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Celebrating Environmental Stewardship: Kingston View Farms, the Maritimes

The Canadian Cattle Association (CCA) is pleased to feature the provincial stewardship award recipients in the running for the 2023 The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA). The recipient of the CCA’s national award will be announced during the Canadian Beef Industry Conference in August, in Calgary, Alberta. As always, a common theme among recipients is a profound sense of obligation to care for land, water, and animals. Through sharing their stories, insights, beliefs and values, readers can gain perspective about the relationship between stewardship and cattle production, and the benefits of conservation to society.

In this issue, we feature the Maritime Beef Council’s 2023 Environmental Stewardship Award recipient, Kingston View Farms, owned and operated by Nick Green.

PEI beef producer using new practices to improve farm sustainability

By Lee Hart

In 2019, Nick Green set sights on some lofty goals for his Prince Edward Island beef operation.

Some of the more traditional production practices related to raising and feeding beef cattle and spreading manure he'd learned as a teenager back in the 1990s were just not pencilling out. A couple decades later when he returned to the home place and rebuilt his own cow-calf operation under the name Kingston View Farms he knew, things needed to shift.

Green is the third generation on the family farm and took about a 20-year hiatus from farming starting in the late 1990s. The farm was established in the early 1900s at Kingston, about 20 minutes west of Charlottetown.

Once back on the farm, it came down to figuring out if it was possible to improve production efficiency whilst benefiting the environment and reducing input costs.

"I have been working off farm for a number of years so when I looked to get back into beef cattle in 2015, I began doing things the way I had remembered as a teenager," says Green. "And it didn't take long for me to figure out it not only took more time and labour, but input costs were high. It wasn't sustainable. "

After some considerable research, he developed a plan relying on conservation and regenerative farming practices, an intensively managed rotational grazing system, as well as keying on late spring calving – a system that kept cattle out on pastures and wooded areas 365 days a year.

"As I set out on this plan in 2019, my goal was to reduce fertilizer and chemical costs by 75 percent and diesel fuel consumption by 50 percent — hopefully by 2025," says Green. "As I look at the numbers for 2022, I'd say I'm pretty well on track and perhaps even a bit ahead of schedule. It is certainly trending in the right direction."

What has made his plan work? "One of the big factors was to make more use of the cattle," he says. "We use cattle to help reduce the need for tillage, to help control weeds, and to reduce fertilizer costs, for example. It has meant a better system for beef production, it's good for the environment and it has helped reduce costs. If I hadn't made these changes, I don't think the farm would have made it."

Green's management approach and sustainable farming practices have earned him recognition as the Maritime Beef Council nominee for The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) for 2023.

Originally, the farm was a purebred Guernsey dairy operation along with sheep, pigs and horses and later transitioned to cow-calf to finish operation running successfully until 1998 when the decision was made by his father to retire the farm.

In the early 2000's, Nick purchased the homestead and later in 2015, he purchased his first three bred commercial beef cows, then began cash cropping. In 2017, the remaining farm assets were purchased.

Today, the commercial beef cow-calf operation operates on 100 acres of deeded farmland, along with about 75 acres of rented land. Kingston View Farm runs about 40 head of mature crossbred cows, bred to Charolais to produce market-bound calves. Although the breeding program now also includes some Hereford and Red Angus genetics to produce replacement heifers. In addition to beef cattle, the farm is also experimenting with free-range chickens, turkeys, egg production, and pork, which are direct-marketed to consumers.

Green grew up with a system with cattle out on pasture for spring, summer and early fall and then into a yard or in a barn for the late fall and winter — about half the year. All winter feed was hauled to a central location, with cows bedded creating a manure pack needing haul-out and spreading on fields. Cows also calved in the barn in February and March.

"After working with that system again in 2015, I soon realized it wasn't sustainable," says Green. And a lot has changed.

Cattle are now kept outside 365 days of the year, he's looking to trim the winter feeding period to ideally three to four months (he was down to 4.5 months in 2022), and he switched to June calving, which has eliminated calf sickness.

With cows calving on pasture, he follows a variation of the Nebraska Sandhills System, which involves moving pregnant cows to fresh ground — a new paddock— on a regular basis to reduce the risk of newborn calves contracting disease. "Scours and other calf-hood diseases just aren't an issue," he says.

As new grass becomes available in May, the cattle begin an intensive rotational grazing system over the coming months. Although growing season weather conditions always play a big role, the plan is to move cattle to new area of each paddock once every day or two.

