Holistic Management practices are becoming more popular amongst those in the cattle industry as pockets of knowledgeable individuals spread. As a way to further educate those in agriculture on Holistic Management practices and for those engaged in Holistic Management to network with others an Open Gate Learning Day was held at Neil and Barbara Dennis’ ranch, Sunnybrae Acres, on Friday, July 15.
What is Holistic Management?
Essentially Holistic Management is focused on working with nature. This means integrating the Water Cycle, Mineral Cycle, Biological Community, and Energy Flow into the management of grazing cattle.
The idea of Holistic Management is to utilize pasture management in simulating how bison once roamed the prairies. The electric fences being moved throughout the day and in some instances using back fencing to prevent the animals from returning to that section, mimics the ways in which predators once circled bison.
It is said to be better for the land because it brings it back to nature. Holistic Management looks at increasing the stock density on a particular piece of land allowing them to move across the field slowly and then opening up another paddock for them to move into. By doing this, cattle eat the full variety of vegetation, choosing to eat the more sugary part of the plant or taking the higher fibre portion of the plant depending on what they need in their diet. They then move on as the easily moveable fence is removed to allow them to expand their territory.
The first paddock is then allowed to recuperate as the cattle move on through the pasture.
Holistic Management also sees ranchers utilize their pastures earlier in the year because the plant can begin working earlier in the year and later into the winter in utilizing sunlight.
Plant diversity was also a focus of the day with a higher density of plants, increased growth time allowed for vegetation, and an increased total leaf area covering the ground. Each of these factors increases energy absorption by plants which in turn increases the amount of carbon dioxide they use in photosynthesis, while creating a healthier plant which produces a higher sugar content which is enjoyed by the cattle.
Essentially they’re farming sunlight by ensuring their land can best utilize sunlight for photosynthesis, “no bare ground,” was one of the big emphasises of the day.
Is it a solution to climate change?
Carbon dioxide has been rising in the atmosphere and has become a source of discussion regarding climate change. The carbon cycle, however, is part of not only the atmosphere, but can be found in vegetation, soil, and oceans.
“We know the atmosphere can hold more but we are learning the consequences of this,” Blaine Hjertaas writes. “The oceans hold the most but they are becoming more acidic as their load increases, causing alarm for coral ecosystems. The safe place to store carbon is to increase the organic content of the soil. Agricultural soils on the eastern prairies averaged 12 percent organic matter at settlement. Today those same soils are between four to six percent.”
The Soil Carbon Coalition has been measuring the change in carbon across North America. In southeast Saskatchewan tests began in 2011 and were then were retested in 2014.
Although cattle and livestock produce methane gas, the land on which they’re managed can act as a deposit for further greenhouse gas emissions.
At the Hjertaas ranch near Redvers, for every kilogram of greenhouse gas emissions related to the industry, they have sequestered 17 kilograms. At McNeil’s in Alameda one kilogram emitted relates to 25 kilograms of carbon sequestered. Finally at Corcoran’s near Langbank for every kilogram emitted they sequester 39 kilograms.
Ways to improve soil sequestration is to utilize poly crops and avoid monocultures, while also using various grazing and cropping strategies that promote land cover and active biology in the soil.
As the carbon content in soil increases the soil biology increases, which in turn improves the soil aggregates which attach to plant root systems.
While walking through the field, Blaine Hjertaas, a Certified Educator with Holistic Management International, encouraged groups to use a shovel and uproot a small area. The roots went deep and the soil aggregates were attached in clumps to the roots.
“The plant is taking in the sunshine it captures and is turning it into sugar through photosynthesis, which feeds the fungi and bacteria,” Hjertaas said. “The fungi and bacteria then aid the plant in taking minerals out of the soil that they can’t usually process well.”
“Glomalin is then produced which acts as superglue for soil aggregates and the deeper the roots go the deeper the carbon sequestration is occurring.”
What does this do? The water holding capacity increases to mitigate flooding and damage from drought, production increases, soil biology improves, it creates nutrient dense foods which are healthier for people, increases pollinators, and encourages the overall cycle of life amongst wildlife.
In relation to this, Hjertaas wants to see a carbon tax, which in turn is used to give back to those farmers and ranchers who are conducting practices which returns carbon to the ground as a subsidy; a way to reward those who are able to sequester carbon and help balance the carbon cycle again.
The Opengate at Sunnybrae Acres
During the field day the group visited different paddocks near Sunnybrae Acres homestead. Neil and Barbara Dennis, trace their land back to Neil’s grandfather who homesteaded to the area in 1900. Over the past 30 years Neil has been exploring different ways to make his land as productive as possible.
Neil was once a purebred cattle and sheep producer, as well as a mixed farm operator, but as he began focusing on the health of the land in his care he is a success in Holistic Management having rejuvenated a pasture seeded in 1949 through high stock density and increased land recovery time. Through this he increased the biodiversity of a pasture that had once been a crested wheat crop to now boast nearly 40 varieties of plants, while increasing the land’s water infiltration. In return this has improved the mineral cycle and has improved soil carbon sequestration.
The Dennis’ graze their pastures taller, either while flowering which leads cattle to eat this portion of the plant making it grow back more lush or when the field has gone to seed because the cattle then pack the seed heads back into the pasture to grow in later years.
The group of nearly 40 people visited and discussed best management that they’ve found through their time ranching. They watched as the Dennis’ moved cattle throughout the day, watching as nearly 500 head were grazing one and a half acres (including water) and given an expansion of an acre. The cattle moved over to the new area then began moving back and forth as they grazed their choicest parts of plants first and continued throughout.
Later in the day the cattle were moved again. This time a fence was opened to a twentieth of an acre and all 500 head moved into the small area for a short time before the fence was opened to the rest of the acre that was fenced off for them. This was done because Holistic Management allows ranchers to focus on different aspects of improving the land. Do they need the animals to trample seeds and spread out future plant growth? Do they want them to stop the spread of a certain plant in which case they’d have the cattle eat the plant before it went to seed.
Ultimately what Holistic Managers want is to be able to work with grain farmers in building their soil as well. By allowing cattle onto land once the land has been harvested then added carbon matter can be brought in with the cattle helping improve the land as the farmer continues to utilize it for a cash crop. Both parties would benefit from mutually working together.
Concluding the day
As the day came to an end the group was amazed by the difference shown and described throughout the day between conventional grazing practices and Holistic Management at the Dennis’ ranch.
The reason why many are doing this is to improve the land and try to make the world better for their children and grandchildren, and they feel that Holistic Management is the key.