Nettie Wiebe’s name might be familiar as she was the women’s president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) from 1988 to 1994, and NFU president from 1995 to 1998.
We drove out to the pasture to check on the Charolais–Red Angus cow-calf herd. The pasture is next to a small lake teeming with ducks, coots and terns. The lake is somewhat alkali, making the land around it salt-affected. When they first purchased this quarter, Jim says, it was in poor condition due to cultivation. They seeded it to grass. Now, after several years of grazing according to organic standards, the land is in much better shape. Looking down a fence line between their pasture and the neighbour’s virtually abandoned land, the difference is readily apparent in the variety, vitality and quality of the grass on the organic side. The Robbins–Wiebe farm is one example of how organic livestock can form an integral part of a Saskatchewan farm.
I like the rotation of hay through the cultivated land. It helps with soil fertility and also with weed problems.
Livestock benefit from field crops
In an organic field crop rotation, there is often a ready supply of organic feed. Alfalfa is commonly used in crop rotations because of its nitrogen-fixing ability. Cattle relish alfalfa hay, and therefore provide a predictable and stable “market” for farm-grown hay. Screenings from grain crops (i.e. shattered and cracked grain and weed seeds) can also be used as feed.
Tim and Karen Liska grow alfalfa every year as part of their crop rotation to maintain soil fertility on their 1200 acres (485 ha) near Biggar, Saskatchewan. With their 70-cow Simmental breeding herd and 80 or so calves and feeders, they can always use the alfalfa crop as feed instead of trying to sell it.
Sandy Lowndes also makes cropping decisions with her cattle in mind. With her sister near Kelvington in central Saskatchewan, she looks after the certified organic herd of 186 CharolaisSouth Devon-cross cows and 15 quarters (2400 ac. or 970 ha) of land. Instead of growing a crop like flax, she chooses oats, red clover, triticale or winter wheat, so if something happens to the crop—such as early frost, or hail— she can feed it to the cattle instead of taking a complete loss.
Field crops can enhance pasture quality too. The Lowndes bought a small seed cleaning plant so they could clean their own seed. Sandy mixes the screenings with rhizobial inoculant and spreads it on the pasture. A good portion of the screenings are simply seeds that didn’t shell out when harvested. The cattle tromp the screenings into the soil which leads to good germination. “We started with a monoculture but now we have meadow brome and red clover,” she notes. “Quite a bit of sweetclover is coming up, and pea vine that we never had before. Black medic, another legume, has started showing up. Not only are our pastures healthier and more fertile—they’re prettier too!”
The Funks use the bovine “four-stomach” approach instead of the chemical farmer’s 2,4-D solution.
Livestock help the crops
The field crops benefit from the livestock in many ways. For example, the Liskas seed their lighter land for pasture with grass and alfalfa, which prevents soil erosion that would be a risk if it was cultivated every year. They also use composted manure to build soil fertility, especially on knolls where the soil tends to be thinner.
Dayton and Carol Funk use livestock for fertility and weed control on their farm of 4480 acres (1810 ha) north of Richard, Saskatchewan. They manage a weedy field by planting clover, haying and then feeding the hay to their cattle. The following year the land is relatively weed-free and more fertile. Cutting and baling weedy patches can prevent a Canada thistle or wild mustard problem from getting out of control. The Funks use the bovine “fourstomach” approach instead of the chemical farmer’s 2,4-D solution.
Born on grass
One common difference between organic and conventional cattle farming is the calving date. Conventional cow-calf producers often calve in winter or very early spring, whereas organic farmers time calving for April or May. Later calving means that the cows can graze on pasture or crop residue later into the fall. The calves are born when the weather is warmer which reduces the risk of hypothermia. With the cows out on pasture, the young are born onto nice clean grass, instead of a muddy pen with a winter’s buildup of manure mixed in. The cows seem to have less trouble and the calves are healthier with a marked reduction in scours.
Even though calving is on pasture, there aren’t many predator problems. Dayton explains that in early winter the predators are hungry and will take a calf because that’s all there is to eat. He figures that by April and May, the foxes and coyotes are focused on teaching their young how to hunt mice and gophers and aren’t that interested in calves.
In organic meat production, the use of antibiotics and hormones is prohibited. Dayton stopped using hormones long before becoming certified organic. He relies on developing good herd genetics— selecting the right bulls. He likes the Simmental-Angus-Hereford mix because it makes for a larger animal. Sandy Lowndes, on the other hand, has chosen the South Devon cross because it’s a smaller animal which does well on pasture.
Since going organic Sandy doesn’t see much of the vet. Her herd is healthier and the vet is usually only needed for pregnancy checking. She also culls more aggressively. For example, if a cow has calving difficulties two years in a row, or is more susceptible to lice than the others, she will cull the animal. “If you don’t,” she says, “you could be breeding non-resistance into the herd.”
