By Katie Trottier, Ruminant Livestock Specialist
Steve and Amber Kenyon own and operate Greener Pastures Ranching in Alberta, a custom grazing operation with a focus on regenerative agriculture. Steve also teaches grazing management, writes for Canadian Cattle magazine and speaks at different events across North America on intensive grazing practices. Amber works for Gateway Research Organization, an AB agricultural research organization, as an outreach officer and also speaks at events. I had the pleasure of travelling with them within Nova Scotia for a few days last week and asked some logistical questions that producers interested in implementing rotational grazing might have.
Katie: Rotational grazing is not a new concept, but there has been increased interest in it, especially with available OFCAF funding and other efforts to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. What’s one thing you love about rotational grazing that might surprise people?
Amber: I think one of the things that’s surprising is how well trained the animals become. You can take a herd that is quite flighty and then within days, maybe a week or two, they calm down pretty quickly and you can manage them a lot easier. By the end of a season, you’re able to ship those animals out with a whole lot less pressure or stress.
Steve: Yes, to add to that, one of our services that we provide with our rotational grazing is we calm animals down. My favourite type of animal to graze is actually bred heifers. The customers love it because those bred heifers go home and they have to calve them out, and they’re quiet. They’re calm. They’re used to people—and that’s kind of a benefit or side bonus you get when you’re grazing at our place. If animals ever get out, its amazing how easy it is to get them back in when they’re on an advanced grazing system model. If they get out in the neighbour’s field, you can go out and call them, and they all come running back in the gate. It’s very easy; one person can manage a whole herd. It’s the difference between actually managing that herd and the herd managing you, kind of. (laughs)
Katie: Does rotational grazing work in Atlantic Canada where we don’t have the same scale they do in the West? Our fields are smaller and irregular.
Amber: YES. Steve and I have had the privilege in the last little while of going across Canada looking at different farms that are doing rotational grazing. One of the things that has stood out to me, especially with summer grazing, is that it works in every environment. We were in Kamloops, BC, which is one of the driest places in Canada, and they were doing rotational grazing there, and it was working there as well as it does here in Nova Scotia, where we are seeing it work out on an ocean bluff.
Steve: My answer to that would be it depends on economics, and every environment is different; every farm is different. You have to run the numbers to make it work. As an example, years ago, one of my daughters did a little experiment; she was grazing on five acres. She did a rotational grazing plan; she moved one horse and three donkeys as her herd. She had to plan it out, make a grazing plan for it, build her paddocks, move all her fencing, move the water; at the end of it, she had to fill everything out on a grazing chart and calculate the gross margin. In the end, she actually wrote an article about it and bragged that some of her paddocks made more money than Dad’s. So, that’s a very small scale and she proved that it could be profitable.
Amber: I would say that small scale is actually easier than large scale, because water is easier. One of the problems that we have with our large herds is making sure that there’s enough water, and if a water system goes down a herd of 800 don’t wait for water.
Steve: Yeah, the bigger the herd, the bigger the disaster.
Katie: What’s the first thing someone should do, or consider doing, if they have an interest in rotational grazing?
Amber: Pound a fence post!
Steve: No! (Laughs) I would say education. Learn about it; learn about the grazing concepts. Just going out and starting to do something when you don’t have the information or understanding behind it—you’re going to make too many mistakes. Find someplace that teaches about advance grazing systems of some kind. Find a mentor ; someone who’s already doing it, and talk to them and get some advice. That would definitely be the first step.
Amber: The first thing to PLANT is a fence post.
Katie: How long will it take for someone to recognize that rotational grazing is working? Do you have any words of encouragement for producers who have tried it for a year or two and aren’t sold yet?
Steve: I think if you jump in with both feet and get things done, you can see results within a year. It doesn’t take long. Depending on, of course, if it’s a drought year maybe results won’t show up quite as quickly, but it doesn’t take long to start seeing some results. The problem is if people just try it partway, okay? “Okay, let’s just put up two fences and see what happens.” Well, then you don’t really see the results as quickly. However, if you jump in and you actually understand the concepts, and you put up enough fencing to do a proper rotation to control that graze period and rest period correctly, then you can see results within a year, maybe two years.
Amber: I would say if you haven’t seen results in a year or two, then it might be time to talk to your mentor, and see what’s happening and why there hasn’t been anything changing.
Katie: Will those be obvious signs or more subtle?
Amber: If you spend time in your pasture, they’ll be obvious.
Steve: You’ll be grazing longer. You’ll have more grass. Just resting fields: it’s amazing how much that does.
Katie: What are common challenges producers face when they begin rotational grazing and what can producers do when faced with a new challenge? Are there universal challenges or are they unique to each farm?
Steve: A lot of people struggle right away with time. Before they even start, a lot of people say “well I don’t have time to move cows every day”, because they think it’s going to be this huge ordeal that’s going to take so long. When you’re starting something, you’re not very good at it, right? You’re not going to have it down to a fine art, or be able to do it as quickly as possible. A phrase I like that Joel Salatin says all the time is “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly first”. Right? It’s okay to suck at it to begin with. You’re going to get better at it, and figure out the shortcuts and how to do things more efficiently. I think time might be an issue for a lot of people because they’re too busy doing other things, and then they get behind on the grazing.
Amber: I think a challenge that young farmers, especially, face is how to convince their father or grandfather to change things over (laughs). When faced with that problem, that is completely dependent on the situation. Human resources is one of the most difficult things but one of the most rewarding things that you work with on a farm, or any business, really.
Steve: Yeah, I guess the most common challenge that is universal across all provinces would be– or everywhere– is the human resource component. Being able to talk to people and communicate, and being able to acquire the land, or deal with landowners or truckers or parents or hay suppliers – human resources is probably a very common challenge when talking about anything in agriculture.
Amber: I think when faced with human resource challenge, the most important thing is to just stay calm. People handling is like animal handling. If you get all up in arms about something, you’re not going to get anything done. It’s like trying to chase a cow through the gate when the cow is stressed out and you’re stressed out. It’s not going to happen. On another note: don’t be afraid to either go see a counsellor, or to talk to somebody , don’t think that in our typical farmer fashion that we have to hold it all in because that stress is real. It’s important to get help when you need it .
Interested in learning more about rotational grazing? Various factsheets and videos are available on Perennia’s OFCAF website .
Other questions may be directed to Katie Trottier, Perennia’s Ruminant Livestock Specialist.