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Cattle Country: Bringing it all together – Is there a place for cattle on Canada’s annual crop land?

March 1, 2024 — 

The following article was written  for the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE). It was originally published in Cattle Country in March 2024.

Integrating livestock onto cropland where possible is often noted as one of the key practices for building soil health but this can be challenging to adopt within annual cash crop rotations that are common across the major grain growing regions within Canada. A new Beef Cattle Research Council project co-lead lead by Animal Scientist Dr. Emma McGeough and Plant Scientists Drs. Yvonne Lawley (University of Manitoba) and Kim Schneider (University of Guelph), will be collaborating with a team of researchers to look at the barriers to crop-livestock integration and regionally adapted strategies to benefit both grain and cattle producers.

Producer survey:

We know from industry that farmers and ranchers have significant concerns about the practicalities and the economic costs and benefits of integrated crop-livestock production. After years of increasing specialization throughout the entire sector from farm to fork—why exactly should producers consider a way of farming that seems to buck that trend?

Researchers throughout Canada seem to have a pretty good idea why—because it’s a great way to benefit the soil in which our food and feed grows. Small-plot experiments have shown promising results, but now it’s time to see if the idea has the potential to scale throughout the diverse agricultural regions of Canada.

As producers know well, demonstrating results through plot- or field-level experiments on research farms is a crucial first step, but experimental success is not a guarantee of success on the farm—especially in a landscape as broad as Canada’s. To that end, Dr. Tristan Skolrud (University of Saskatchewan) is launching a Canada-wide survey of commercial beef and crop producers to find out just how willing our producers are to consider integrated crop-livestock practices. Are ranchers interested but just don’t know how (or perhaps why) to get started? Are farmers interested in the soil health benefits from grazing but aren’t sure if the benefit is worth the hassle?

Before we get our survey out in the field, we’ll spend some time talking with producers to make sure we’re asking all of the right questions—if you’re reading this and want to take part, feel free to reach out!

Strategies to get started: annual forage grazing in the spring and fall shoulder seasons.

Extended grazing strategies built around annual forage crops is an angle this new beef cluster project will be focusing on. The need to “get more from less” when it comes to available land for cattle grazing and feed production could be a motivating factor to enable new integration of beef cattle on annual crop land that benefits all sides. Quality matters as much as quantity and there also continues to be a need to address the high nutritional demands not only of backgrounder/replacement cattle in the fall but also of females in the spring/early summer around calving. Annual crops for fall grazing are routinely used for swath grazing, however, the cost of harvesting increases the cost of this feed. Also, the question of which crops to grow is driven by regional climatic and soil suitability, class of cattle and the intended season of grazing. The question of “what works, where?” will be asked by the team which also includes plant, animal and economic researchers from the University of Saskatchewan (Dr. Bart Lardner and Kathy Larson),

University of Guelph (Dr. Katie Wood) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (Drs. Jillian Bainard and Aklilu Alemu).

Crop species for grazing may consist, for example, of annual cool or warm season grasses, annual legumes, brassicas, and forbs but the species selection. Common cool season species such as oats or fall rye can be grazed in the fall to extend the grazing season, winter cereals (e.g. fall rye, winter triticale) can also be planted in the fall for grazing the following spring. However, little data exists for spring/fall grazing of standing annual forage crops, thus we must look at several management factors for adoption for Canadian cattle production. These include identifying suitable annual and intercrop species, time of seeding and time of grazing. More information is also needed on suitable mixtures (both simple and complex) to grow in terms of forage yield and quality and how the grazing in the shoulder seasons impacts soil health and subsequent crop yields. Choosing species that offer complimentary benefits for plants, animals, soil and economics can increase the efficiency of resource use and lead to greater yields than single species monocultures.

On the field side, the first growing season of this project got underway in 2023 with the establishment of small plots across Canada from British Colombia to Ontario, with sites at Agassiz, Lacombe, Swift Current, Clavet, Carman and Guelph. For evaluation for fall grazing, annual forages were seeded in late spring/early summer and although significant drought conditions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan delayed seeding until early July, this did provide the opportunity to see how late seeding would affect yield and quality throughout the fall. Given the frequency of drought on the prairies, this will provide important information on the feasibility of early vs late seeding. The team seeded 6 treatments at all sites, with additional “region specific” treatments chosen based on local relevance. In Manitoba, monocultures of cereals (oat, triticale and barley) were compared with simple mixes (2-3 species) and complex mixes (4-6 species), with forage crops including peas, forage soybean, radish, clover, vetch, sunflower, millet, turnip etc.

From small plot to large pastures, grazing trials we will place in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario which will assess forage yield and quality (including nitrates, which is an important toxicity consideration with annual crops), feed intake, liveweight gain, body condition and enteric methane production, an important measure of rumen efficiency. How the integration of cattle grazing on annual crop land impacts soil factors (health, nutrient availability) and yield of subsequent crops will also be assessed. The project will also measure the carbon footprint of integrated crop/livestock systems providing science-based information on the plant/animal/soil relationship to enhance productivity and climate resiliency.

The question, “will it pay off economically?” will be evaluated by Kathy Larson (University of Saskatchewan), with results from field trials being used to assess the financial viability of annual forage crops for beef cattle grazing in the shoulder season. This will provide producers with comprehensive information on the costs and returns and the value of grazing when integrated onto annual cropland.

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