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Harvesting uncertainty

As work in the fields comes to an end for another year, three young Manitoba farming couples ponder their futures in a changing, unpredictable climate

Farm-fresh fears: climate intangibles fertilized with stress of global pandemic

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Penner grows canola, wheat, oats, soybeans, corn, ryegrass and alfalfa on 4,000 acres near Elm Creek with his dad and younger brother. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)
Penner grows canola, wheat, oats, soybeans, corn, ryegrass and alfalfa on 4,000 acres near Elm Creek with his dad and younger brother. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 19/06/2020 7:00 PM

Leave Winnipeg in any direction and you’ll quickly find yourself coasting down a flat highway surrounded by a wide expanse of farmer’s fields. It’s hard to grasp the scope from the road, but a quilt of cropland covers nearly all of southern Manitoba with urban centres poking occasional holes in the arable fabric.

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Fields that were lush and green have been reduced to brown stubble and black dirt. Fall is the end of the year for many Manitoba farmers and a season defined by hard work and high yields.

It is also a stark reminder of the demands a bountiful harvest makes of people and land, year after year.

This is the final chapter of our three-part series on modern agriculture in Manitoba. The Free Press followed three sets of young farmers through the growing season to shed light on how food is being produced in 2020 and how the next generation is changing the game and carrying on the tradition.

This instalment focuses on the season that was and the uncertain future that is going to be.

Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and farmers are poised to be on the front line of the crisis, both as casualties and changemakers.

Young producers follow in generational footsteps, but determined to set their own path

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Kristine Tapley feeds Jocelyn, 6 months, before heading out to help her husband bail some hay.						</p>
Kristine Tapley feeds Jocelyn, 6 months, before heading out to help her husband bail some hay.

Posted: 14/08/2020 7:00 PM

Farming is a family business for many Manitoban producers. Opportunities to farm are usually inherited, methods are passed down (and inevitably tweaked) and multiple generations are often found working and living together on a shared slice of land.

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While their livelihoods depend on predictable seasons, adequate precipitation and healthy soil, their management practices have a direct impact on the environment — for better and worse.

Reporter Eva Wasney, along with photojournalist Mike Deal, spoke with Colin Penner of Pennmann Farms Ltd., near Elm Creek; Justin Girard and Britt Embry, of Hearts and Roots near Elie; and Graham and Kristine Tapley of Old Shore Cattle Co., near Langruth, about how climate change is impacting their operations, what they’re doing to mitigate the damage and what the future holds for Prairie agriculture.

Their answers shed light on the complexities involved in growing and eating food.

 

 


 

Harvest starts early in rural Manitoba.

By the first week of August, Colin Penner is back to spending long days in the cab of a giant piece of machinery, cutting down ripe stalks that were pressed into the ground as seeds a few short months ago.

"It’s busier than spring," Penner says during a moment of quiet while he waits for the morning dew to evaporate from his oat field.

If everything goes as planned — and it rarely does — harvest will last about two months. The anticipation he felt at the beginning of the season has been replaced with the pressure to get everything off the fields before the weather turns.

Colin Penner and his mother, Gloria, harvest their canola field.

Colin Penner and his mother, Gloria, harvest their canola field.

"I’m not my best self during harvest," Penner says. "I’m grumpy and my expectations of everyone, myself included, are very high and so when my expectations aren’t met or something breaks I’m not a fun person to be around."

This year, dissatisfaction has come in the form of computer glitches and a cantaloupe-sized rock that went through one of the combines. The small boulder didn’t break anything, but figuring out why the machine was jammed brought work to a standstill for the better part of a day.

It’s all hands on deck, now. Penner shares swathing, combining and hauling duties with his dad, brother and the family’s hired hand. His mom, Gloria, is the crew’s permanent combine operator — a job she’s been doing since her kids were little and one she looks forward to all year.

"I would get kids supper and then I’d race to the field and combine until whenever," she says. "I always wanted to drive a semi or something big and powerful; I thought that was so exciting."

Colin and his father, Calvin, clear a blockage in a combine.

Colin and his father, Calvin, clear a blockage in a combine.

The sheer size of a combine harvester is impressive. The machine weighs more than 16,000 kilograms without fuel, the wheels are taller than most adults and a ladder is needed to climb into the cab.

