farm when trying to create a natural farming system mimicking nature,” he writes.“A realistic expectation for timeline of results needs to be allowed and one must be prepared for a steep learning curve.”

Is a Nuffield Scholarship right for you?

In 2019, Ryan Boyd got his pitch approved for a Nuffield Canada scholarship that has taken him around the world. Should you be knocking on their door too?

Country Guide: What are the lasting impacts of being part of the Nuffield Canada program?

Ryan Boyd: My first exposure to Nuffield was really reports and specific topics of study that other scholars had looked into and researched. They’ve been extremely valuable to how we farm and how it has impacted how people farm the world over.

But the real value of Nuffield is the network that you become a part of. You develop friendships and acquaintances from all over the place with a myriad of expertise which is invaluable, and that continues much longer than after the report has been published.

The biggest impact it’s had on me? It’s given me my confidence back, and made me realize some of my wild ideas on the farm maybe aren’t so wild. But it has also grounded these ideas with a little bit of realism, as to what I can expect to achieve and what I need to achieve for our farm.

It’s really put a lot of life back into our farm and energy and excitement, just knowing what’s out there and what’s possible. I’ve never been as excited to be in an agriculture business as I am now. 

Country Guide: It’s tricky for farm managers to carve out time away from the business. How did that work out for you?

Ryan Boyd: I was fortunate that my wife Sarah was fully supportive as were my parents. You certainly need to have your inner circles’ full support. We also have good hired help on the farm and they were able to step up and fill the void while I was gone.

That’s also one of the critical values of Nuffield. It forces you to remove yourself from the business.

One of the demands, at least prior to COVID, was to be on the road for a minimum of [a] six-week period. That requirement to be away forces you to think more like a manager than a worker and that, in itself, just forces you to get your ducks in a row to become that manager as opposed to the one with boots on the ground working every day.

That has a huge impact on the viability of the business and the potential for growth moving forward. I don’t have a ton of great advice for others, but I’d say if you like to travel and you have that curiosity that I think most farm folks do, go for it and see where it leads you. You don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know what’s out there until you go and look. 

Country Guide: Your scholarship was sponsored by The Western Grains Research Foundation and you also had a lot of additional sponsorship support from businesses and organizations and people you know. How did all that come together?

Ryan Boyd: My father-in-law Bernie Whetter was a really big help. When I was first began telling him about the Nuffield opportunity he thought it was the greatest thing ever and was fully supportive from day one. And one of the things he wanted to do was help secure some sponsorship.

I’m not someone who likes to ask for money, but between Bernie and me, we just asked some local businesses and some of the local organizations I’ve been involved with. I was completely blown away with the support we received. It was extremely humbling for sure and certainly fruitful. I think it just speaks to the value of this program. If people haven’t heard of the Nuffield program, which many people haven’t, when you start telling them what it is and the opportunities that exist in it, people have no problem getting behind it and sponsoring it.

For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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