“Intercropping, annual planned grazing systems to build fertility and poly cropping are all in their infancy. The potential is unlimited. As we change our thinking to producing healthy soil and healthy food, the innovativeness of the farmers of western Canada will be astounding. We need to keep open minds and not reject any tool that is available to us, but they all need to be examined in the context of: Does this build soil and make the food I am producing better for my body? The future is bright.” – Blain Hjertaas
Blain Hjertaas, now semi-retired, and his son Martin farm 1000 acres of grass pasture in south-eastern Saskatchewan 40 kilometers west of the Manitoba border. They raise 300 sheep, 40 cows, 100 custom grazing pairs and poultry: 100 chickens, 11 turkeys and 20 laying hens.
After completing ag school, Blain became a hi-tech, conventional grain farmer. “You couldn’t get me enough technology,” he says. After roughly 25 years, however, his perspective shifted. Besides the ongoing, labour-intensive challenge of planting and harvesting all those acres, “I started noticing things on the farm. Some of my observations were probably very subjective,” he says. “But weeds were becoming more resistant, leading to the vicious treadmill of spending more money each year paying for more herbicides.”
Blain’s “Aha!” moment was subtle: “I was looking at the soil in a slough on my land, and it looked good”—better than the soil in his crop fields. He started reading about holistic management. “I had nothing to lose; I thought, ‘Why not try out seeding grass?’ ” He has never looked back. “It was quite a steep learning curve. I should have failed, because I didn’t know what I was doing.” Seeding all his land to grass was a gradual process. “It was at least four to five years, a quarter section at time—I didn’t want to go in whole hog.”
Blain had never owned a cow. He says that, as he began learning how to manage pasture and graze livestock, “I was on the right track, but didn’t have enough knowledge.” A 6-day Holistic Management (HM) workshop led by Don Campbell, an HM-certified educator from Meadow Lake, SK, focused Blain’s efforts on HM’s four cornerstones: financial planning, healthy planned grazing rotations, land planning and biological monitoring to assess land health and productivity.
“Gradually we got the fencing infrastructure in and started to get a lot of cows,” he says. “Then we got hit with BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as ‘mad cow disease’]. It was quite scary, financially. Financial planning assistance from Holistic Management saved us; we got through it.”
Early in the farm’s transition out of grain production, Blain noted, changes in the land and the soil became apparent. “For a keen observer, some changes could be noticed even in the first year—for sure in year two. You start to see changes in how the land looks, and the impact of increased organic matter from animal manure and biomass on water infiltration,” he says. Rotational planned grazing also led to the re-emergence of “old species of grasses, native forbs and legumes,” he says. “The species diversity coming up in the pastures is astounding to see.”
Fascinated by his farmland’s transformation, Blain wanted to know whether his observations could be backed by data. With the help of Peter Donovan from the Soil Carbon Coalition, he uses Google LandSat composite images to identify how well his land is capturing solar energy. Looking down from above on the farm’s 640-acre main section—6 miles square around—Blain says there is an obvious difference throughout the year in photosynthetic activity on his farm relative to his neighbours (see NDVI Landsat image).
“Soil health and human health are directly related.” Blain says the farm’s livestock are totally dependent on how successfully he collects sun energy. “But there’s more to it than that,” he adds. “Photosynthesis sends a lot of sugar down into the soil to the rhizosphere [the area around plant roots], where it used by fungi and bacteria.
That activity results in mineral transfer between the soil and plants—manganese, zinc, etc. When we eat those plants, that nutrition is transferred to our bodies. If that path is broken—if you pour on fertilizer—then the plant doesn’t need to put out sugars, so there’s no mineral transfer,” he says, citing reports from The Center for Disease Control about the relationship between a decline of the nutrition in our food and the greater prevalence of chronic diseases in society today.
Hoping to better understand the carbon dynamics on his farm, Blain decided to participate in a long-term, multi-farm study managed by the Soil Carbon Coalition. Results thus far indicate “we are sinking an average of 22.9 tons of CO2 per hectare per year on our land.
The average individual’s carbon footprint is 18.9 tons/year; this means that every hectare we farm more than offsets one Canadian’s emissions for a year,” he says.
“What we are experiencing debunks a myth that livestock are horrible CO2– and methane producing monsters,” Blain says. “Animals can be a tremendous tool for transforming carbon into organic matter.”
“For thousands of years, huge herds of bison roamed these lands—they grazed here and there, staying tightly together as a group for protection from predators— maybe passing through areas once a year. The odour of the dung and urine kept the animals from returning too early, providing ample time for plants to recover from the planned grazing event. Thirteen thousand years of this activity resulted in the creation of high organic matter levels. In 1880, when settlement started here, soil organic matter (SOM) was at 12 %. After 130 years of bad farming, SOM dropped down to 2-4%. We squandered that huge asset.”
“Whether it’s a flood or drought, the more water we can hold onto, the better off society will be.”
The Redvers area did not experience a drought during the 2015 growing season—“it’s been very dry, though. Here it is August, and we have more grass on our farm than we can use,” Blain says. “Based on what I know about farming around here, people here will probably start feeding hay [to their cattle] soon. The price of hay is 10 cents/lb; you feed a cow 42 pounds of hay each day, so that’s $4.20 per cow, per day. It’s a lot cheaper to grow grass, I figure.”
Blain admits it can be frustrating to know that more farmers could benefit from adopting holistic management practices and planned grazing, but are reluctant to invest in systems other than the ones they’re already using. “Sometimes there’s a tipping point, often it’s a crisis in someone’s life—an imminent divorce, or two farmers not getting along, a financial thing—those issues are often what force people to change,” he says. In the meantime, he says, “I sense that there’s an awful lot of young, urban people who are really well-educated on the need to have sustainable and healthy biological systems in agriculture. They would love to get into farming, but the capital investment is very high—how do we transition them in?”
Whatever one’s background, Blain suggests the incentives for using holistic management and planned grazing should be compelling. “Sometimes people have the wrong impression of planned grazing; they don’t think you make money at it,” he says. “But they don’t realize that, even when your income takes a hit during the transition from grain farming, your expenses also basically drop to almost zero.” Starting out, he notes, it can take a few years for income flow to improve. “But around the fourth or fifth year, once you get some decent grass production going, then it goes quickly—you can put more animals out there and start to be profitable again. Then, you’re every bit as well off [as before], but with less risk.”
“It doesn’t matter how good we are at adding nutrients—we have to get back to basic soil biology and get back to understanding the relationship between soil, plant roots and bacteria. If we don’t understand that, we won’t survive as a species.” – Blain Hjertaas
For more information, Hjertaas recommends:
Christine Jones (Australia) “probably has the most knowledge of carbon sequestration out there.” See: http://www.amazingcarbon.com/