Regenerative Agriculture: Integrating Livestock into Annual Cropping Systems, By Austin Baron AAg, Agri-Environmental Specialist, Swift Current

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Source: Government of Saskatchewan

There was no shortage of challenges in 2021 for Saskatchewan producers. Lack of consistent moisture left farmers and ranchers with decreased yields, feed scarcity, cash crop maturity and harvestability issues observed throughout the province. As fall progressed, livestock producers began sourcing alternative feeds, leading to the opportunity for livestock and annual crop producers to work together.

Winter Cows
Bale grazing offers options for wintering cattle

The fifth principle of regenerative agriculture is integrating livestock into existing operations and farm plans. Though there are many operations with both cattle and annual crop production, shortages in 2021 encouraged partnerships among those producers who do annual crop production or raise livestock exclusively. Livestock can terminate cover-crops and polycrops, graze unharvested annual crops or help with harvest residue management.

In terms of annually cropped acres, a common scenario seen for livestock integration is feeding livestock on annual crop land in the form of bale grazing, swath grazing and straw-chaff grazing. When considering the incorporation of livestock, or partnering with your neighbour for grazing purposes, there are a few logistical and environmental considerations to be made.

First and foremost, water availability is key to having livestock on the landscape. Is there water available on this land? If so, what is the quality? What is the nutritional value of the feed you are considering? Feed and water testing are important factors when planning for successful livestock production and herd health. The Ministry of Agriculture has livestock and feed extension specialists throughout the province that can assist with feed samples and ration building, along with providing water sample screening and test interpretation to livestock producers.

Studies have shown lower cost of production when wintering cattle in-field through reduced yardage and manure handling costs. A study completed near Saskatoon showed an increase in nutrient retention and recycling when manure was applied directly to the field. However, while direct application of the manure reduces costs, it can also increase the likelihood of runoff and contamination. Proximity to ground water and surface water must be considered. A study near Lanigan noted that due to increased phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from overwintering sites, these sites should be located away from sensitive surface waters to protect them from increased nutrient loading. A similar study, at the same location, compared bale grazing to straw-chaff grazing and found that bale grazing had greater potential for nutrient leaching through lighter soils when compared to straw-chaff grazing, due to the higher concentration of feed at bale sites and poorer distribution of manure throughout the field. In a comparison study of bale grazing, swath grazing and straw-chaff grazing, the latter had the most uniform distribution of nutrients and biomass.

Cycling of nutrients is one of the greatest benefits of incorporating livestock into cropping systems. Studies have shown that beef cattle excrete approximately 90 per cent of the nitrogen they uptake through their feed, and 50 per cent of that is excreted in a form that is readily available to plants. Direct deposition of nitrogen onto the landscape reduces the costs of corral cleaning and trucking, which leaves the producer with potential for a greater economic return. Many agricultural operations in Saskatchewan do not include livestock; however, there are opportunities to work with other producers to increase economic and environmental sustainability on farm by integrating livestock onto the landscape and into crop production systems.

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