It was a dry year and the grasshoppers on our new farm were the size of jackknives. The carrying capacity was terribly compromised and the fact that sheep once prevailed was evident in the close-clipped grass. I found it a terrific challenge.
Turns out this area north of Rimbey is great for rain and so it was a matter of cross-fencing and rest. The goal was to quadruple the carrying capacity in as many years, clean up the weeds, and build the soil. We most certainly have quadrupled the carrying capacity and right now our problem is that the paddocks are too big and we need to cross-fence for the third time. The weeds are subsiding, but the soil is still lacking and we take responsibility for that.
After a long wait, we have finally seen the emergence of trefoil and vetch that were likely planted 15 years ago. This is a good sign but we need to bolster the soil in as natural a way as possible. We will start with manure and take it from that point. Healthy soil makes for a healthy plant. The more starved the soil, regardless of the mass, the weaker the nutritional offering for the livestock. Challenges differ and here the issue is rocks and water. The land is crisscrossed with waterways and there is water close to the surface in a multitude of underground rivers. Getting around with equipment is tough. It is truly “cow country.”
That does not mean we treat it as such. Even on pasture land there is a great potential for improvement and for productivity. We started with cross-fencing and water access. The year-round creek was fenced off from the cows and the set-back provisions (as outlined for Alberta) were put in place to ensure we did not have run-off contamination. As we tend to keep our calves closer to the yard in winter, our focus here was environmental.
The first year the pasture was weeds, which grew among some stalks of pale-yellow grasses. A mixture of timothy and orchardgrass along with some old standbys like smooth meadow brome tried to compete. To his credit, hubby spent hours in the weeds cutting the heads off of Canada thistle with a pair of scissors and bagging them because we could not get to many spots with equipment. It worked and after three years these areas just need some maintenance.
We fenced off the bushes to start as we wished to preserve space for the multitude of wildlife that live here. To further enhance the property, we will focus on a design that fences off all waterways and increase our shelterbelt plantings. This serves to protect the wet areas and encourage a more complete ecosystem and we need to divert some storm wind in summer. It will be artsy, but with a full knowledge of the interaction of plants, it is important to replicate a permaculture design. This will not take away from production.
In areas where we focused on soil health, we have seen tremendous change and we are doing that almost entirely with manure. Our most exciting asset right now is the manure pile and any nutrients that we apply will need to be natural to stay with our core values. As producers of food, our client dictates a certain amount of our practice and this is not difficult to do. It does, however, require a little more patience.
There are two main activities here — cow, calf and horse rescue. Horses are hard on land and so they have a designated rotation. Any south-facing horse pasture is exposed for short periods of time so the close clip does not heat the soil. Natural shelter is used for protection and warmth. For both cattle and horses, we observe where they want to spend their time on the coldest days and ensure they have access to it. The heavy rains in June also call for shelter for young calves and the paddocks are designed so cattle have access to the bush for these times. It is not the most desirable time to expose the bush to cattle but necessary for overall health. Designated high-ground wooded areas then become part of the rotation.
For feeding, the hay is rolled out and the location changed daily. This spreads the nutrients around the fields and allows for us to fertilize the soil strip by strip. In the extreme cold we have an area that is both sheltered and allows for the bales to be rolled out. There is a higher concentration of manure here but it is set well back from water and run-off and the practice is knocking out the weeds that were established on the face of that hill.
Nurturing land is like raising a child. It takes time and patience and the more we put ourselves into it — the more we get out.
I see it as a huge research platform that always needs to go further. This year, soil testing by quadrants will lead us to new decisions and more production capabilities. It does not take a lot of land to raise cattle. It only takes commitment to bring an old farm back to new life.
Third of a three-part series by columnist Brenda Schoepp