Our Disappearing Landscapes

How sustainable grazing can protect and preserve prairie grasslands

By Colleen Halpenny

According to Nature Conservancy Canada, one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems is our own backyard. Prairie grasslands are one of the most agriculturally useful habitats on earth, one of the least protected, and are disappearing at an alarming rate.

“This reality is a larger-picture topic. Many in the agriculture sector have seen the changes, realize how critical these grasses are to the environment, and are working towards finding solutions to preserve those grasslands which are still alive. It really begins and ends with stewardship,” says Lisa Jarrett, part of the Range and Pasture Team with Corteva Agriscience. She is based in B.C.

Jarrett explains that grass thrives when there is periodic removal of old growth, which is exactly what is accomplished by grazing cattle. If the grass is too long when it dies before winter, new springtime growth struggles to push through the old plant matter. Weeds, brush, and trees can also take over, choking out the grass. But when cattle graze the grass, regrowth easily occurs.

cows grazing on flat field
    Grass thrives from periodic removal of old growth. jkgabbert - Adobe Stock photo

Steadily moving cattle from one block of grasslands to another allows the grazed grass to rest and regenerate. Plus, their hooves naturally till the soil, and their manure provides a natural, nutrient-dense fertilizer.

Jarrett says that grasslands protect soil from disease, wind erosion, flash flooding and extreme temperature changes. They provide nutritious forage for animals like cattle, bison, elk, and other grazers, which then turn that forage into natural fertilizer, continuing the all-important, carbon-capturing plant cycle.

“We all have a responsibility to create a healthy land base; these native grasslands are a part of that,” says Jarrett.

What happened?

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) notes that during the 2003 Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy crisis five million acres of Canada’s grasslands were converted when 23,000 ranch families left the industry.

In total, CRSB says that 74 per cent of Canada’s native grasslands have been impacted or lost completely due to urban sprawl, agriculture conversion, invasive weed species, climate change, and overgrazing.

Trevor Atchinson, a fourth-generation rancher from Pipestone, Man. who operates Poplarview Farms alongside his family, spreads the large herd over approximately 6,500 acres of pasture.

Atchinson shares that “many have adopted the idea of getting more tonne per acre from the land in terms of selling crops. It’s been the rhetoric of the last decade – how do we feed more, and yield more, with less?

“So, some have lost sight of the fact that rotational grazing extracts more money out of the land. Those who have committed to the process can’t jump ship and plant a different crop for one year. The goal is to sustain your cattle for years to come.”

Jarrett agrees that “sustaining our grasslands for years to come is the overall goal.

cows grazing on open hills
    Timothy Hearsum/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“Grazing and rotation practices need to be based on what your grasses are presently, what the soil types are, the geography of the pasture and the pressure the environment puts on them.”

Challenges

“We have a problem with burrowing voles in our area and they disturb our alfalfa stands,” says Atchinson.

“When fields get too rough, as much as we don’t like to break up land, we will work at getting it established as a pasture. Our best plan is taking two cuts of hay the first year with no grazing, and the next year take a first cut and graze the second.

“We also will move stands to graze for a couple of years if it lays over and gets tough to harvest – if it meets our economic needs.”

Jarrett comments that her region is seeing quackgrass overtake many of the native grasses. Now, she says, “the investigations turn to ‘how can we control this new invasive species; how do we stop the spread, and where did it come from?’”

Jarrett suggests using tools like herbicides to do specific targeted applications to allow native grasses the ability to replenish and take over, so “we don’t need to go back and deal with native challenges again.”

Atchinson says, “When we see problems like thistles starting to take over a pasture, it’s usually because we’re overgrazing some areas and undergrazing others, so the grasses can’t fully re-establish themselves.

“If we see weeds, we need to take a step back and change the management of grazing.

“Sometimes that is as simple as longer times between grazing, but that doesn’t always make most sense economically or time-wise.

“We take advantage of sprays when needed, so we can get cattle grazing faster.”

Atchinson finds that the weeds typically get chased to lower areas and the grasses can keep them from spreading. He reminds himself that “when you manage the grass the way you want it to grow, you inadvertently keep weeds in line.”

What opportunities can be utilized?

Jarrett: “The questions we need to be consistently asking ourselves is ‘What should we be doing? What can we be doing? What are our expectations? Why is it valuable to us? How do we continue to support these goals?’

“If we are making an effort to find answers, solutions, and plans for these questions, we are working in the right direction to support the regeneration of our native grasslands.”

For Atchinson, the goal is, “I want to graze these cattle as long as possible. Keeping your feed costs low, and with a simple management style, you can improve your returns.

“Having a strategy looking at your pastures before you turn cattle out will help smooth out any bottlenecks as you move the cattle through.

“We like to manage our time doing short moves on the land to give it more time to rest between grazing. Nothing can return earlier than 35 days, and if a pasture is grazed twice in one year, it will only be grazed once the next.”

Atchinson likes to leave litter behind on each pasture, but adjusts later in the season when the forage quality is lower. With more time to replenish before the next season, as long as there is enough left to keep photosynthesis occurring, he is comfortable to leave a little less litter while still protecting the root reserves.

Jarrett says that “the value of what these native grasslands achieve cannot be undervalued. Grasslands help slow climate change by acting as a naturally occurring carbon sink.”

Carbon sinks are defined as a forest, ocean, or other natural reservoir viewed in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As noted by Canada’s National Beef Strategy, currently there are 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide sequestered on Canadian land managed with beef cattle.

Jarrett notes that this positive balance to the rest of the habitats and communities is probably not well understood by the general public, and suggests the beef sector could be doing more work toward better education on these valuable resources.

Lessons learned

For Atchinson it’s all about the small improvements. Acknowledging that those big changes are easy to admire, but the consistent and meticulous management year after year is what will make an operation profitable.

“The biggest concept I took away from a conference years ago was the value of a fence. It wasn’t that you’ve now split a pasture into two and made cattle eat heavier on one side – it was about giving the other 50 per cent a rest.

“This is going to allow you to build on what you have time, money and infrastructure for.”

For those wanting to evaluate their operation, Atchinson suggests looking at your pasture health, determining what weeds are present, whether you can see bare ground post-grazing, and evaluating days between moves and your stocking rate. Knowing your end goal is optimal weight gain, how can you support that today, and support your pasture for next year?

Jarrett acknowledges we are at a tipping point. “It’s about collectively coming together to support, preserve, understand, and enhance the grasslands across Canada.

“This isn’t only a Prairie problem. We know how much has already been lost, we need to work to keep and rejuvenate what is left.”

Jarrett suggests producers work with fellow ranchers, researchers and agronomists to develop plans and put them into action to find best matches to allow natural grasses to establish themselves.

“For generations to come, this is truly what we need to do.” BF

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