Horse-drawn combines were introduced in the 19th century and gained popularity for their ability to combine (hence the name) three harvest operations into one process. The machines are designed to cut down a row, separate the edible seed from the plant and spit out the chaff in one pass.

Perched high above the oat field, Gloria drives at a steady five km/h while scooping up stalks and paying close attention to the readings on her computer screen. The grain cart sidles up every few rows to collect the separated oat kernels and transfer them into a waiting truck. Save for meals or a breakdown, the family’s two combines run non-stop until the sun goes down.

Field suppers are a longstanding tradition during harvest season. Penner’s wife Lori and sister-in-law Andrea share the cooking duties and head out to the field every evening in a vehicle loaded with kids, lawn chairs and extravagant dishes of pulled pork, lasagna and taco salad.

Colin's daughter, Annalise, rides her bike in the shop. A combine harvester weighs more than 16,000 kilograms without fuel, the wheels are taller than most adults and a ladder is needed to climb into the cab.

Colin's daughter, Annalise, rides her bike in the shop. A combine harvester weighs more than 16,000 kilograms without fuel, the wheels are taller than most adults and a ladder is needed to climb into the cab.

"I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad field meal," he says. "The problem is you’re in harvest mode so (you) eat as fast as you can… they’ve spent all afternoon preparing food and in 10 minutes it’s gone."

It has been a favourable growing season, and Penner expects to harvest 300,000 bushels over 4,000 acres this fall. He can fit two-thirds of that in the 50 grain bins he has scattered across owned and rented property in the area — he keeps a bin map to manage the inventory. What doesn’t fit gets sent to the local elevator.

Some of Penner’s crop was sold under contract in January before it was even planted. The rest is at the whim of the market and prices can shift frequently based on supply and demand. He’ll sell what’s stored only when the price is right.

"As a farmer, you have to be optimistic it’s going to improve," he says.

“If you treat your employees terribly, they’re going to leave and they’re not going to perform well for you. If you treat the soil poorly and you mine it and you take all the nutrients out of it, it’s not going to perform well for you.” – Colin Penner

So far, the coronavirus hasn’t had a major impact on grain prices this fall. At the beginning of the pandemic corn prices dropped by about $1 a bushel due to lacklustre demand for ethanol. The market has since rebounded, but Penner would’ve lost out on more than $20,000 if the trend continued.

Farm income margins in Canada have been declining over the last few years thanks to rising expenses. According to Statistics Canada, average farm revenues totalled $492,405 in 2018. Yet, operators averaged a net income of $79,408 when expenses were subtracted.

Grains and oilseed producers currently have the highest profit margins, earning 22.3 cents per dollar of revenue. On the other end of the spectrum, beef cattle producers have the lowest profit margins at 6.1 cents per dollar.

Climate change could make the sector more profitable — at least in Manitoba.

Colin stops to have a quick dinner with nieces Clara (left) and Ryleigh.

Colin stops to have a quick dinner with nieces Clara (left) and Ryleigh.

"The growing season is much longer than it was 100 years ago, and it’s going to be much, much longer in the coming decades," says Danny Blair, University of Winnipeg climatologist and director of science for the Prairie Climate Centre. "That can be a good thing, of course; it means farmers can grow things that require more heat and that aren’t available now."

A crystal ball is needed to predict exactly what kinds of crops will be grown here in the future, but heat-loving, late-maturing corn is already becoming more prevalent.

"I think climate change presents a lot of opportunities," says Penner. "But if we’re not willing to recognize that something’s happening, we’re gonna be burnt."

Southern Manitoba currently experiences an average of 14 days of plus-30 C weather every summer. That number is expected to at least double over the next 30 years based on Prairie Climate Centre modelling, even if global emissions are reduced significantly.

Save for meals or a breakdown, the family’s two combines run non-stop until the sun goes down.

Save for meals or a breakdown, the family’s two combines run non-stop until the sun goes down.

The benefits of longer, hotter summers are tempered by some serious and significant pitfalls for an already volatile industry.

"That’s a very dramatic change in our climate," Blair says. "(Farmers) have enormous capacity to adapt, but the worry is that the climate system will push them... to not be able to cope with the extremes; extremes of heat, extremes of moisture and extremes of lack of moisture."