As the rotational grazing season winds down in early September, the herd will move on to corn grazing. And after freeze-up if snow load allows, onto stockpiled forages before eventually switching to bale grazing. Often with wet conditions in the fall, Green says it is important to keep cattle off pastures and hayland to reduce hoof action, which could damage forage crops.

"I do select, what I call a sacrifice area, for spring and fall use," says Green. This is an area of pasture, that hasn't been grazed, but has become less productive and will need to be reseeded at some point. While they are on the sacrifice area, he can supplement cattle with feed as needed, and on dryer days, they can also go back out on pasture.

Cattle will be moved onto corn in late September or early October, with a hot wire used to limit them to strip grazing. Depending on the year, he seeds between 30 and 50 acres to corn, which should carry the herd through until late December early January.

By early January with freezing temperatures, which tightens up ground conditions, he begins winter-feeding with bale grazing. The cattle will bale graze on the sacrifice area or perhaps another pasture where nutrients are needed. Also, when conditions permit, stockpiled forage is grazed too.

"That's one of the major changes I’ve made with this system is to use the cows to spread nutrients (manure and urine) on the fields rather than hauling it out with a tractor and spreader,” says Green. “If there is an area that appears less productive, we can concentrate our winter feeding program on that area, for example.”

Green says his cattle have thrived being out on pasture 365 days a year. Along with sacrifice area or open paddocks they always have access to wooded areas for shelter, if needed. “They always have the option to move into the treed area, but it is surprising that even on some of the coldest days it is seldom used. They are quite comfortable on the winter feeding site.”

The herd will remain on the sacrifice area until new grass growth and rotational grazing resumes in spring.

On the cropping side, Green has moved to a direct seeding system corn. Depending on the year he will direct seed corn into corn stubble, or directly into pasture sod. He’s also recently introduced and is evaluating strip tillage.

He may use a sacrifice area for a couple years before it is seeded back to a permanent forage stand. After the first winter, he will seed the sacrifice area to a blend of five or six different annual forages, which the cattle can graze in the fall. He’s also had good success with seeding winter rye, under seeded with a perennial forage.

“Some people didn’t think it would work, but I’ve found I can seed the winter rye in late September,” he says. “And the next spring I can either cut the rye for hay or graze it and then by July the underseeded forage crop is coming nicely too and can also be used for pasture or hay later on as well.”

One other new enterprise being evaluated in 2023, that involves working with neighbouring potato growers, is to graze cattle on potato land in years when rotational crops such as cover crops and other forages are grown. His beef operation is surrounded by potato production, so there is little opportunity to expand and acquire affordable land that could be dedicated just to pasture and hay production.

"But if I and other beef producers can work with potato growers to use their land during the rotation year to graze cattle on forages, it could be a win-win situation," says Green. "We would have more pasture available and in return the cattle are returning nutrients and biology to the soil while building organic matter."

Along with neighbouring potato farmers, Green is drawing on the expertise of specialists with the PEI Department of Agriculture and PEI potato board to monitor the grazing/finishing project. He has also worked with a livestock feed specialist to develop a specialized feeder to supply grain supplement and minerals to yearlings on pasture.

The plan for this trial project is to take 800-to-1000-pound yearlings that Green backgrounded over winter on his farm, then on potato land seeded to a forage blend during the rotation year, provide a grain supplement and hopefully produce a 1,500 to 1,600 pound animal grading AA or AAA carcass at the packing plant.

With expert advice, the grazing avoids vulnerable areas in fields where soil disturbance could increase risk of water erosion. And soil biology is being monitored as well.

"If we can use this potato land to graze cattle, return nutrients to the soil and in the process adding microorganisms from the gut of the animal to improve soil biology and nutrient uptake in the future, it produces benefits for both the beef producer and the potato grower," says Green. "It could really open opportunities for many PEI beef producers."

With a number of new practices introduced to his farming operation in the past six years, Green says he is taking time to evaluate and fine tune management — get a better handle on what works and what needs to be improved.

"The goal is to reduce inputs, reduce chemical use of both crop protection products as well as fertilizer and to reduce diesel fuel consumption," he says. "And I've made a good start on doing all those things.

"I'm not anti-chemical by any means, but I am pro livestock so hopefully I can use forages, use cover crops, and use grazing and livestock management to reduce the need for chemical inputs. And while we are doing that, at the same time we are improving soil quality and improving beef production efficiency and the overall sustainability of my farm."

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