By Melisa Luymes
While grazing may have been the norm in these parts of Ontario decades ago, most of the cattle have now moved into barns, while the fences and fencerows have been removed. But there is a growing demand for grass-fed beef and there are many great reasons to get animals back onto the land.
Michael and Lindsay Groot operate Wholesome Pastures near Crediton, ON and direct market pasture-raised beef, lamb, chicken and duck, along with other products that make full use of their cattle, including natural soaps and lotions, leather and hides. They have been grazing in creative ways over the years, including running chickens on cover crops between 60-inch corn. Now, they are partnering with federal research scientists in the Living Lab – Ontario project to measure the impacts of grazing in a crop rotation.
The couple runs a mob grazing system with their stocker cattle, which means they focus on high density and frequent movements. They move cattle daily around the plots and the pasture headlands of the research field. Over the last eight years, they have installed 200 acres with permanent perimeter fence and have invested in a system of temporary “pig tail” fencing and 6,000 feet of above-ground water lines with quick link hoses to a water bowl that moves with the herd around the fields.
For their Living Lab – Ontario project, the Groots are running a replicated trial of 80-foot “crazy” strips of a couple different rotations: corn-soybeans, corn-soybeans-wheat and corn-soybeans-wheat with 3 years of grass that they rotationally graze with cattle. They are comparing the different rotations, along with the forage utilization and cattle gains, to better understand the economics, practicality and soil health benefits of the various systems.
Funded by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC), Living Lab - Ontario has farmers and federal scientists from AAFC and Environment and Climate Change Canada studying water quality, soil health and biodiversity on real farms. This project is one of four across Canada in the Living Laboratories Initiative. It is a new approach to agricultural innovation in Canada that brings farmers, scientists, and other collaborators together to develop and test innovative practices and technologies. Living Labs focus on developing innovative farming solutions to combat environmental issues related to agriculture, such as climate change, soil health, water quality and biodiversity. What our farmers and researchers learn through Living Lab – Ontario will be shared with farmers and scientists across Canada.
On the Groots’ trial, federal researchers are sampling soil to understand changes to the organic matter levels (Dr. Xueming Yang) and microbiology over time (Dr. Lori Phillips). They are also linking with provincial specialists from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), Christine O’Reilly and James Byrne, to contribute to their research on forage productivity and gain of the cattle compared with dry lot feed efficiency. Measurements of these and other factors will be used for economic comparisons between the various systems.
The Groots’ farm is one of six farm-sites for this project that involves several organizations, including the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO) that is supporting the Groots’ trial as well as the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), the Ontario Soil Network (OSN) and three conservation authorities in the Lake Erie basin (Essex Region Conservation Authority, Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority and Upper Thames Region Conservation Authority) that are doing watershed-scale monitoring. Living Lab – Ontario is coordinated by the Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA).
This past winter, the Ontario project partners hosted a series of presentations dispersed throughout their own conferences about the ongoing research.
On December 1, EFAO Conference hosted a panel on innovations in small grains that included double cropping with Brett Israel (EFAO) and Greg Vermeersch (IFAO), along with federal researcher Eric Page (AAFC).
• On January 21, the OSN hosted a discussion on doing on-farm research with three project researchers: Andy van Niekerk (IFAO), Sarah Larsen (EFAO) and Ian Scott (AAFC).
• On February 8, the OSCIA Annual Meeting hosted a session on grazing cover crops with Michael Groot, Andy van Niekerk and Lori Phillips (AAFC).
• On February 17, the IFAO Conference hosted Ken Laing (EFAO) and Laurent (Woody) van Arkel (IFAO) along with Xueming Yang (AAFC) to discuss their research on organic no-till vegetables (Ken) and perennial ground covers (Woody).
• On March 8, the Conservation Authorities hosted a talk about their water quality monitoring with Henry Denotter (OSCIA).
All of these recordings are now available at ifao.com/Ontario-living-lab.
• OSCIA’s session on February 8 included a discussion between Michael Groot and Andy van Niekerk, in which they dove a bit deeper into their motivations for grazing and for the project.
“We decided that it is much more, well I don’t want to say efficient, but it is,” says Groot. “It is about getting the animals back out onto grass rather than having to bring them in the barn, bring feed into the barn, move the manure out of the barn and back to the fields.”
For Groot, cover crops after wheat were another great reason to get their cattle outside. Having the cover crops mob grazed allowed for even distribution of manure, the chewing and pulling of the crops stimulated root growth and the cattle broke up weed and disease cycles.
But he wanted to put some numbers to the anecdotal evidence he was seeing on the farm, so he decided to partner with researchers. Does rotational grazing in a cash crop rotation sequester more carbon? Does it increase phosphorus availability and protect water quality? Can it reduce pesticide and fertilizer use?
Lori Phillips spoke next and shared her research at the Groots’ farm to date. She and her team completed baseline soil health assessments in 2020, sampling at five sites and at two depths. In 2021 they started to look at the various management systems and sampled twice, looking for the micronutrients, pH, respiration rates, bioavailable carbon and nitrogen, and microbiology, as well as for the soil structure.
“We call them crazy strips, but they’re not so crazy as far as I’m concerned,” says Phillips. “What he’s set up is a wonderful randomized complete block design which is certainly the way to a researcher’s heart.” For example, her soil testing showed that the plant-available phosphorus went from 15 ppm from the west side of the trial to 35 ppm in the east. Without the randomized replications, her team would not be able to account for that variability on the system comparisons easily.
In short, Phillips says that improving soil health takes time and that she wouldn’t expect to see any major changes to the soil in such a short time with this trial so far. But she is also looking at potential leading indicators of change in soil health, like organic nitrogen which is a nutrient pool that is mediated by microbes.
OMAFRA’s Christine O’Reilly was also on the panel and discussed their plans to better understand the forage production on the Groots’ farm with a rising plate meter that measures both the height and the tillering of grasses. Her colleague, James Byrne, is advising on measuring the gains of the cattle because that will certainly be an important part to the economic equation.
One of the concerns brought up by the audience on OSCIA’s call was the issue of compaction, as there is the perception that cattle can damage soil, especially in wet conditions.
Steve Sickle, an OSCIA director on the panel and a grazier himself, chimed in that it wasn’t an issue for him but that it required some common sense. You might think there will be compaction where cattle congregate, such as around a water bowl. He has a solar powered water bowl in the middle of his home fields for grazing cattle all winter. The thaws are the most likely times he would see compaction, but he says the compaction is mainly from the tractor. Sickle moves his bale feeder across the field and places it especially on the knolls and areas with low organic matter where he wants manure from the cattle to be concentrated. But when the field is sloppy, he brings out hay on the four-wheeler instead of the tractor if he wants to avoid compaction.
For Groot, he also thought he would see compaction on some of the more heavily trafficked areas of the fields but said that those were some of the highest corn yields. Phillips added that studies show the hoof marks in the soil create microclimates that can lead to increased biodiversity. O’Reilly added that the compaction from cattle is only in the topsoil, and is easily broken up by roots and by freeze-thaw cycles, but that compaction from farm equipment is the type that is deeper and more difficult to solve.
It may be many more years before there are strong answers on the ROI and soil health indicators from Mike and Lindsay’s Living Lab trial, but follow along on the IFAO’s website at ifao.com. ◊