The Prairies are likely to get both wetter and drier with greater precipitation swings between seasons, Blair says. That long-range forecast could mean more rain when it’s inconvenient — during seeding and harvest — and less when it’s needed, increasing the likelihood of frequent and intense droughts.

Extreme, unseasonable weather events — such as last year’s October snowstorm — could become commonplace as temperatures rise and the atmosphere becomes more energized.

"Highly variable and, occasionally, really extreme conditions are not conducive to good crops and good yields and good profits," Blair says.

Colin's parents Gloria and Calvin, along with daughter Annalise, prepare lunch before the crew heads out to harvest.

Colin's parents Gloria and Calvin, along with daughter Annalise, prepare lunch before the crew heads out to harvest.

Productivity will also be tested by the invasion of new weeds and insects, which could lead to greater reliance on chemical pesticides until new methods are adopted.

"Climate (change) can really pour fuel on the fire for the pests that farmers are dealing with," says Yvonne Lawley, an agronomist and plant sciences professor at the University of Manitoba.

While modern farmers have excelled at simplifying natural systems, Lawley believes the future of agriculture will require a return to complexity.

"Instead of trying to control nature, trying to have nature work for you," she says. "That gives farmers more resiliency when they’re dealing with the headaches and challenges Mother Nature throws at them."

Other climate-change coping strategies include growing a diverse rotation of crops, building water retention systems, allowing plants and livestock to co-mingle and using cover crops to protect the soil.

Colin leaves some plant debris on the fields at the end of the season and rotates his crops to deter pests and diseases.

Colin leaves some plant debris on the fields at the end of the season and rotates his crops to deter pests and diseases.

"Soil health is going to be really key for dealing with climate change and being resilient," Lawley says. "Soils can help us if they have the ability to hold on to water when it’s dry, or allow water to infiltrate and move within the soil when it’s wet."

Penner has an employer-employee relationship with his soil.

"If you treat your employees terribly, they’re going to leave and they’re not going to perform well for you," he says. "If you treat the soil poorly and you mine it and you take all the nutrients out of it, it’s not going to perform well for you."

As such, he leaves some plant debris on the fields at the end of the season and rotates his crops to deter pests and diseases. No-till farming has become popular in the last decade as a way to preserve soil health, but the practice hasn’t worked well for him. Instead, he spends the latter part of the fall season breaking up the soil with a tractor and amending his fields with synthetic fertilizer.

Colin expects to harvest 300,000 bushels over 4,000 acres this fall.

Colin expects to harvest 300,000 bushels over 4,000 acres this fall.

In Manitoba, agriculture accounts for roughly 31 per cent of the province’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The main sources of greenhouse gases in crop farming are carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels and nitrous oxide released through fertilizer use and organic decomposition.

Penner says he would be willing to change his management practices and purchase new equipment to cut emissions — but only once the technology improves enough to warrant the cost of upgrades.

"I’ve got to do what’s best for the farm. I also want to do what’s best for the environment as well," he says. "I’m curious to see it, excited to see what happens. But I think we’re strategically choosing to kind of (hold onto) our equipment... when they come up with a better technology, then we’ll look at upgrading again."


Kernza, a new grain receiving much fanfare south of the border, could soon be growing in Manitoba. The organic perennial crop was developed by The Land Institute in Kansas and is being billed as the sustainable cousin of annual wheat that can be grown with less inputs and less soil disturbance.

Doug Cattani, a U of M plant scientist and perennial crop breeding specialist, is working on developing a Kernza variety that can be grown locally.

"We’re probably five years from having a cultivar that’s available to producers," Cattani says.

Strands of intermediate wheatgrass, trademarked as Kernza, grow on a plot owned by The Land Institute in Kansas.

THE LAND INSTITUTE / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Strands of intermediate wheatgrass, trademarked as Kernza, grow on a plot owned by The Land Institute in Kansas.

General Mills recently announced it was making a climate-friendly cereal with the grain — which can also be turned into rolled oats, dense flour and beer — but low yields and crop failures caused the company to scale back the product’s launch.

