Soils Champions

Cattle drive soil health on this Saskatchewan ranch

High density stock grazing changed the way these ranchers think about their land and their prosperity

Neil Dennis says his grazing system has improved soil health.
Neil Dennis says his grazing system has improved soil health.

Neil and Barbara Dennis likely didn't know it at the time, but they were about to have a life-changing experience.

It was 1998 and things were not going as well as needed financially on their cattle and grain operation at Wawota, in southeastern Saskatchewan. Barbara saw an advertisement for a seminar on a better quality of life, low stress approach to living called holistic resource management and convinced Neil he needed to consider attending.

Skeptical, but knowing he needed to make changes in his business, Neil signed up. Today, he believes that seminar and subsequent related ones have changed his family's connection to the land and re-established their prosperity in the bargain.

Management critical

By cropping standards, the approach Dennis used to revamp his land was unconventional. Following the low tech approach advocated by his grazing mentors, he simply allowed succession, nature's way of reclaiming cultivated or bare land, to happen. This resulted in a broad mix of cereals, forbes or plants many people would call weeds, native legumes, clovers and other plants. He also helped speed the process by broadcasting a cocktail forage mix. He then fenced the land into paddocks and turned his cattle in, using the intense hoof action of the animals as natural seeding tools.

High density grazing is controlled, aggressive grazing, where much higher stocking density than conventional grazing systems is used, but for shorter periods of time. Supporters say the approach can dramatically improve pasture performance.

The high numbers of cattle essentially results in a more uniform harvest of forage resulting in better utilization of the pasture. The aggressive hoof action of high populations of cattle perforates the soil surface allowing improved water infiltration into the soil. Cattle traffic ensures manure and urine are spread across the soil surface, making those nutrients more evenly available to the soil microorganisms which in turn, feed the plants.

Perhaps the biggest benefit, and the one most identified with improved pasture performance, is the forage species change. Cattle hoof action and the spreading seeds through manure, enhances performance of forages and encourages growth of native species custom designed by nature for this environment.

Root mass on this field is 60 percent greater than the root mass on a nearby field where a different gazing system was used, says Dennis.
Root mass on this field is 60 percent greater than the root mass on a nearby field where a different gazing system was used, says Dennis.

The potential downside of this process is that it must be well managed. High density grazing requires real knowledge of the grassland and a hands-on management approach by producers. Too many cattle left too long in a grazing paddock can quickly cause significant damage to grassland.

Measuring success

It is, says Dennis, a long-term educational experience. This is bottom-up management, where soil drives success, and there is no doubt cattle drive soil health on the operation. Here are five examples of why he and his family are convinced of its long-term role in the ranching marketplace

Water infiltration. Healthier soil means better water infiltration and that means when it rains or snows, more of that water is available for growth. Dennis physically tested water infiltration and says he has seen a significant increase in soil moisture levels. "If I get rain before July 15 I've got enough soil moisture to carry me for the rest of that grazing season because I'm holding it and it's not running off."

Root growth. More water in the soil translates to healthier roots. More root growth increase organic matter, which improves soil health. Dennis regularly examines root growth and has the photos to prove his point.

Lower soil temperature, less evaporation. "It warms up quicker in the spring and all the microorganisms and everything start working in the ground quicker. But in the summer because of the litter cover it's staying cooler, with less evaporation."

Increased biodiversity. On what had been a straight crested wheat field, Dennis has identified many new species of forage that are natural cattle diet. "I've got 40 native species on the farm that have been identified, we've never seen before. There are native legumes and vetches," Dennis says. "I have new wildlife on my land. I have burrowing owls and many other birds, sharp-tail grouse, leopard frogs and over 100 deer out in my pasture in winter."

Decreased workload. Another benefit is less labour and more management "You let the cattle to the work," he says. "Everybody figures you spend a lot of time on it, but I'm monitoring more than doing any real work."

Looking to the future

Neil Dennis’ gazing system depends on movable cross fencing.
Neil Dennis’ gazing system depends on movable cross fencing.

Today, Dennis' management approach continues to evolve. He is frequently in contact with a network of common thinkers in other areas of the country, even in other countries, and he prides himself on pushing the envelope.

"It's a bad day when you don't learn something," he says. "I'm a little more aggressive than some, but the approach is gaining support. Ten years ago you wouldn't find anyone within easy driving distance using this system. Today there are several using aspects of it.

"It just makes sense," he says. "It's going to be awful hard for anybody from the next generation to make a living from the land if we don't start putting back instead of taking out all the time."