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Growing soil

Laura Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 31 May 2018
Grazing cattle

“If your combine was throwing 80 percent of what it took in back on the ground, you’d be pretty unhappy,” Steve Kenyon points out. A cow, on the other hand, has a greater purpose.

“A cow kicks 80 percent of what she takes in out the back end because it’s not really for the cow,” the Alberta grazier says. “It’s about nature.”

Granted, the fact the cow uses just roughly 20 percent of the nutrients it takes in to essentially convert sunlight into a highly palatable protein source is amazingly efficient. Still, mechanically speaking, that only makes sense if you look at the bigger picture.

“She’s there to help the land. Nature designed this,” Kenyon says. “Everywhere we have dormant seasons, nature put ruminant animals. Nature gave us ruminants in order to break down those nutrients and make use of them to sustain the land.”

Steve and Amber Kenyon custom graze cattle

Kenyon and his wife, Amber, operate Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in central Alberta, where they custom graze around 1,000 head of cattle on 3,000 acres of leased land. They use a combination of intensive cell grazing, dormant-season grazing, swath grazing, crop residue grazing and bale grazing to sustain the livestock, the landscape and their lifestyle.

“I want to mimic what nature does,” Kenyon says. “It’s been doing this a lot longer than I have.”

Designed to work smarter

In 1996, Kenyon was fresh out of college. He found a job in the oil business he hoped would help finance his ranching dreams. At times, the oil field demanded a 20-hour workday. The cattle demanded he spend his scarce time off to farm all spring and summer to grow feed to carry the cows through the winter. Then there was the issue of dealing with the manure to cycle it back into farming.

It wasn’t long before the two high-demand careers had Kenyon exasperated. He decided the cows had to work harder to earn their keep.

“1997 was the last time I hauled manure. It was the most expensive and insane thing I’ve done,” he says as he laughs at the memory. “Now, I let the cattle move it for me.”

Kenyon has worked for 30 years toward more intensely managed, year-round grazing and other techniques that allow his cattle to work smarter rather than him having to work harder. He continues to look to the one who has the most experience of all: nature.

“Ruminants naturally stayed in big, tight groups to protect themselves from predators,” he says, “so that’s what we want to mimic, too.”

He categorizes potential grazing designs that keep cattle bunched tightly to graze intensely. His tidy charts have evenly spaced paddocks and precisely diagrammed rotation patterns: one-alley, two-alley, strip grazing, pipeline grazing, cell center or water truck grazing system. Kenyon then shows aerial views and diagrams of what his grazing systems look like in real life. They’re a lot less tidy but still systematically patterned.

MOving cattle frequently to manage for soil health and biological diversity

Most of his examples split pastures into 16 grazing paddocks, regardless of the size of the pasture. He says, “Sixteen is my magic number, but it’s a minimum. Once you really drink the Kool-Aid and get really into this, you’ll probably find it’s closer to 24.”

Regardless, creating a grazing system that more closely mirrors nature’s intensity typically includes a perimeter fence of solid wooden posts and high-tensile wire, and a system of internal fence lines made of step-in posts and single-strand electric wire.

Water availability often dictates the ability to split pastures. Developing pipelines that move water to different paddocks in the system is ideal, but Kenyon almost never takes that option on leased ground. Instead, he relies on gravity-flow pumps. Water trucks work, too.

After water is figured out, Kenyon says he tries to zone like forages together, keeping open land, brush and riparian zones in separate paddocks, for example. “If it’s a combination, they’ll automatically want to hammer the range and just go sleep in the brush. That defeats the purpose. We want even distribution in each area,” he says.

The size of the paddocks doesn’t matter. Rather, Kenyon says he wants even grazing days. “In a perfect world, that’s three days, but it always has to be evaluated,” he says.

Evaluations and timing

Like the lifestyle evaluation that came during his brief stint in the oil field, decisions today hinge on one thing: time.

It takes time to strategize a more precise grazing system. It takes time to build and move fences. It takes time to move cattle. It takes time to develop water. It takes time to develop relationships with leasers. He checks the time against his family’s mission statement: economic and environmental sustainability for generations.