If perennial crops like Kernza become a viable option for large-scale producers, the landscape and business model of prairie agriculture will be in for a significant shakeup.

"It’s a different mindset than producing an annual crop… you’ve got to plan years in advance," Cattani says. "You’re not going to have the booms and the busts like you get with annuals, you’ll probably have something in the middle that modulates."


The future is paved with perennials for Britt Embry and Justin Girard.

The couple has dedicated the majority of their farm to growing perennial trees, grasses and crops, such as strawberries and asparagus, in a push to neutralize their climate impact.

Plants turn carbon dioxide pulled from the air into carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Thanks to their massive underground root systems, perennials are able to store significantly more carbon than annuals.

"When I farm vegetables, I’m not sequestering any carbon, vegetables are high-disturbance plants, they function in disturbed areas," Girard says. "Where I’m sequestering carbon is on the 80 per cent that is pasture, that is shelterbelt, that is orchards, that is sheep — sheep wool is 50 per cent carbon, like, that’s something you can take and make into clothes and then you can compost those clothes."

Britt Embry and Justin Girard, left, have dedicated the majority of their farm to growing perennial trees, grasses and crops, such as strawberries and asparagus.

Britt Embry and Justin Girard, left, have dedicated the majority of their farm to growing perennial trees, grasses and crops, such as strawberries and asparagus.

Girard gets excited when he talks about sheep.

"Sheep are not a great economic choice... but it’s such a beautiful animal."

It’s late September and the autumn wind feels unseasonably cold. Harsh gusts keep blowing open the door to the sunroom; a clattering reminder that even though the trees are still filled with golden leaves, winter is approaching quickly.

The sunroom looking out over the property has been our default interview location since the spring. The space is at all times surrounded by the bleating, clucking and honking of nearby farm animals and filled with the candid emotions of the season.

“We can’t look at everything as something that can be extracted for profit. If you really are serious about resilience, it is something you need to be willing to put in the ground, so that the ground functions for future generations.” – Justin Girard

Today, while we talk about fall time and the future of Hearts and Roots, the couple’s wether sheep, Ian, moseys up to the screen window to eavesdrop. The curious black animal is a fitting metaphor for the farm’s grand design of purpose over profit.

As a castrated male, Ian’s value can’t be quantified as a line item or counted by his progeny. He will be slaughtered for meat at some point, but until then his job is keeping their ram, Harris, company (Girard and Embry name their livestock out of habit) and amending the soil by grazing and roaming.

"We can’t look at everything as something that can be extracted for profit," Girard says. "If you really are serious about resilience, it is something you need to be willing to put in the ground, so that the ground functions for future generations."

Resilience is the driving force of their business and a catch-all term for the myriad ways they are addressing climate change on 30 acres.

"Where I’m sequestering carbon is on the 80 per cent that is pasture, that is shelterbelt, that is orchards, that is sheep — sheep wool is 50 per cent carbon, like, that’s something you can take and make into clothes and then you can compost those clothes," Girard says.

"Where I’m sequestering carbon is on the 80 per cent that is pasture, that is shelterbelt, that is orchards, that is sheep — sheep wool is 50 per cent carbon, like, that’s something you can take and make into clothes and then you can compost those clothes," Girard says.

In the last seven years, the farmers have experienced "terrifying" storms, hotter summers, droughts and damaging winds. This season they narrowly missed what would’ve been a season-ending downpour and saw more than 20 days above 30 C, conditions that make it difficult to work outdoors.

"Wild weather events aren’t unusual," Embry says. "Justin’s dad can point to a year in the 1970s where it rained for like 10 inches one night… he remembers that and that was 50 years ago. It’s pretty wild that we can name some pretty disastrous events that all happened in the last year, two years."

"I don’t even think we need to actually have examples of it anymore," Girard adds. "As farmers, like, if you really need to be smacked in the face with climate change, then you’re not paying attention."

Manitoba farms, Manitoba tables

Opportunities to eat local food are growing in Winnipeg.

In the spring, Fireweed Food Co-op launched the city's first food hub as a pilot project. The organization, which also runs the South Osborne Farmers' Market, noticed a gap in the market for grocery stores and restaurants wanting to offer locally grown food to customers.

