Twelve years ago, Ryan Boyd faced a wreck that changed the way he farms today.
“I had big plans,” said Boyd, who farms with his wife and parents north of Brandon, Man. “We had a nice crop coming, and then the weather went against us and the markets dropped.
“The long and short of it was we had a bad year, and I figured we needed to make some changes if I was going to carve a living out on the farm.”
For Boyd, that meant shifting some of the practices on their 2,000-acre mixed farm to be more sustainable.
“We’re trying to practise what we would call regenerative agriculture — trying to build a profitable, resilient system that’s maintaining a good level of production while reducing the amount of inputs we’re relying on,” Boyd said while hosting a group of visiting farm journalists last month.
“I’m trying to manage my land to get more out of what I have.”
At the heart of that shift is soil health.
“It’s the soil that’s motivated me to look at things a little differently. The challenge is how do we turn that into profit?” said Boyd. “Obviously the traditional wheat-canola system has been very profitable. When you look at that, why would you bother trying to do anything different?
“But I’m at the beginning of my career and looking at the long game. We can do better, so we should be trying.”
Diversity is the goal
He’s not the only one who thinks that way. In the little over 10 years since Boyd came back to the farm, he’s noticed an increasing number of farmers who share his farming philosophy.
“There’s a growing interest locally and in Western Canada for soil health and regenerative farming,” said Boyd, a 2019 Nuffield Canada Scholar who is focusing on resilient grazing systems.
“There’s this notion that we can produce differently and potentially better. But it’s a learning process. Every year is different, and every year we learn something more.”
When Boyd first began this process, the farm had more grain than cattle, with around 3,000 acres of cropland and only about 120 cows. So Boyd’s first step was to balance out those numbers a little better to diversify the landscape, dropping to between 1,500 and 2,000 acres while upping the cattle herd to around 300 head.
Those cattle are a key part of his crop rotation. Instead of planting annual crops every year, Boyd cycles his cattle onto the land.
“We find that having a really diverse planting helps,” he said. “We underseed a cover crop with perennials and then we do a couple of years of perennial crop either for grazing or for hay, and then we’ll go back to the annual crops.”
Even his annual crops see some diversity through intercropping.
“We’ll plant peas with just a dribble of canola and we’ll manage it like a pea crop,” said Boyd. “The canola is just there in the background helping hold the peas up.
“I have less disease pressure and I’m able to keep growing the peas, whereas a lot of people have abandoned them in the rotation because the last few years have been wet.”
Another intercrop that has worked well on his farm is peas, winter wheat, and hairy vetch for seed.
“The winter wheat and the vetch were there over the winter, and they helped suppress the weeds,” he said. “It wasn’t a real thick stand, so I went in and seeded the peas in the springtime. That actually worked quite well.”
It wasn’t easy to clean the hairy vetch seed out of the wheat, but once he did, the returns were worth the work.
“That was probably one of the most profitable things we’ve done over the last few years, that hairy vetch seed production.”
More from every acre
Boyd also does some intercropping for his feed.
“We can just plant it and we can cut it for feed, graze it, silage it, whatever. It works well,” he said.
Boyd generally alternates between annual mixes (primarily hairy vetch and wild oats) and perennial mixes of up to 25 plant species. His cattle are strip grazed, with movable electric fences making long, narrow strips to limit what the cattle can eat.
Prior to shifting to this style of grazing, Boyd was having a lot of problems with foot rot and pink eye in his animals. Not only have those problems all but disappeared, he’s also seeing better results from the cattle themselves.
“If the cattle can graze something green at this time of year, it’s like rocket fuel,” he said. “The plants accumulate so much sugar because of the cool nights, so when the cattle are eating anything green at this time of year, they perform like crazy.”
Boyd saw the proof of that four years ago, when he sent his calves to a custom grazing operation where they grazed straight perennial forage.
“They stayed there till the end of November just grazing dead grass.”
But he had brought 50 animals home to artificially inseminate the yearling heifers, and while they were back, they went on annual forage from August to December. When the two groups were combined again, the animals that were eating the annual forage weighed about 150 pounds higher.
“That sold me right there on the performance of this type of system,” said Boyd. “If we can put yearling cattle or fresh-weaned calves on some type of annual forage this time of year, then we start to talk about producing value and getting a decent return on the grazing.”
That increased productivity is why more farmers — and especially younger farmers — are turning more and more to regenerative agriculture, he said.
“For anybody at this point to go out and buy a bunch more land and make it on acres in the margin game is difficult,” he said. “And as a young person getting into agriculture, I didn’t want to stick my neck out and have a large loss.
“This has the potential to lower that risk.”