Canadian dairy farmers may be among the best positioned to take up regenerative farming practices, said producers during a panel discussion at the 2021 Regenerative Ag Conference, held in Brandon Nov. 15 to 17.
Supply management means a steady income which can give farmers more confidence to take risks, said Sean Smith, a dairy farmer near Minnedosa. Fairly small herds make grazing more feasible, he added. (According to Dairy Farmers of Canada the average size is 97 milking cows per farm.)
“How are you possibly ever going to graze 5,000 cows and have them get milked that day?” said Smith.
Smith presented alongside Ile des Chenes farmer Henry Nyhof, and Paul Kernaleguen, who farms near Birch Hills, Sask., on a panel about regenerative dairy farming Nov. 16.
Turning to regenerative ag
Smith raises Jersey cattle in a pasture-based system, which uses adaptive, multi-paddock grazing, multi-species forage blends, and compost for fertilizer among other regenerative practices.
His family turned to grazing their dairy herd as a labour-saving measure, he told the conference audience. The cattle begin grazing in late May and early June in 15 paddocks on their home quarter, he said.
“Grazing our cows is the cheapest way to make milk,” Smith said.
Kernaleguen said his family began as “conventional as they came” before they turned to regenerative practices “out of necessity.”
Their area was inundated with rains in 2010 and 2011.
“We started farming islands,” he said. “We were literally getting pulled from one five-acre island to a seven-acre island with another tractor to get in there.”
Previously, their opinion was dairy cattle only ate corn, barley and alfalfa. With a shrunken base of productive land, the family decided to experiment. They planted oats on one of their ‘islands,’ and when the cattle ate that they figured they’d eat other stuff too.
They started adapting to no till and planting cover crops.
Nyhof and his family have diversified their farm through value-added production, like using waste milk to feed pigs so they can sell milk-fed pork. Besides their herd of mainly Jersey cows, they raise between 1,000 and 1,500 cattle in a feedlot and pasture some beef.
In an on-farm store, they sell their pork, beef, eggs, and Bothwell Cheese, which is made from their milk.
Their regenerative ag journey began with a move toward zero till. They’d contracted field work to a farmer who was zero till, so he uses similar methods on their farm. It worked well.
A few years ago, Bothwell Cheese approached them to produce non-GMO milk. They had to find new ways to get protein for their animals, and this led to a total regenerative approach.
Nyhof’s dairy herd doesn’t graze because of the logistical challenge of moving the large herd to pasture. Instead, they mow the forage and collect it using a self-loading wagon. They can then deliver it to the cattle with no shrinkage.
Panel moderator Lawrence Knockaert asked the producers if they saw a difference in butterfat content when grazing their dairy herd. Under supply management, farmers must produce a quota of butterfat.
Nyhof and Smith said when grazing or relying heavily on forage, butterfat production drops. Nyhof said they control this by also giving cattle supplementary feed.
Smith said they also give the cattle a ration in the barn, but have found they can cut the dry matter and supplement needed in half. Despite the lost butterfat, Smith said they’re saving $150 per day on ration — not to mention savings on cleaning manure during the grazing season, less shavings in that time, and reduced need for footbaths for the cows.
“Maybe the cheque isn’t as big, but we’re making more profit per kg shipped,” he said.
They also took a hit in production, said Kernaleguen but saw their cows’ overall health increase. Before, at a 60-40 concentrate-forage ration, it felt like they were “redlining” the cows, Kernaleguen said. A health hiccup could devastate cows.
On a greater forage base, the cows are healthier and less fazed by challenges, he said.
The farmers also saw changes to their land.
Kernaleguen saw no till and cover cropping increase the soil’s water retention capacity.
Nyhof said he noted changes to the tilth of his fields. After a particularly heavy layer of manure, he hired a neighbour to till it in.
The neighbour said, “I’m going a gear faster on my tractor than I am on my own farm,” Nyhof said. “That’s years of zero till and just one time doing a tillage pass. It pulls easier and the ground is looser.”
Smith said they’ve been able to measure an increase in organic matter. Tests this year showed they’d gained about two per cent organic matter over six years in some of their hayfields. This was particularly satisfying, Smith said, since shortly before the test a friend had claimed it was impossible to gain one per cent organic matter in 10 years.
“That’s something they can understand and wrap their head around,” Smith said.
They’ve also tested their fields and pastures for water infiltration capacity, he added. One intensively grazed pasture could suck up five inches equivalent of moisture in 45 minutes, up from three inches per hour in a rarely grazed hayfield.
A nearby conventional field Smith tested for a comparison rapidly soaked up one inch of water, he said. The second inch just sat on the surface.
The three farms have different ways to incorporate manure into their farming practices.
With only 180 acres available to spread manure on, said Kernaleguen, a 2019 soil test came back “all red.” The lab tech told them to stop spreading it, so they’ve been ‘donating’ it to neighbours’ fields.
Nyhof intensively composts the bedding pack and sand his dairy herd lives on. The manure breaks into a powdery, black mixture that’s easy to spread onto a standing crop, or after taking a first cut of alfalfa, he said.
After a rain shower, it’s immediately available to the plants, he added.
They try to spread slurry during the crop season and time it to get the most out of the nutrients. After fall rye comes off is a good window, Nyhof said.
In their dairy barn, Smith’s family uses a compost pack made of shavings from a local mill. They cultivate it twice daily with a little tractor. The compost heats up enough to kill bacteria, which keeps the cattle from getting mastitis, Smith said.
Once the barn is full, they move the pack outside to continue composting and spread it in spring — generally onto fields they intend to plant to annuals.
They spread liquid manure monthly on paddocks that have just been grazed, Smith added.
An audience member asked the farmers if supply management impedes innovation into regenerative farming.
“I don’t think it actually impedes anything,” Smith said. Most other farming sectors don’t have supply management and yet, “there’s an equally few amount of people practising it,” he said.
“I think it more comes down to innovation,” he added.
Kernaleguen said he’s seen skepticism from fellow farmers, but also genuine interest.
Supply management is “numbers, numbers, numbers all the time,” he said. He can demonstrate that his input costs are now much lower, which makes producers more interested in dialogue.
Conference organizer Ryan Boyd added that Dairy Farmers of Manitoba is “one of our largest supporters” of the Regenerative Ag Conference. This tells him it is interested, he said.
Source: Western Producer