Grazing at high stock density
Cows on banked grass early April
October - weaned cows fattening on banked pasture
January 2009 - grazing stockpiled forage through a foot of snow at -35 C
Blacketlees belongs to Iain and Rowena Aitken. Iain emigrated to Canada in 2000 from southwest Scotland where his family farmed beef cattle and sheep for eight generations. We own 640 acres of land west of Rimbey, in central Alberta, as well as renting additional pastures in the immediate area for summer and fall grazing.
We consider ourselves to be in the grass business first and the cattle business second! Our management practices aim to capture as much free sunlight, heat units, and water as possible through perennial forage. We then harvest this with our cattle who convert it into a saleable product - beef.
When we purchased our farm it was a mix of cropland, over-grazed pastures and a treed riparian area bordering the Medicine River. The cropland has all been sown back to grass as we try to restore fertility and depleted organic matter to the soil. We operate a planned grazing system based on holistic management principles that minimize over-grazing and maximize soil and plant health. By maintaining adequate litter cover on the soil surface we can prevent run-off and double our effective rainfall. This goes a long way to mitigating the drought risk in our unpredictable climate.
To utilize the forage production effectively we move cattle onto a fresh pasture nearly every day at a high stocking density. The pastures then have anywhere between 21 days and a year to recover before being re-grazed depending on the pasture and time of year.
We utilize both permanent and temporary electric fences to create the large number of pastures we need. With this system we can produce twice as much grass as conventional set-stock ranching would produce off the same land area.
One of the keys to utilizing our pastures in this more intensive manner has been water development. We have installed several miles of water pipelines which we use to pump well water to portable troughs that get moved daily with the cows. When grazing the more extensive bush pastures that we rent, we pump water out of the Medicine River to portable water tanks thereby preventing the cows from contaminating it.
Our mature cows graze for at least nine months of the year utilizing "banked" grass to extend the grazing season well beyond the short five month growing season. The dry climate allows surplus summer grass to be stored (banked) as standing hay until needed. We bank some fields and keep them over winter with very little deterioration of quality. This allows our cows to begin grazing again in early April rather than being fed straight through until there is adequate new grass in late May. The banked grass we graze in late April/May provides a clean, dry bed for the cows to calve on and has almost completely eliminated scours or illness in our young calves.
We purchase enough hay, cereal silage, or straw to feed the herd through the winter months. Buying in forage is also buying in fertility - by feeding on the land we are importing organic matter that helps build up our soils. During the "deep snow" months of mid January to early April we feed the cows on the pastures that have the poorest fertility and organic matter levels. By using portable feed bunks, feed rings and windbreaks we can spread large applications of manure evenly across these pastures. We aim to apply the equivalent of one day´s manure production from 500 cows on each acre. This level of application produces an amazing boost of fertility and the subsequent surge in grass production lasts for many years.