Soils Champions

Young producers build a farming future on sustainable systems

There's pride of purpose in this farm plan

Ryan and Sarah Boyd are building their farming future in sustainability.
Ryan and Sarah Boyd are building their farming future in sustainability.

It's the kind of story that the farming industry takes great pride in today. A young producer, recently graduated with an agriculture degree, recently married, joining his family farm, and building a farming future on high principles of conservation and sustainable management.

Ryan Boyd, who farms with wife Sarah and parents Jim and Joanne Boyd, is that young man.

The Boyd family has been farming near Forrest, just north of Brandon, Manitoba for nearly 70 years. Ryan and Sarah met at the University of Manitoba where both were studying agriculture. Today their family's mixed farm includes over 400 cows, 1,400 acres of perennial pasture and 2,000 acres of crop. In addition, Sarah is a grower for a garden centre operation owned by her family.

There are many parts to this success story in sustainability, but these five areas of management focus stand out.

Grazing benefits the soil and keeps nutrients on the field.
Grazing benefits the soil and keeps nutrients on the field.

Soil improvement. The farm thinks above and below ground management. Nearly a third of the tillable acres is devoted to perennial forage. Grazing helps maximize the benefits to the soil, and keeps nutrients on the field. Improving soil organic matter enables greater nutrient cycling and availability, and enhances water holding capacity, biological activity and soil structure.

Short grazing sessions and long recovery periods give plants time to develop abundant root mass. Bale grazing spreads nutrients and residue on pasture, which has improved yields, animal performance and decreased salinity.

Stubble grazing also helps with the nutrient cycle and hoof action speeds up residue decomposition. The small amount of manure in corrals is composted and applied to fields. And high density grazing controls weeds.

The farm has used zero tillage for about 15 years and that, they are convinced, has increased fertilizer efficiency and soil structure. "Fields withstand more traffic in wet years and have better moisture efficiency in dry years," says Boyd.

Crop rotations are carefully planned to break disease and weed cycles. Forage fields that are rotated into croplands are the most productive cropping fields. All fields are soil tested to monitor nutrients and adjust the fertilizer program.

Bale grazing spreads nutrients and residue on pasture.
Bale grazing spreads nutrients and residue on pasture.

Erosion control. Residue is left on the soil surface following grazing and after harvest of grain crops, eliminating wind erosion and greatly minimizing water erosion. Creek bottoms in fields have been left in grass to avoid water erosion.

Water management. Every effort is made to promote infiltration of precipitation to avoid problems related to runoff. The perennial rotation utilizes subsoil moisture and enhances soil water holding capacity, reducing salinity and the need for surface drainage. All riparian areas are fenced off and grazed only briefly. Cattle are watered off-site using solar water pumps and pasture pipelines.

Natural lands management. The farm has a real focus on managing natural lands for improving native vegetation and their grazing program has helped protect native tress and provide wildlife habitat. The result is abundant wildlife such as deer, geese, ducks and coyotes. Since intensive grazing was started, prairie chicken populations have increased.

Energy, conservation and management. Zero tillage has reduced fuel usage in the field, and recently the family began straight cutting canola, avoiding swathing. Bale grazing reduces fuel usage for processing hay, and bale grazing and long grazing rotations have allowed pasture productivity to be increased without energy intensive commercial fertilizers.

In addition, portable watering systems use wind and solar power to water cattle. And new technology added this year is an energy free cattle waterer that uses ground heat to stay thawed in winter.

Benefits and challenges

There are many benefits to thinking in conservation terms but many challenges ahead for the farming industry in meeting those needs, according to Ryan Boyd.

"The challenge is that the benefits of soil conservation are not always immediate as it takes time for the living soil system to get up and running," he says. "The financial demands of farming are challenging and patience is required because in the long term, soil conservation will always pay."