Ryan Boyd has travelled the world to see how producers graze their cattle, and has figured out how to make his cattle work for him.
Strip grazing, high stocking densities and a diverse range of plant species are at the core of the system developed by the Manitoba farmer, who as a 2019 Nuffield Scholar visited farms in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, the Netherlands, the U.K., New Zealand and Australia.
“It was an awesome opportunity to put my eyes on different farms around the world and see some different techniques,” Boyd said during a presentation during the recent virtual Farm Forum Event.
What he saw around the world reinforced the practices he had been developing on his mixed operation north of Brandon.
“There is a lot of opportunity to capitalize on cattle in the farming system,” he said. “Cattle are upcyclers in nature. They take a high-roughage feed, turn it into valuable manure and fertility source, and produce meat in the process. There’s lots of room to incorporate that into our farming systems.”
One of the things that stood out for Boyd on his travels was how producers in Australia, Mexico and Brazil managed water on their operations.
“Water is a much easier concept to grasp than carbon — to get more water into the soil, you need more carbon,” he said, adding this can be accomplished by growing a diversity of plants and gauging progress by measuring water infiltration.
He divides his grazing land into paddocks and strip grazes them, giving his cattle just a quarter- or a half-acre at a time. He’ll put 350 to 400 yearlings on one piece, moving them a quarter-acre a day using an automatic gate lifter programmed to help with the moves.
It’s a system that amps up the intensity of intensive grazing.
“We were grazing 600,000 to a million pounds of beef per acre,” said Boyd. “When you get the density up that high, the cattle’s appetite is incredible. They eat all the species here… At the end of the day, they are chock full of grass.”
The system doesn’t hinder performance. Manure is closely monitored and if required, the cattle sometimes will be given a protein and rumen stimulant as well as minerals.
Pointing to one particular paddock grazed earlier this fall, Boyd said he got about 100 grazing days per acre. Last year, it only produced 80 grazing days per acre a year, he said, citing the intensive grazing and long rest period (10 to 12 months) as keys to increasing productivity.
“When you graze that intensively, you can easily double or triple your stocking rate, effectively harvesting the forage,” he said.
The paddock he cited is good land, capable of growing wheat or canola, and so getting high productivity from it is a must, he said.
“If we want to get to a more management-intensive system, like the grazing system we have, and compete on a dollars-and-cents basis, and long-term sustainability, we need to be able to manage this forage to get effective production off of it,” he said.
The 100 grazing days per acre he achieved this year was thanks to increased rain, but his long-term goal is to double, or even triple, the 80 grazing days per acre on that particular paddock.
“If we want to take it to the next level, we need to introduce those cattle, cycle the forage and stimulate those plants, so that when they grow back, we’re going to grow back even more forage,” he said.
Cattle used in this system need to be able to perform well in a non-selective grazing setting. Boyd uses his own yearling bulls on the cow herd, and turns out 30 to 40 bulls with 400 cows.
When his cattle have grazed, they leave behind a dense mat of forage with no soil exposed. Into that, Boyd seeds corn, sorghum, buckwheat, forage peas, soybeans, flax, radishes and turnips.
“We are just amping up the soil diversity to wake the soil up and let nature do its thing,” he said. “You’ve got all these different root structures, and all these different plants working together, feeding the soil biology.”
He doesn’t use any pesticides or fertilizer on his farm.
“There’s no fertilizer on here — just seeds and Mother Nature doing its work,” he said. “Grazing animals provide an opportunity to inject diversity into the system that is unprecedented, and the cattle thrive on this.”
He also ensured the ground is covered at all times and that there are living roots in the soil.
And while he has his own specific practices for his operation, producers around the world are using the same principles to drive their operations forward, he said.
“Farmers large and small are thinking about how they can do this and make it work for them,” he said. “Cattle are the key that unlocks the door. I can’t help but think we are missing out on a huge pile of opportunity by not having more cattle in our cropping systems.”