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Cocktail cover crops: This ain’t your grandad’s grazing system

Innovative producers, especially younger ones, are looking to cover 
crop cocktail mixes to build soil health and get more production per acre

Nearly 150 people — some from as far away as Manitoba — converged on a farm near Hardisty recently to learn more about cover crop cocktail mixes.

But tour organizer Graeme Finn noticed something a little different about the crowd at the event in late August — it was mainly young farmers.

“Young people can’t afford to buy land these days, so they’re looking at how they can make their land work harder for what they’re doing,” said Finn, a grazier from Crossfield who also works with Union Forage.

“And that’s through multi-species diversity. By having livestock in rotations and having top-quality perennial and annual pastures, they don’t have to go buy more acres.”

Cocktail cover crop mixes have been successfully used in grazing systems around the world — particularly in New Zealand and Australia, where Finn was raised — but they’re only now starting to gain traction in Alberta, he said.

“If you look at the people who are integrating this into their system, they’re the leaders in their districts. They’re the guys who are the innovators — who people talk about at the coffee shop.”

And in many cases, young producers are leading the way.

“It’s not sustainable to go and graze the way we’ve been doing for years without any consequences, which we’re already starting to see,” said Finn, adding that “young people understand that better.”

“With younger people now, they’re more concerned than the last generation was, and they don’t have the cash flow that the last generation did either.”

As a result, the up-and-coming generation needs to do more with less, and they’re exploring cover crops as a way to do that, in part because of the benefits to their cattle — one to three pounds of average daily gain — but also because they recognize the value of healthy soils.

“A lot of guys and their wives have jobs off farm, but they want to be more on the farm,” said Finn. “They’ve got to build that soil health in order to build their operation up.”

Cover crop benefits

And at around $100 an acre in production costs, cocktail cover crop mixes are a relatively inexpensive way to enhance the soil.

“It’s all about soil health — building biology in the soil,” said Finn. “The more biology we’ve got working in the soil, the less chemical inputs we’re going to have to use for fertilizers.

“If we can start building soil health, the better off we are.”

Cover crop cocktail mixes generally include species from four different categories — warm-season broadleaf plants and grasses along with cool-season broadleaf plants and grasses.

Cover crop cocktail mixes generally include species from four different categories — warm-season broadleaf plants and grasses along with cool-season broadleaf plants and grasses.
photo: Jennifer Blair

Cover crop mixes also produce more biomass than the average pasture stand, so they can be grazed three or four times during a season, said Finn.

“You can up your stocking rate on good-quality forages without buying more land,” he said, adding that rotational grazing often goes hand in hand with these forage mixes.

“Posts are cheap. Land isn’t.”

Cocktail mixes generally have species from four different categories — warm-season broadleaf plants and grasses along with cool-season broadleaf plants and grasses — and as a result, root systems in the soil are more varied and soil organic matter is increased.

And that helps in a drought year, said Finn.

“The more organic matter we get in there, the more water-holding capacity we have,” he said. “One per cent organic matter can retain 45,000 gallons of water per acre. If we get more diversity into the soil, that’s making the place drought-proof as well. You’d be able to carry cattle longer during a dry spell.”

But because these types of mixes are relatively new to Canada, learning how to manage them can be a barrier for producers trying them for the first time.

“Because it’s new up here, we’ve got to learn how other people are doing it, but we also have to create a community up here where we can share our experiences and ideas,” said Finn. “If I make a mistake, I can put it out there and say, ‘OK, in my area, I won’t use millet again.’”

Young producers tend to be more adept at sharing ideas, he added.

“There’s more information out there, and they know how to go out and source it too.”

On his own operation, Finn has narrowed his mix to six or seven species (usually sainfoin, vetch, alfalfa, soft-leaf tall fescue, orchardgrass, and brome) because a lot of warm-season grasses won’t work in his area. But areas in southern Alberta might have a different mix.

“What we do at Union Forage is say, ‘Here’s the base. Start from there,’” said Finn, adding that the base mix will depend on the area it’s being planted.

“You make it what works for you.”

Finn also moves his cattle on 10- to 12-day shifts, but others might be moving every two to three days.

“Make it scale to suit your operation and your workload. You might not want to move them every three days, but you might want to move them every 10 days,” said Finn.

“You’ve got to pick what works for you and your management style.”

The real beauty of this style of grazing is that “none of this is set in stone,” he said.

“It’s innovative, so nobody’s going to say, ‘This is how you do it.’”

But producers who are considering trying cocktail mixes for the first time would do well to learn from more experienced growers, Finn added.

“Visit someone who’s already doing it in your area if you can find them,” he said. “There’s mentors around the province who you can go and see within your area.”

And winter is the right time to start that research.

“Do your research 12 months ahead of time, not the day you want to go and start seeding. Don’t make the decision today and then start tomorrow.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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