Target sustainable grazing: Cover crops and holistic management practices on the Richards’ farm in Saskatchewan

“The class we took in 2003 was wonderful. We didn’t have all the traditional paradigms to hold us back, because we hadn’t been back on the farm very long.”
It continues to be a mystery to me how some folks will spend $65,000 for a new pick-up but will not spend a couple of hundred bucks for a holistic management class. Sigh… jtl

Garry Richards is seeing positive results from holistic management on the farm where he grew up near Bangor, Sask. He and his wife Lynn and three children are making it work with little outside input. “This farm was homesteaded in 1902 by my grandfather. My mother and father farmed here, then I went away to university and became a pharmacist. I was gone from the farm for about 15 years, then returned home with my wife Lynn near the end of 1999,” he says.

It was always a mixed farm, and then in the mid-1970s his father sold all the cattle and went into straight grain farming.

“Thus I didn’t grow up with any livestock, except a few horses,” adds Garry. “When my wife and I came back, we thought we would come home and see if there was a future in farming. We wanted to see if we could make a living without subsidizing the farm long-term with our off-farm income. I was a pharmacist and my wife a nurse, and it would have been fairly easy to work off the farm to generate income to help keep things going, but that wasn’t our goal,” says Richards.

“We grain farmed for two years and it was a difficult time; grain farming was barely break-even and there was a lot of pessimism. Many people were saying we shouldn’t try to farm,” he says.

“But we continued on and decided to give it a try for a couple years — so in 2002 we bought some cow-calf pairs, to get into the cow business as well as grain farming. Then in January 2003 we took a holistic management class,” he says.

Holistic management

Holistic management has been a big help in learning how to work toward improving land and pastures.

“The class we took in 2003 was wonderful. We didn’t have all the traditional paradigms to hold us back, because we hadn’t been back on the farm very long.”

“The cows we bought were all due to calve in January because that’s when most people calved at that time.” The typical thing to do was build a calving barn with a corral, and live with those cows while they calved.

“At that time we were pregnant with our first child and we were out there calving cows and taking the holistic management class. Lynn was about seven months pregnant and the challenges reinforced the fact that what we were trying to do was insane! It was a lot of work, fighting nature. That winter it happened to be minus 40 C for a long time. So the holistic management course was very timely.”

Another important event was listening to Gabe Brown speak at a local grazing conference in 2007. “In 2009 we planted our first cover crop cocktail. That was another big step for us. Today we continue to try different things every year in that mix. Some years we farm a little more grain, or a little less. The farm has become much more resilient, with a lot less risk,” says Richards.

A robust cover crop cocktail mix helps fills out Richards’ pasture.

“The components of holistic management are healthy land, healthy people, healthy profits, and we are starting to see some of these things become a bigger reality. I remember talking to Don Campbell about grass and he said that you manage for what you want, rather than what you have. Keep doing the simple principles as they were meant to be done, and things will take care of themselves. Now we are seeing our land become healthier.”

“We are trying to quantify some of those things with numbers and soil testing and a bit of science. Some things are just subjective, however, regarding how the soil looks, whether it looks aggregated, with better water infiltration. We are starting to see some differences,” he says.

“We’ve been very wet here for a number of years and we can see how our land is soaking up the moisture better. Our grain crops are better. We don’t use fungicides, and our crops are healthy. We don’t have to depend on chemicals as much,” he explains.

“We are starting to see increases in profit by using cattle in the grain production cycle — with some grazing days here and there, improving soil health, and we’re trying to extend our growing season. It’s easy to do this on perennial pasture, because it grows as soon as it can in the spring, and grows until it gets covered with snow, but on the grain fields and cultivated land it’s harder to do. We are able to extend things a bit, however, so we now have land that is photosynthesizing for more than 200 days a year now, whereas on a conventional grain crop it might only be green for 70 to 80 days,” he says.

“Our net profit on a per-acre or a per-cow basis has gotten bigger. We are also able to manage risk better, and the farm is much more resilient. We have many more options now, because some of the crops we seed can be combined or grazed, or we can make feed out of them.”

“We also have a choice, depending on markets. If the market for grain is good, we might be better off to combine that crop that year, with more net profit, and we’ll still have enough forage. That’s a great option, but sometimes weather makes it impossible to harvest it the way we want to do it. If we have oats lying out there in a swath that can’t be harvested, my cows can graze it.”

“With some of our cows we also diversify, raising some grass-finished beef to sell. That’s where our open heifers go; they make really good beef. This system suits the people who believe they don’t want any kind of antibiotics or hormones in the raising of their meat. We can assure them about the way it was grown, and the nutrition it’s been getting,” says Richards.

“When we took the holistic management class our goal was to mimic nature; we wanted the cows to calve in May/June and lick snow in winter. This was vastly different from how my father did it. When he had cattle,they put them in the barn every night.”

Total farm profits and the quality of their soil started increasing after they introduced cattle into the grain production cycle.

“I just said to him,‘Let’s try it. Many people are doing this and it’s worked. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change.’ He was willing to go along with it, so that winter we had the cows out licking snow for water, doing more foraging on their own. A few weeks turned into months and at the end of winter he couldn’t believe how good those cows looked. I give him credit because he was open-minded enough to go along with our ideas and willing to change.”

“He stood back and watched as we moved the cows all the time, and had lots of grass, and were going into pastures four feet tall. The cows were going in and tramping down and wasting all this grass that many people feel should be made into hay. He watched us doing this, and after a few years he could see that it works,” Richards says.

“Now with the cover crops, that’s another new thing, but we are seeing that the improved soil health is paying dividends in our grain crops. We are getting high yields and healthier crops, with less expense and more profit.”

The cattle

“Our first group of cows was a Limousin-Charolais cross. They were the wrong kind for grass-based, low-input agriculture, but they did fairly well. I didn’t know anything about cattle, and still have a lot to learn, but we realized we needed to find the right type of cow to make this really work.”

“In the end we looked for some other genetics and started using some New Zealand grass-based stock, including some Angus and Devon. A grass-based ranch near here had a dispersal sale, and we bought some Black Angus from them. We started a purebred herd and continued on with it, using grass-based genetics. We produce most of our own bulls now, so we know how they will perform. We know the cows, and let the system sort things out,” says Richards. “The main trick is simply to cull hard and work toward the goal.”

The cow herd today is mainly Angus with some Tarentaise and Welsh Black and Galloway to add hybrid vigour. “That’s one of the few free things a breeder can utilize. We are trying to do a little crossbreeding and still maintain a large percentage of our own Black Angus genetics.”

Family

Working the farm is a team effort and every- one is involved. Rebekah is 13, Evan is 12, and Caroline 10.

“At this point they are interested in the farm and all three say they want to farm, but we don’t know what they will actually end up doing. If they can see a farm holistically — healthy land, healthy people, healthy profits — they will have a good farm but, more importantly, a good life,”says Garry.

Farming is a family affair for the Richards but the end goal is not just a good farm but a good life.