Organic from roots to ruminants

Organic farms utilize the science of the natural environment to stay chemical-free

Crop rotation and twice-over grazing. Graphic by Justin Ladia

Students in the department of agroecology attended an annual field trip Sept. 3 to gain a perspective on real-life applications of coursework.

Students, ranging from first years to graduates, accompanied by a handful of faculty members, boarded a bus at 8 a.m. and began the two-hour drive to Howpark Farm, located in the Brandon Hills, south of Brandon.

Howpark Farm was established in 1897 and is owned and operated by Ian and Linda Grossart and their family. The primary focus of the family farm is to grow organic grain and raise organic grass-fed beef.

The farmland stretches across approximately 850 hectares and is divided almost equally between cultivated crops and native prairie range for beef cattle.

The most challenging aspect of organic farming is determining the best way to manipulate the innate biology of the plants and animals to replace the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

Selecting the appropriate crops and establishing the most effective order of rotation are key to naturally introducing the necessary nutrients to the soil and reducing the invasion of weeds.

The Grossarts rotate four different crops over a six-year cycle.

Competitive sprouts

Alfalfa is the first crop and is planted for three consecutive years.

The roots of alfalfa have nodules, which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The bacteria take up atmospheric nitrogen, N2, and convert it into ammonia, NH3+.

This is an important role because atmospheric nitrogen is a very stable molecule – too stable, in fact. Its inert nature inhibits it from being used in the biochemical reactions necessary to create the “building blocks of life”: nucleotides and amino acids.

The ammonia form of nitrogen is much more reactive and easily taken up by plants. It is in this form that nitrogen is found in conventional chemical fertilizers.

Not only does alfalfa provide biologically available nitrogen in the soil, it also rids the plot of rival vegetation.

Alfalfa is highly competitive and its dense growth enables it to easily dominate the area in which it’s planted. Unwanted wild varieties, such as thistle, are choked out of the cultivated cropland.

At the end of the season, the alfalfa is harvested, hayed, and baled. The bales are stored and used for cattle feed over the winter.

Flax to follow

Yellow flax is sewn following the three consecutive years of alfalfa crops.

Flax is said to be one of the healthiest organic grains on the prairies amidst claims that it reduces heart disease, helps prevent cancer, and improves brain and immune function.

Since flax is a weak opponent to weeds, it is well-suited to follow alfalfa in rotation.

The low nutrient requirements of flax also make it an optimal choice in organic farming, which can sometimes face challenges in nutrient limitations. Flax leaves most of the nutrients behind for the needier crops that follow.

Although only the flaxseeds are desired, there is still a use for the fibrous stems after harvest.

Traditionally, flax fibre has been used to manufacture cigarette papers, but due to increasing health awareness this industry has plunged.

However, the Grossarts have a much more sustainable plan – they use the flax stems for cattle bedding.

Bunches of oats

In the fifth year, the third crop planted in the rotation is oats.

By the end of the flax season, the weeds initially controlled by the alfalfa have begun to re-establish themselves.

Oats are a great choice at this point because they are hearty enough to outcompete weeds and are expert nutrient scavengers.

Overall, oats are a staple cereal crop and consumed worldwide. Some evidence has suggested they may lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Once the oats are harvested, some of the straw is left on the field to naturally decompose and return nutrients back into the soil.

Alfalfa hay is also treated this way, but flax seed is much too fibrous and does not break down rapidly enough under natural conditions.

The remainder of the straw is added with the flax stem to provide a cushion for the cattle.

‘Twice-over’ grazing system

The final crop in the rotation is referred to as legume green manure. Growing green manure crops cover the soil, protecting it from leaching and erosion, while nutrients are replenished.

The legumes (peas), like alfalfa, have a partnership with bacteria that provide nitrogen to the soil. The peas are planted with oats, which provide a natural support for the peas to climb.

A major factor deterring farmers from this method is that there is no harvestable product to profit from.

At Howpark Farm they have a solution to this and take the green manure crops one step further by incorporating them into a “twice-over” grazing system, thus profiting from livestock.

In late spring, the cattle take to pasture and graze the protein-rich native grassland. By mid-July they are sent to “greener” pastures – green manure pastures, that is.

The rich greens ingested by the grazing livestock are excreted back onto the cropland with about 80 per cent of the nutrients still intact.

Around September, the cattle head back to the native pasture, where the grass has recovered from the initial graze and is once again lush with protein.

In order to provide the necessary time for the grassland to recover prior to snowfall, the cattle do their final graze on the green manure crop, now ripe with hairy vetch and barley.

Calves require 13-17 per cent protein in their diet to gain the desired 1.25 kilograms per day from birth to weaning.

The twice-over method addresses concerns of economic loss during green manure years while meeting the protein demands of calves in a way that is sustainable for native grasslands.

Howpark Farm is a beacon of innovation in sustainable farming practices. The Grossarts are on the brink of achieving an entirely closed-system farm through an understanding of natural biology and the landscape.

The transition from conventional farming to organic practices takes only 36 months. This typically means two crop years after the last non-certified, which has undergone pesticide applications – the third crop is usually certified organic.

This transition is well worth it to farmers, as organic crops tend to generate as much as three times the revenue than their non-organic counterpart.

Ian and Linda Grossart are pioneers now, but will be looked to as mentors as the push for sustainable farming and natural food intensifies.