Cattle Country: Cattle production: A crucial element in regenerative agriculture and the circular bio-economy
The following article was written by Peter Frohlich, National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE), University of Manitoba. It was originally published in Cattle Country in September 2023.
Researchers at the University of Manitoba along with Canadian and international academic partners continue to generate data that places livestock production as an essential element within sustainable agriculture systems. Regenerative agriculture and circular bio-economy are concepts synonymous with enhancing the sustainability of current agricultural production systems in Canada
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture builds on the current production systems and includes processes, practices and on-farm management activities that produce food while at the same time conserving and rehabilitating the land, water and air. In regenerative systems, conservation is an outcome of production. What is a circular bioeconomy?
A circular bioeconomy is an economy that is powered by nature. The main players or drivers of this type of an economy are renewable natural capital. In agriculture, natural capital can be the soil, air, water and all living organisms. A circular bioeconomy focuses on minimizing waste and attempts to replace non-renewable fossil-based products to improve the sustainability of production systems.
Regenerative agriculture, cover crops and cattle
Soil health is one of the cornerstones of regenerative agriculture. Most recently, cover crops, also known as annual forages, have been used by many producers to improve soil quality, prevent erosion and enhance plant and insect biodiversity. Martin Entz is a Professor of Cropping Systems and Natural Systems Agriculture and the University of Manitoba. Entz and his graduate students spent over 10 years studying the role of livestock integration in organic cropping systems. Full season or shoulder season legume-based cover crops are critical to supplying nitrogen to organic grains and vegetables. Their research showed that grazing allowed these soil building crops to be profitable, and grazing was found to be an important tool for managing the speed of nutrient flows from these cover crops to other crops in the rotation. Entz’s team also worked on a 30-year-old crop-livestock system in Uruguay where they measured greater subsoil carbon in rotations where perennial forages were included along with annual grains. The grain-only systems were not able to increase deep soil C due to their shallower root systems. Entz indicated that the mechanisms by which grazing affects soil C are fascinating. For example, research in Canada and USA has demonstrated that well-managed grazing stimulate the roots of plants causing the plants to release even more carbon into the soil system. Entz states that “This evidence should really not surprise us since the rich Prairie soils were actually developed under grazing”.
How do livestock fit in a circular bio-economy?
Livestock play an important role in an agro-ecosystem bio-economy. In the circular cycle, forages, crop residues, and byproducts from commodity processing that are not consumed by humans serve as feedstuffs for livestock. Livestock then convert this human indigestible biomass to protein. The processing of livestock also creates by-products destined for several industries including pharmaceutical, cosmetic, leather and others. The manure created from livestock operations serve as an important source of organic matter, nitrogen, phosphorous and other trace elements essential for soil health and growth of plants. When applied to crops and pasture, manure reduces the need for commercial chemical fertilizers, lowering the use of fossil fuels for their production and ultimately mitigating GHG emissions. A healthy soil enhances the growth of plants and grassland crops creating feed for livestock while completing the circular bioeconomic cycle.
In fact, according to recently published data, in the US alone 43 billion kg of human inedible food and fiber by-products is diverted from landfills and turned into edible food, pet food or industrial products because of cattle.
Research collaboration and knowledge sharing
Research with cover crops, and alternative feedstuffs including by-products and food waste is underway at the University of Manitoba. Several research teams in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences continue to take a multidisciplinary collaborative approach and incorporate expertise from plant, animal, soil sciences and economics to examine sustainability of farm practices. For example, teams work on projects that investigate finding innovative ways to extend the grazing season by intercropping corn with forages for fall/winter grazing or projects that investigate 4R (right rate, source, place and time) principles of nutrient management. Many projects draw on the expertise of producers who serve as members of research advisory committees and ensure that the new information generated is applicable, practical, and economically feasible on the farm. The ultimate goal is for this collective knowledge generated by researchers, producers and the industry to help guide program and policy development.
Enhancing public knowledge regarding the importance of livestock in sustainable systems The University of Manitoba has a unique opportunity to share knowledge with the public on sustainable agricultural production systems at the Farm Food and Discovery Centre (FFDC) located at the Glenlea Research Station just south of Winnipeg. In 2022, FFDC hosted over 4,000 visitors and averaged 200 field trips from urban and rural Manitoba schools. The Discovery Centre houses interactive displays generated by commodity groups including the recently installed display from the Manitoba Beef Producers to showcase the sustainability of beef cattle production systems in Manitoba. In addition, station staff, researchers, graduate students and commodity groups participate and engage with the public at popular events such as Discover the Farm, which alone attracted more than 1500 visitors last year. The next Discover the Farm event will be held on Sunday, September 17, 2023. Please visit the FFDC website for more information on events, educational programing and tours. For additional information on the role of cattle in regenerative agriculture please check out “Do cattle have a role in regenerative agriculture?” a Cows on the Planet Podcast with Kim Stanford, Tim McAllister and Martin Entz.
For more information on recycling food waste in integrated crop-livestock systems please listen to Closing the loop: Recycling food waste in integrated crop-livestock production systems podcast with Kim Ominski, Herman Peters and Tim McAllister
To read more about the circular bio-economy and role of livestock in sustainable food production systems in Canada please follow the link: The role of livestock in sustainable food production systems in Canada (cdnsciencepub.com).
To read more on the use of by-products and food waste in livestock production follow the link: Utilization of by-products and food waste in livestock production systems: a Canadian perspective | Animal Frontiers | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
Both articles were written by Kim Ominski and colleagues in the Department of Animal Science and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge.