Livestock have come under the magnifying lens as being destructive for the climate and for the environment.
Producers have been quick to respond and Canada leads the way globally with its environmentally conscious and sustainable beef supply chain.
However, society as a whole does not understand the role of livestock in systems. The concept of livestock as part of a regenerative program is even more foreign.
Can you have a regenerative system and still optimize carrying capacity and performance in the livestock that you graze or feed? The answer is yes!
In our cattle feeding operation, we used the manure to fertilize the fields and were able to maintain a high level of cereal crop productivity without adding commercial fertilizer. The incorporated nutrients helped to establish plants, keep the soil cool and ward off invasive species. Although the cattle were penned, they were part of the program of building the soil.
When those same cereal fields were transferred to permanent legumes and grasses, the foundation was set and fields produced heavily with the help of grazing management for long periods of time.
- More with Brenda Schoepp: To sustain is one thing, to regenerate is something else
In grazing legumes, brassicas, cereals and grasses, we established systems where compatible plants were incorporated along with intensive management. The forage mix and the grazing pattern were critical. We grazed above the crown of the plant in both permanent and annual stands, thus preserving the plants’ natural ability and desire to keep growing above and below the surface. The taller canopy kept the roots deep and healthy, and the soil loose and cool.
The density of the livestock was an important factor. We chose small paddocks with heavy density to replicate a mob. For every paddock being grazed, dozens were resting. The biodiversity was measured by sweeping for insects, keeping track of birds and wildlife, and through core soil samples. Water was protected and the solar watering system, designed by my daughter, allowed for many animals to casually drink without struggling for position.
This is full-time grazing management. We called it rotational grazing but it was really adaptive multi-paddock grazing, which is the new technique. And it is the producer who must adapt to the paddock.
Even in self-herding systems we can influence behavioural change in the livestock through our actions to complement the soil. Carbon, fungi and bacteria which are organic matter are now included as indicators of success. Healthy soil is alive and sequesters a lot of carbon. Deep roots can access water in the driest of years.
When I travel through the special areas in Alberta I say to myself, ‘This land could sure use a million head of buffalo.’ Why? Because the soil needs the nutrients — regeneration and carbon sequestration does not just happen. There has to be synergy.
In a permanent stand at some point there must be pollination, and trash needs to decay between plants. Livestock are part of the ecology when all the other parts of the ecosystem are equally respected: The health of the animals themselves, the waterways and riparian areas, the culture of the time and place (which includes wildflowers, insects, wildlife corridors and nesting birds). There has to be recognition of the wind patterns, a respect for the trees which grow in families and in doing so support a healthy understory. Trees are foundational to silvopastoral grazing systems, which incorporate trees with crops and livestock.
For every pasture, field or pen there has to be an appreciation of slope, grade, run-off, chill, heat, sun, shade, potential parasites and predators. The human factor is huge in the success of livestock as a vector of regeneration. The system needs to be functional, stress free, adaptable, measurable and profitable.
Using livestock responsibly is so valuable that Canadian naturalist Trevor Herriot wrote in an article for the CBC show “The Nature of Things” — “The more we lose sustainable ranching on native prairie, the more those lands become vulnerable to market forces driving further habitat destruction and carbon release.”
All these things together make a regenerative system and sequester carbon — a lot of it. And that pays.
Albertan Andrea Stroeve-Sawa will quickly point out the 3,000 per cent increase in carbon over the lifetime of their ranch. In March, Alltech’s Planet of Plenty website proclaimed that “livestock and agriculture when properly managed have the potential to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” Australian Stuart Austin was recently featured globally when Microsoft bought $500,000 worth of carbon credits from Wilmont Cattle Co. And last year an Iowa farmer sold 5,000 tons of credit to Shopify.
Globally, more than 600 million people depend on livestock for food, farming, fuel and transportation. We cannot allow those vulnerable populations to be victim to First World pressure that does not appreciate livestock in a regenerative system because we failed to tell the story.
Regenerative agriculture is not simply a passing point of discussion. It’s a global challenge and opportunity that reaches far beyond our borders.
It is regenerative practices in agriculture that will set the new standard in the well-being and economic strength of people, product and the environment.