The state of a field is influenced by many variables that are interconnected and dependent on each other. In a field used for cattle grazing, these variables are even more diverse, and managing them can prove a daunting task. This is the purpose behind Olds College’s Regenerative Agriculture project: an undertaking that seeks to identify the key variables of field management to make the most out of a piece of land.  

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Growing from the Ground Up

Regenerative Agriculture Project Continues at the Olds College Smart Farm

The state of a field is influenced by many variables that are interconnected and dependent on each other. In a field used for cattle grazing, these variables are even more diverse, and managing them can prove a daunting task. This is the purpose behind Olds College’s Regenerative Agriculture project: an undertaking that seeks to identify the key variables of field management to make the most out of a piece of land. The project consists of several aspects that include rotational grazing of cattle, fencing and water management and tailored crop cocktails meant to revitalize poor soil and depleted forages. It also investigates different remote monitoring technologies that allow producers to control or assess pasture conditions from comfort of their own home.

“Just like annual crops, pastures require proper management in order to maintain productivity and efficiency. When pastures become depleted and are no longer productive, rejuvenation is necessary,” comments Sean Thompson, the manager of the Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production (TAC) at Olds College. “However, optimal strategies for rejuvenating old or spent pastures are not well established or regularly practiced. Our aim in this project is to benchmark the current pasture conditions before setting out to evaluate various regenerative management practices.”

The first approach to improving forage land involved implementation of a more efficient grazing system. Using the practice of intensive rotational grazing, cattle are moved through paddocks every 24 to 48 hours depending on how much the cattle eat over that time period. Once the cattle have eaten down to a certain height of foliage, they are rotated out giving the plants a period of regrowth. In a side-by-side demonstration, researchers compared rotational grazing to the conventional method of continuous grazing, evaluating differences in total forage production and regrowth, calf performance, animal activity and soil characteristics. Both herds of cattle grazed a mixture of fall rye and sweet clover; the rotational group transitioned through eight three-acre paddocks while the continuous group had access to the entire 24 acres of forage. 

Cattle activity was monitored using management tags that predicted time spent grazing versus resting and ruminating, and when a cow came into estrus. The Allflex SenseHub system was deployed remotely, powered by solar panels and accessible remotely through cellular communication. All cattle were tagged, giving the Olds College research team the ability to monitor activity from anywhere, at any time. The system also identified individuals who did not read on the system, indicating potential illness, tag failure or absent animals.

Cattle engaging in continuous grazing in the 24-acre field

In addition to the Allflex tags providing information on individual cattle, the regenerative agriculture project focuses on remote monitoring technologies in other areas of grazing management. The team has installed sensors that keep tabs on the status of the electric fence, alerting them if the fence is damaged, turned off or has its electrical current disrupted. Water level sensors have also been installed in the pasture’s watering system, giving the team access to its water levels and alerts if the levels dropped below a certain level.

  A sustainable agricultural practice that supports pasture rejuvenation is the adoption of riparian zone preservation. The exclusion of riparian zones promotes increased biodiversity, reduced soil erosion, decreased water contamination from manure and wildlife habitat preservation. The Olds College team used electric, curvilinear fencing to exclude a creek running through the pasture. Additionally, a central dugout (also excluded) serves as the primary water source, where a solar powered pump system supplies water to troughs located away from the water body.  These troughs contain a water level sensor that provides remote monitoring of water availability.

  

Soil health is the foundation of a good grazing field, and this is where rotational grazing and crop cocktails come into play. Rotational grazing was employed as part of the grazing demonstration, and will also be incorporated into fall grazing of three crop cocktail blends. The crop blends are designed to offer the most nutritional benefit to both the cattle and soil by utilizing multiple plant species in a single mix. Each blend is made up of a mixture of clovers, plantain, chicory, vetch, turnip, forage rape, Italian rye grass, forage radish and oats. “Having multiple species in a forage mixture increases biodiversity and minimizes the impact of the environmental conditions experienced over the year,” said Sean. “Each individual plant species will be suited to a different range of conditions, ensuring that growth still exists given variable weather conditions (drier, wetter, cooler or warmer) throughout the growing season. In ideal growing conditions, each plant variety will complement each other and provide a nutritional diet to the cows in the fall. Fall grazing also allows cattle to apply manure directly to the field, improving soil nutrient levels, overall organic matter, and reducing manure management costs.”  The soil was tested by the Olds College team at the beginning of the year using a variety of techniques including soil sample analysis and in-ground soil sensors. Changes to the soil will be quantified at the end of the season through additional testing following completion of the grazing trials.

Allflex management tags installed on grazing cattle.

“It is our intention to demonstrate and evaluate several different regenerative agriculture practices available for beef producers. These management practices form the beginning of our rejuvenation process, which we intend to measure and build up on in future research projects,” Sean continued. “The implementation of remote monitoring technologies compliments these practices and showcases equipment that producers can benefit from in their efforts to reduce on-farm labour requirements.”

The research into regenerative agriculture at Olds College is paving the way towards a better use of land. The cooperation between soil health and herd management creates an opportunity to improve forage production and efficiency, impacting not only the ground, but the cattle that it accommodates. With multiple management practices working together and through the use of remote monitoring technologies, the efficiency of the land is increased to offer multiple benefits to the farm.