Marketing organic livestock
Marketing organic livestock is a challenge. Many organic farmers have had to sell their cattle into the conventional market. However, with increased awareness of health and environmental issues around conventional meat, consumer demand for organic meat is increasing. Meeting that demand requires developing more marketing and processing infrastructure. There is a strong need for federally inspected multispecies abattoirs.
In 2006, the Saskatchewan Organic Livestock Cooperative (SOL – pronounced “soul”) was established as an educational vehicle to help farmers and consumers understand organic livestock. However, soon SOL was contacted by buyers looking for organic beef. SOL was able to broker the deal, and each of their fifty or so members was able to sell some animals. SOL’s membership includes pig, bison, sheep and chicken farmers, but so far marketing has focused on beef.
SOL markets out of the province, including into the US. The Saskatchewan market is still relatively undeveloped. Dayton and Tim believe that’s because organic meat is competing with local conventional meat, and conventional neighbours are willing to sell for a lower price. With a small population base— only one million—in Saskatchewan, there is not enough demand to accommodate what Saskatchewan producers can raise. “If we all lived within 15 miles of Toronto we wouldn’t have to export,” Dayton Funk says.
Why eat organic?
So what should the consumer know about organic beef—why pay the premium?
“Health,” says Tim Liska. “There are no antibiotics, no growth hormones, and it hasn’t been fed grain with pesticides. The environment is also huge for some consumers.” Dayton Funk adds that organic consumers and producers should support each other. “We share the same philosophy,” he says.
“Instead of trying to control everything, how can we use what thrives to the best advantage of the farm?” —Sandy Lowndes
Jim Robbins wants the consumer to know that organic cattle are well cared for. “We are limited in what we can do. But if an animal gets sick, we treat it with antibiotics and separate it so it is no longer organic. We don’t wait and see if it will get better on its own just so we can maintain organic status.” He is amazed that people who are not constrained by poverty still look for the cheapest food instead of focusing on quality.
As far as taste is concerned, Jim believes he can tell the difference. “I think a key thing for both organic field crops and organic horticulture is that we’re not pushing the plants. For example, the tomatoes from our garden taste infinitely better than anything you can get in the store. In the case of cattle, the same thing follows. We’re not interested in pushing them and raising them so quickly that we ruin the nutrition.”
Integrating the farm
Sandy has noticed a change in attitude since their family farm went organic. Previously they had the mentality that if land was not producing the intended grain crop, the land was not of any value. Now, she says, they think of a slough that is not producing grain as habitat for birds that eat the insects that bother the cows.
“I don’t have to plant something for it to be useful,” Sandy says. “You can let things grow that can benefit your farm. For example, quackgrass—instead of spending lots of energy trying to get rid of it, why not bale it and feed it? Instead of trying to control everything, how can we use what thrives to the best advantage of the farm?”
Jim really likes how cattle can make good use of “waste” land. A wetland area occupies a large part of several quarters of their land. Instead of trying to plow it up in dry years to sow more crop, he is content to leave it be. In the fall after harvest, the cattle are turned out on the field to eat the chaff piles and crop residue, and they make use of the slough vegetation as well. As they do, they provide a bit of extra fertility via their manure.
Would getting into cattle be a good idea for a young organic farmer starting out? The consensus was yes. “That’s how we got going” says Dayton Funk. “It’s a low cost way of getting started. Equipment costs are lower.”
“I always look forward to spring calving. I look forward to seeing the newborn calves, vibrant healthy looking calves born in the spring. I look forward to another year, another crop,” says Dayton. “It’s rewarding to see that. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy raising livestock.”
Tim and Karen Liska recommend organic livestock because it has more stability than organic grain. “You’re less vulnerable to the weather.”
Tim and Karen are re-building their herd after having reduced numbers during the dry years. Tim likes seeing the new calves: “It’s the genetics. You see what you’re using for bulls, what you’re adding into your herd. It’s always a challenge.” Karen says that each year the calves seem to be of better quality. “I went down today, and we’ve got one bunch of cows with young calves, awesome calves! I can see we’re going in the right direction. They’ll finish nicely and be the product we want.”
Sandy Lowndes will continue much the way she presently manages the farm. As an organic farmer, she feels more relaxed. Not being dependent on chemical companies and their products is a good feeling. “You’re more in control of your own destiny,” she says.
To promote healthy regrowth of the grass, Jim Robbins is looking to set up a paddock grazing system, rotating short bursts of intensive grazing on small sections of the pasture with longer periods without grazing. As he and Nettie get older they are looking to reduce the workload on the farm. Relying more on cattle is the way they want to achieve that.
Jim likes how the integration of raising cattle and crops works together. “I like the use of more marginal land for cattle, that really satisfies me—that I can make use of almost every acre on this place. I like the rotation of hay through the cultivated land. It helps with soil fertility and also with weed problems. And, I had an ambition to be a cowboy when I was a little guy, so cows are satisfying to me from that point of view too.”