Brian Harper of Circle H Farms doesn’t claim to have all the answers to cattle farming in a drought.
He just knows what works for him.
With drought severely impacting cattle farmers across the province, it doesn’t appear to have impacted Harper’s herd negatively. He reasons it’s due to a change in his thinking in the way his land is used to sustain his herd.
Harper has embraced and adapted his fields to encompass grazing management resilience in his fields. This approach includes a collection of practices meant to produce soil that is resistant to floods and droughts by increasing the concentration of native grasses.
Harper hosted an afternoon on his 900-acre farm just northwest of Brandon, to show and explain alternatives to traditional cattle feeding and soil biology, which to this point has sustained his farm through the drought.
Farmers from as far as Saskatchewan, north Winnipeg and the surrounding areas came, including a couple of students from the University of Manitoba studying agriculture.
Harper teamed up with Ducks Unlimited representative Michael Thiele. Thiele was on hand to further illustrate soil biology, augmenting Harper’s presentation.
Today, Harper has downsized from his 100 head of beef cattle to 85 breeding females and approximately half a dozen bulls.
Originally a grain producer in 1990, Harper worked his farm for four years before deciding to switch to cattle. With a background in dairy farming, Harper stopped farming when he was 18 and worked in construction for a number of years before switching.
Harper’s herd is predominantly a Shaver beef blend. It’s a veritable hybrid of a combination of nine heritage breeds known for carcass and efficiency traits in a forage-only environment and is made for composite breeds.
"We got into them because it was something different," he said. Composite breeds were not a big thing at the time. People were realizing the benefit of heterosis by cross-breeding. But, no one had ever made an actual composite in Canada.
The focus was on certain economical traits from each breed.
It took a lot of breeding and reciprocal breeding to stabilize the herd, he said.
Certain breeds were picked for their carcass traits. Others were picked for their maternal traits, frame size and feed efficiency. It wasn’t an overnight success.
At the time, Harper managed the farm conventionally, just like everybody else.
"Put them in the pasture and go away for the summer. Put up hay all summer. Work all summer so you can work all winter."
Always open to learning, Harper participated in numerous conferences, expanding his knowledge base.
One day, Harper had a light bulb moment that challenged his traditional view of farming.
"Attending those conferences, it’s amazing what those people are doing."
He learned that feeding his cattle wasn’t about the grass they were consuming. It was about the soil. "It was the management of the grass to heal the soil that was giving them the production they needed in performance."
Harper’s whole focus changed. It went from the animal to the plants, then from the plants to the soil. "It’s kind of the evolution that got us to where we are today."
The number of farmers practising the same as or close to the method of grazing management for resilience in the province that Harper has embraced can be counted on one hand, he said.
"Many people are still rotational grazing, which is what we did from 1994 to 2013. And then we learned about high stock density grazing. ... The cows are consuming it as they graze. They’ll take that 90 per cent."
Following this, Harper allows the land to recover for 120 days or up to a year.
"Then our total production is actually increasing. You’re actually growing more forage. It’s a hard thing to get your head around at first. I didn’t believe it until I started trying it."
Harper explained that farmers only have so many days in a year they can grow so much forage. Through stockpiling, Harper has extended the grazing period.
"Now we’ve lowered our winter feed costs because now we’re grazing. I didn’t feed a bail until Jan. 5 this year," Harper pointed out.
"That grazing period is a big saving for the cattle producer."
Harper says he manages the time the cattle are in a spot. "But you grow more total forage for a little bit of your time."
By managing the forage with high-density cattle farming where there are more cattle in a smaller pasture for less time, Harper said a pasture will increase the diversity in the forage by having more time to recover from the grazing.
"You’ll get more plants, like native plants, return to the land. They’re already there in the seed bank. We deferred grazing those paddocks and let them go to seed. It makes the soil more resilient to flooding, and drought."
Harper’s pastures have deep roots which contribute to water infiltration conservation.
"If we don’t have a mat of plants tramped on top of the ground, then we have a lot of forage growing. It’s protecting the soil all the time from the heat from the sun, evaporation, and it’s always there to help conserve."
The cattle won’t totally consume one species either. Especially grazing the way Harper’s cows do.
"When they go into a pasture, they’re biting every green plant they can see before their sister gets it. Because it’s a diverse diet, it doesn’t impact them (the plants)."
On Farm Day at Harper’s farm, Harper explained that producers like himself are building resilience into their soils.
"Right now, there is no drought on my place," he said. "There’s forage over five feet tall. We’ve got lots ahead of us and lots behind us."
He’s been working for years to stave off drought.
"I took a course in 2008 and the instructor said to manage every year as a drought year. I’ve been doing that probably since or very shortly after that."
He did that by building resilience in the soil by leaving litter on the ground, following the directive that a good relationship with one’s soil is when you don’t see it often.
"We have to harvest sunlight from as early as we can to as late as we can. The sooner we can have that happening in the spring, and the longer we can have that happening in the fall, the healthier the window, the total time is for the plants."
Harper hopes to give producers ideas and tips for those who think his method of grazing management is a lot of work.
"It’s not," he said.
"The payback increases. We get paid pretty well for the few hours we spend."
Most of the people coming to Harper’s eighth Farm Day will never have been exposed to his way of grazing management by going regenerative,
"It’ll do the job if we just let it. By us chasing maximum production, we’re actually diminishing the system to where it doesn’t even function anymore."
Harper used to feed his cattle every day.
"Now I go out every 21 days and move a wire. The cows are doing the work. The cows are building the soil. All I need to do is manage the time."
Interest in grazing management to build resilience is there in the younger generation, but it’s overcoming traditional, generational ideas that present challenges, he said.
"If I can get one person excited to try this and he gets two neighbors trying it…"
What can he say to cattle farmers suffering from the drought? "You can’t plan for a drought when you’re in a drought," he said. " I know that hurts. I don’t want to rub salt in any wounds. But that’s kind of where it’s at."
Plan for a drought every year. And that’s when you start managing your grazing differently. When a drought does come or you have a year of heavy rainfall, your land is ready for it. "My next question to those people in the middle of all that is, how many will change? Maybe it takes something like this to get people to change."
To learn more about grazing management to build resilience, message Harper on Facebook at facebook.com/CircleHCompositeCattle.