Fireweed acts as a wholesale distributor, allowing local farms to sell products to local grocery stores and restaurants through an online weekly market. Producers post what they have and buyers can purchase vegetables, meats and grains to stock their shelves or add to their menus.

Opportunities to eat local food are growing in Winnipeg.

In the spring, Fireweed Food Co-op launched the city's first food hub as a pilot project. The organization, which also runs the South Osborne Farmers' Market, noticed a gap in the market for grocery stores and restaurants wanting to offer locally grown food to customers.

Fireweed acts as a wholesale distributor, allowing local farms to sell products to local grocery stores and restaurants through an online weekly market. Producers post what they have and buyers can purchase vegetables, meats and grains to stock their shelves or add to their menus.

The goal of the project is to create new markets for small and medium farms, keep money in the local economy and shorten the supply chain.

“Our global supply chain for food is pretty exploitative,” says Anna Sigrithur, Fireweed's co-ordinator. “And there’s a lack of transparency... which does, as we've seen during COVID and things like climate change, leave long opaque supply chains pretty vulnerable to disruptions.”

While the general public has become more interested in buying and eating local over the last six months, the pandemic threw a wrench in the food hub's business model, since restaurants have been hard hit by public health regulations.

Still, roughly 25 farmers took part in the pilot and a handful of Winnipeg restaurant owners and grocers have become dedicated customers. Participating farms are vetted by their sustainable growing practices.

Beyond making locally grown food more accessible, Sigrithur says the food hub could help make farming more accessible to a wider population.

“To be a small farmer right now and to survive with direct marketing you have to be very, very savvy about marketing yourself,” she says. “That often would limit people who, maybe English isn't, like, their first language, maybe they're newcomers and don't have such a great sense of how to market themselves within this landscape. A food hub takes all that marketing off of their shoulders and they can just focus on growing.”

If the concept proves successful, the hub also plans to offer food-education programs through community gardens and kitchens, as well as new farmer incubator programs.

— Eva Wasney

It’s been relatively easy for the small farm south of Elie to adopt new methods — but right now they’re the exception, not the rule. Look past the property in any direction and you’ll see massive, monocropped fields stretching out to the horizon. There’s empathy for their neighbours and there’s frustration.

"It’s a really tough thing; we’re talking about businesses," Embry says, when asked what responsibility farmers should bear for the environmental impact of their operations. "We’re talking about something that needs to make people money and some people are just barely making money… it’s really hard to have that conversation and point fingers."

While Girard believes there’s enough wealth tied up in mainstream agriculture and agribusiness to fund the transition to a more sustainable model, he’s also wary of finger-pointing.

"You can’t put it all on the farmer. The culture at large needs to shift," he says. "I have hope, because hope is something you can fight for and work for. I am not optimistic, because I think that would be foolhardy."

The widespread adoption of perennial agriculture was proposed by The Land Institute’s 50-Year-Farm Bill more than a decade ago. The document suggested that a move to perennial crops — plants that return year-after-year — would reduce soil erosion, cut chemical use and capture carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

"For myself, a more gradual transition is helpful," Embry says. "I’ve noticed in the past when suddenly the farm’s over (and) your purpose is over it’s a hard transition."

"For myself, a more gradual transition is helpful," Embry says. "I’ve noticed in the past when suddenly the farm’s over (and) your purpose is over it’s a hard transition."

The opposite has happened and today close to 90 per cent of cropland globally, about three billion acres, is dedicated to growing annuals (up from 80 per cent in 2009). Project Drawdown, a non-profit climate research organization, has taken up the cause and is promoting perennial land conversion as a way to sequester carbon and maintain yields needed to feed a growing global population in a warming world.

The power of perennials lies underground. Deep underground.

"They put less energy into seed production and more energy into root production and the roots are carbon-rich," explains U of M plant scientist Doug Cattani.

"In general, they sequester more and put more carbon deeper in the soil than an annual crop produces in the year."

“As farmers, like, if you really need to be smacked in the face with climate change, then you’re not paying attention.” – Justin Girard

According to Project Drawdown, land converted from annuals to perennial trees and legumes sequesters an average of 1.9 tonnes of carbon per acre every year.

