Re-establishing livestock’s role in keeping the balance

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A new agricultural exchange has just begun operations in Manitoba, 135 years after the Winnipeg Grain Exchange helped put this part of the Prairies on the map as the breadbasket of the world. However, instead of being a commodity exchange, the Manitoba Grazing Exchange (MGE) is about connecting grain farmers who have standing forage such as a cover crop, crop residues or stubble with farmers who have grazing animals to convert that forage into energy, nutrients and carbon.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/01/2022 (372 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A new agricultural exchange has just begun operations in Manitoba, 135 years after the Winnipeg Grain Exchange helped put this part of the Prairies on the map as the breadbasket of the world. However, instead of being a commodity exchange, the Manitoba Grazing Exchange (MGE) is about connecting grain farmers who have standing forage such as a cover crop, crop residues or stubble with farmers who have grazing animals to convert that forage into energy, nutrients and carbon.

The objective is to re-establish the historic role livestock grazing played in maintaining a healthy balance between crop removal and nutrient recycling in the Prairie ecosystem. While farms of a century ago were mixed livestock and grain operations out of necessity, that model has gradually been replaced by specialized grain or livestock operations.

“The goal of the MGE is to virtually connect farmers who have available grazing pasture or cover crop fields with livestock owners/ranchers who are seeking grazing land through an interactive map,” Karen Klassen, one of the scheme’s architects, said in a release.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A cow keeps an eye out as it starts to graze on a fresh pasture. All in a day’s work, Kristine and Graham Tapley replace a fence and move a herd of cattle to fresh grazing as well as keep up to date on the chemical analysis of their feed. See Eva Wasney feature 200929 - Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

As executive director of the Manitoba Organic Alliance and a Manitou-area grain farmer, she’s well aware of the value grazing livestock can bring to a crop production system by way of increased fertility and weed management without pesticides.

Those benefits aren’t exclusive to organic farmers. Any farmer following regenerative agriculture principles aimed at improving their soil health is familiar with advantages of sharing their land with grazing animals.

“Integrating livestock onto cropland and proper grassland management is key to improving soil health and is becoming increasingly adopted by climate-friendly farmers who are building their soil health and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions,” Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association chair Lawrence Knockaert said in the release. “After the recent summers we have just experienced with dry conditions here in Manitoba, the connections via this website stand to become even more important as possible feed sources for livestock in times of drought.”

The exchange idea, which takes the form of a web portal, is a partnership between the Manitoba Organic Alliance and the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association. It’s being supported by the Conservation Trust, a fund the province established under its climate change action plan and managed by the Manitoba Heritage Habitat Corporation.

That’s a lot of organizational collaborations. But that’s what this initiative is all about — building community around a common goal of soil health.

Whereas a traditional commodity exchange connects buyers and sellers and helps them agree on a value over a common set of specifications, this is more of a matchmaking service. It’s a virtual space for those interested in connecting to meet and set the terms of whatever relationship transpires.

Klassen noted in an interview that while the exchange supports participants through templates for agreements, no two farms are alike. The terms, the value, the cost and who does the work will vary with the partners.

In some cases the grain farmer will supply fencing and water, while in others, it is the grazier who manages those necessities.

The Manitoba exchange is modelled after a similar project in South Dakota. The hope is that the idea will spread across the northern Great Plains because there are so many benefits that grazing livestock can offer a landscape. After all, this part of the world is an ecosystem that emerged under roaming herds of bison.

Grazing recycles non-renewable nutrients such as phosphorus, and improves the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, which is a key driver of soil health. Grazing reduces farmers’ reliance on synthetic fertilizers and can help control weeds resistant to herbicides.

Programs like these can help protect pastures from overgrazing during times of drought or in the late fall when grasses are trying to build up their energy reserves for the winter.

Those who want to get rid of animal agriculture and convert us all to plant-based diets talk a lot about how we’d be able to feed more people and reduce greenhouse gases.

However, plants and the soil from which they grow need grazers to sustainably support their life cycle — a fact that’s often overlooked.

Programs like this one help restore that link.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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