“I found my passion. It’s grazing, but it has to pay the bills,” Kenyon says. “Everything we do, we have to check first: Is it going to be economical? Can I finance it? Does it follow our mission statement?”

For his resources, Kenyon says, it pencils: He’s proud to say he doesn’t own a tractor, although he may occasionally need to borrow one. Fencing is his most valuable asset and tool. Recycled materials picked up at farm auctions make durable water tanks; he has little to no use for synthetic or chemical applications, so inputs are minimal.

Nature dictates the timing of the grazing plan, too. He looks for cues to determine that ideal timing for grazing days:

1.  Graze period: “If you allow your animals to take a second bite off the same plant, you’re there too long. Don’t let them eat that re-growth on the same go-round.”

2.  Rest period: “If you’re grazing a plant when the energy of the plant is low – as in, when it’s trying to stimulate re-growth – you’re overgrazing.”

3.  Stock density: Kenyon looks for two indicators stocking density is on point:

  • Plant utilization: “Our goal for stock density is to knock every plant down, then move on. The higher the stock density, the higher the utilization.”

  • Manure distribution: “If you drive a four-wheeler across a pasture you have cattle grazing, and you don’t get crud splattered up on you, your density isn’t high enough.”

He also watches for signs of appropriate animal impact – the physical stimulation of the animals’ hooves on the soil – to keep the plants aboveground thriving. In turn, the cattle and the plants care for the biology below ground.

Use the help you have

“Some of my greatest employees are underground. They work for room and board, so I take good care of them,” Kenyon says. That includes earthworms, dung beetles, microbes, fungi and protozoa – the life of the soil that sustains the whole system.

They’re in charge of nitrogen fixation, manure and litter decomposition, tree and plant health, parasite control, nutrient availability, building organic matter and more.

“Everyone thinks you need to add stuff to your soil, but the most important thing your soil needs is water,” he says. It sounds simple but, if the land has been overgrazed, over-tilled, over-sprayed or underutilized, it could be lacking the structure it needs to absorb the water that’s available.

“If you only get 6 inches of water in a year, and 3 inches run off and 2 evaporate, you’re going to be sorry,” Kenyon says. “It’s your job to manage your water, and you do that by enhancing your water-holding capacity.”

The second-most important nutrient the soil needs is sunlight. “We need to add that carbon to the soil through root growth and decay,” Kenyon says. “We need more photosynthesis through time and proper grazing density.”

Finally, you need that beautifully “wasteful” animal that makes it all work together through nutrient recycling. “Remember, cattle are recycling 80 percent of the nutrients back in to the land,” Kenyon says.

“We have to use that. If you have old gray cow patties in your pasture from last year, you don’t have a very effective system.” He points out either stock density isn’t high enough to break it up through hoof action or the good bugs that would break those recycled nutrients down have been starved or killed. Either way, it’s a problem to address.

“You have to feed the plants, your bugs and your livestock. If your plants are weak because they’re overgrazed, the whole process stops, and nobody wins,” Kenyon says. “Nature had this figured out – we just have to listen.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: When making a grazing plan, Steve Kenyon starts with one of six potential grazing systems, but every one is customized to the geography and forage availability of that land: “None of them are right, none of them are wrong. Every piece of land is different,” he says.

PHOTO 2: Steve and Amber Kenyon custom graze cattle in an intensively managed system in Alberta, Canada. 

PHOTO 3: Moving cattle frequently to manage for soil health and biological diversity may take more man-hours, but once you and the cattle get used to the system, Steve Kenyon says, it’s worth the effort. “With 900 yearlings, my wife and I and a dog manage that,” he says.

“Good animal control really helps.” On this road between pastures, he marks driveways temporarily with a string of fake electric fence to keep them moving. “Now, they’re well-trained and know exactly where to go to find greener pastures.” Photos provided by Steve Kenyon.

Laura Nelson is a freelance writer from Big Timber, Montana.

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