Deep roots also allow water to penetrate the soil more efficiently and perennial plants create a year-round ground cover that reduces runoff and soil erosion during rainstorms.

"I think we’re at the point that if we want agriculture to continue to be as productive as it is, and it needs to be to feed the population, we have to take better care of the soil," Cattani says.

The 2020 growing and selling season at Hearts and Roots is on its last legs, but Girard and Embry are already getting excited for next year.

Justin picks chard while his sister, Renée Girard, picks bok choy.Hearts and Roots harvest
Justin picks chard while his sister, Renée Girard, picks bok choy.
Bok choy will be added to the orders.
Bok choy will be added to the orders.
Girard digs up celeriac.
Girard digs up celeriac.
Britt Embry puts together a customer’s order.
Britt Embry puts together a customer’s order.
Embry grabs a handful of sweet peppers.
Embry grabs a handful of sweet peppers.

They’ve prepped their new vegetable beds, organized their pasture system and have started ordering seeds — something they don’t usually do until January. The pandemic home gardening trend put a run on seeds this year so they’ve decided to pull the trigger early.

Tending to their growing flock of animals and (potentially) finding part-time work off the farm will keep them busy through the winter.

"For myself, a more gradual transition is helpful," Embry says. "I’ve noticed in the past when suddenly the farm’s over (and) your purpose is over it’s a hard transition."

One major benefit of farming is being able to can and preserve and freeze enough of their own food to last them through the winter.

"The only thing we buy at a grocery store in the wintertime is cheese and milk and coffee," Embry says. "I don’t like to be braggy about it because not many people can eat like that, but that’s the upside of doing what we do... and that’s a big part of how we make our money too."

 


 

Cows have long been the scapegoat for the moral and environmental failings of modern agriculture — but the impact of the beef industry in Manitoba is more complicated.

Kristine and Graham Tapley of Old Shore Cattle Co. are keenly aware of how their business is perceived by the public.

"I think that the impression is that our cows live in a feedlot and we pump as much corn as we can into them and they are these crazy methane machines that are polluting the world," Graham says. "It’s a very bad picture and it’s not at all accurate."

In Manitoba, 81 per cent of the province’s more than 400,000 beef cattle live on cow-calf operations like Old Shore, where calves are raised on pasture by their mothers for the first six months of their life.

81 per cent of the province’s more than 400,000 beef cattle live on cow-calf operations like Kristine and Graham Tapley's Old Shore.

81 per cent of the province’s more than 400,000 beef cattle live on cow-calf operations like Kristine and Graham Tapley's Old Shore.

The Tapleys bring their cattle home from the summer grazing paddocks north of their farm yard in late-October, walking all 150 of them through neighbouring fields and stands of aspen. The calves are weaned from their mothers and kept over winter on until they’re 500 or 600 pounds.

Winter is what Kristine and Graham have spent all year preparing for.

Come fall, they’ve finished cutting and baling hay and buying supplemental grains and grasses to keep their calves and cows, who are by now pregnant again, nourished over the winter. A large portion of the season is spent testing the nutrition values of the feed they’ve stockpiled and making winter rations for each member of their herd — Kristine manages the condition and dietary needs of her cattle with many, many detailed spreadsheets.

Before the snow flies, there are fences to be built, a solar powered watering system to be installed and a pump house to be repaired.

All in a day's work, Kristine and Graham move the herd to fresh grazing land.

All in a day's work, Kristine and Graham move the herd to fresh grazing land.

"I kind of get anxious this time of year," Graham says. "You think about everything that’s gonna happen in the winter and in the spring and you have to have all that stuff ready now because when winter closes in, you can’t do a lot."

"Winter is very relaxing," Kristine adds with a laugh.

By March, the calves are sold via online auction to a backgrounding operation that encourages further weight gain through pasture grazing. Beef cattle spend the last 60 to 200 days of life in an open-air feedlot, where they are fed a high-calorie diet in preparation for slaughter, according to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

"There is a reason why our industry got there," Kristine says of the feedlot system. "You could let that animal grow at that slower rate on grass and hay… but that would take way longer. And every day that animal’s alive, she’s producing methane, she’s eating feed, it takes land to produce that feed, she’s drinking water — your footprint gets bigger and bigger and bigger, the longer that animal takes to get to market."

But food, water and methane are only part of the story.

Graham picks up some feed for the herd so they can be moved from one field to another.

Graham picks up some feed for the herd so they can be moved from one field to another.

Documentaries such as Cowspiracy, and the United Nations’ 2006 report on "livestock’s long shadow," have positioned the cattle industry as the single biggest contributor of greenhouse gases and land degradation in the world. The UN has since expanded its language to include the impact whole food systems and food waste have on the planet.

Cows produce methane, a greenhouse gas, during digestion, which they release into the atmosphere through burps and flatulence. Methane is more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming, but remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time (10 years, versus hundreds of years).

Livestock digestion currently accounts for approximately three per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

What isn’t reflected in that number is the beneficial effect cattle can have on natural prairie grasslands, which act as a carbon sink.

Graham is watched closely by the herd as he pours out feed. A large portion of the season is spent testing the nutrition values of the feed they’ve stockpiled and making winter rations.

Graham is watched closely by the herd as he pours out feed. A large portion of the season is spent testing the nutrition values of the feed they’ve stockpiled and making winter rations.

"The grassland ecosystems which are grazed by cattle also enhance biodiversity and protect endangered species and enhance soil health through the sequestration and storage of carbon," says Kim Ominski, associate head of the University of Manitoba animal science department, via email. "Assessment of all sustainability metrics is challenging — we know how to estimate greenhouse-gas emissions but measuring biodiversity and carbon sequestration are much more complex and we are only starting to decipher strategies to accurately quantify their role."

Native grasslands have a symbiotic relationship with grazing animals. In North America, bison herds used to roam far and wide in a sea of grass that stretched from Manitoba to Mexico; all the while nibbling on prairie grasses, which encourages root growth and carbon sequestration, and returning nutrients to the soil through manure.

Today, cattle and other livestock perform similar tasks on much smaller pockets of land. Less than one per cent of tall grass prairie remains intact in Manitoba.

"It’s really bad," says Christian Artuso, an ornithologist and habitat biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa. "Like any ecosystem, it’s well worth keeping around. If you lost it, the biodiversity toll would be staggering."

Graham attaches a wire to a post for a new electric fence he is building to replace an old barbed wire fence.

Graham attaches a wire to a post for a new electric fence he is building to replace an old barbed wire fence.

When he lived in Manitoba, Artuso worked with local beef producers to find mutually beneficial ways to preserve native grassland and protect at-risk bird species through grazing. In these situations, keeping cattle on the land adds economic value to sensitive ecosystems that might otherwise be turned into cropland.

"We as conservationists are very cognizant of why we need to work with the grazing community to keep those habitats," he says. "The rates of carbon sequestration are comparable to a forest in a native grassland…. As soon as you plow it up, it takes more than a century for that root system to develop to the point where it would have that carbon sequestration capacity again."

However, the ecological benefits are highly regional. While cattle raised in the Pembina Valley might be helping preserve natural ecosystems, cows in South America, where rainforests are being razed to make way for pasture, have a very different environmental footprint.

"If you want to buy Argentinian beef, you should be concerned about what global impact that’s going to have," Kristine says. "But if you want to help our country and the conservation and wildlife and water and carbon in a Canadian context, you should eat beef. I truly, truly believe that."

The herd gathers for a drink from a well on one of the pastures.

The herd gathers for a drink from a well on one of the pastures.

Like other ag sectors, the cattle industry will be both helped and hindered by climate change. Longer growing seasons could increase the feed supply, while heat stress and new disease-carrying insects could negatively impact animal health.

Public scrutiny has caused many in the livestock industry to address their role in the climate crisis and has led to the creation of national working groups, such as the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

The Tapleys are working to reduce their environmental impact through feeding techniques designed to reduce methane production and grassland preservation; one point of pride is the old gravel pit they’re returned to viable pasture over the last few years.

"The livestock industry has been villainized and put under a microscope, and I think good things have come out of that, because it really makes you accountable," Kristine says. "We’re not perfect by any stretch. But I think we’re getting better."

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Mike Deal

Mike Deal
Photojournalist

Mike Deal started freelancing for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1997. Three years later, he landed a part-time job as a night photo desk editor.

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