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agroecology

Weeds: Don’t Shoot the Messenger

in 2018/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Pest Management/Summer 2018

(Not Until You Understand the Message)

Av Sing

This article first appeared in The Canadian Organic Grower, with thanks.

All too often when farmers start talking weeds, a common first question is “How do I get rid of a bad case of…?” when a more appropriate question is “I wonder why my field has a bad case of…?”

The subtle difference in the above question requires a surprisingly dramatic paradigm shift in your view of weeds. Weeds must shed their role as problems, pests, and sources of frustration, and instead take on the role of symptoms, storytellers, and healers. Weed advocates consider weeds as plants with a mission and look to learn what the weeds can tell us about our soil conditions (e.g. pH, drainage, compaction, etc.) or our management practices (e.g. crop rotation, row spacing, stocking rate, tillage, etc.).

Weeds Redefined

Nicolas Lampkin, in Organic Farming, stresses that it is the human activity of agriculture that generates weeds. He defines a weed as “any plant adapted to man-made habitats and interferes with human activities.” For weed spin doctors, even that definition is too harsh because it focuses too much on the negative. The first step in our weed propaganda is to begin viewing the appearance of weeds as beneficial.

We are all familiar with the saying nature abhors a vacuum. Well, cultivation essentially creates a vacuum where whole communities of plant and soil life are disrupted and/or destroyed. Nature responds with weeds. Within days, pioneer plants such as pigweed, lamb’s quarters, and purslane grow rapidly and thickly. They anchor the soil and generate organic matter that feeds the soil life. These fast-growing annuals also provide shade, hold moisture, and moderate soil temperatures that allow other plants, such as biennials and perennials (including grasses), to initiate growth. If left for another season, this land will have fewer fast-growing annuals and favour later successional plants.

In our fields, the soil is in an unnatural state of continuous disturbance and as a result we primarily deal with the early colonists. Most of these fast-growing annuals grow without associated mycorrhizal fungi (primarily because their life cycle is too short to benefit from a symbiotic partnership). Expectedly, soils rich with mycorrhizal fungi (e.g. pastures, forest floors, agricultural soils rich in organic matter, especially through the use of compost) have fewer annual weeds. Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb Inc. suggests that the presence of the fungi serves as a signal that keeps annual weeds from germinating.

Learning From Your Weeds

Now that we better appreciate why weeds appear in our farms and gardens, we can take a closer look at how we can use weeds as indicators for our soil conditions. It is important to note that many weeds can tolerate a wide range of conditions and therefore the appearance of a few individual weeds are not necessarily proof of an underlying soil condition. For example, both perennial sow thistle and dock indicate poor drainage, but dock prefers more acidic soils, while thistle favours a higher pH. You can however learn about the conditions if the weed population is dominated by several species that all prefer similar conditions. For example, if plantain, coltsfoot and ox-eye daisies are the predominant weeds, this could indicate that the soils are waterlogged or have poor drainage.

Agricultural practices such as cultivation, fertilization and grazing management can have a great impact on the soil and, in turn, on the appearance of particular weed species. Frequent tillage will disturb the billions of viable seeds in the soil seed bank and, with sunlight, these will germinate and occupy bare soil. Weeds such as lamb’s quarters and redroot pigweed can produce 75,000 to 130,000 seeds per plant (respectively), which can remain viable in the soil for up to 40 years.

The presence of legumes, such as vetch, medic and clover, may suggest that the soil is lacking nitrogen. In contrast, weeds growing on the same soil that appear pale yellow and/or stunted also indicate low fertility. Overgrazing of pastures may lead to compacted soils and then the presence of perennial bluegrass species and bentgrasses may predominate.

The lack or imbalance of calcium can allow soils to become compacted and without the proper biology in the soil (fungi in the case of calcium), calcium will not stay in the soil.

Soil pH

In addition to helping protect and improve the organic matter content of the soil, weeds can also indicate the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Most agricultural crops do best in a slightly acidic soil (pH of 6 to 6.5). An increasing presence of weeds such as plantain, sorrel or dandelion may suggest that the pH is dropping below a desirable level. However, having acidic soils should not be viewed as detrimental. Much of Albrecht’s work highlighted that poor plant performance on low pH soils was in fact a consequence of low soil fertility or an imbalance of soil nutrients, rather than soil pH. For example, many alfalfa growers have witnessed a dramatic invasion of dandelions after spreading high levels of potash. Essentially, the potash had suppressed calcium levels in the soil. The deep-rooted dandelion scavenges calcium from lower depths and upon its death released the calcium at the soil surface. The appearance of dandelions may be interpreted as indicating acidic soils when in fact the ratio of calcium to potassium caused their appearance.

Extreme Weed Makeover: Look for the Positive in Weeds

  • Weeds can act as a green manure or cover crop.
  • Weeds can serve to cycle nutrients from the subsoil (e.g. deeprooted weeds such as dandelions or burdock).
  • Deep-rooted weeds can break up hard pans, thereby regulating water movement in the soil.
  • Weeds can conserve soil moisture.
  • Weeds can provide habitat for beneficial organisms.

An imbalance of magnesium relative to calcium can lead to tight soils and eventually anaerobic conditions. Calcium causes soil particles to move apart, providing good aeration and drainage; fungi help to prevent the leaching of calcium out of the soil. Magnesium makes particles stick together and if soils become too tight, oxygen becomes limited and beneficial forms of soil life disappear. In such conditions, organic residues in the soil do not decay properly, and increased carbon dioxide in the soil favours fermentation of the organic matter, resulting in byproducts such as alcohol and formaldehyde. These substances inhibit root penetration as well as create favourable conditions for soil diseases such as pythium and phytophora. Fermentation can also create methane gas which is conducive to the appearance of velvetleaf, or ethane gas which helps jimsonweed to prosper. Grasses with their fine and numerous roots attempt to break up tight soils, while the presence of many grassy weeds may indicate tight soils.

Mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association between fungi and plant roots. Most agricultural crops depend on, or benefit from, their associations with mycorrhizae. In exchange for carbon from the plant, mycorrhizal fungi make phosphorus more soluble and bring soil nutrients (N, P, K) and water to the plant. The Cruciferae family (e.g. broccoli, mustard) and the Chenopodiaceae family (e.g. lamb’s quarters, spinach, beets) do not form associations with these fungi. Frequent tillage, fungicides and high levels of N or P will inhibit root inoculation. Similarly, the practice of fallowing will reduce levels of mycorrhizae because the plants that establish following tillage usually do not form associations with the fungi.

This article is based primarily on the knowledge and observations of farmers who wanted to better understand the connection between what was growing in their soil and the various management practices they were employing.

The American poet Emerson once wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” perhaps referring to their greatest virtue to farmers as messengers of the soil.

Recommended reading (available from the COG library): 

Pfeiffer, E.E. (1981). Weeds and what they tell. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Assoc, USA.

Soil Association. (1982). The Value of Weeds. Soil Association, UK.


Av emphasizes farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange and works to hone farmer intuition in making management decisions. Currently, Av serves as a cannabis cultivation advisor to many Licensed Producers in North America and the Chief Science Officer with Green Gorilla (a Hemp and Cannabidiol Company). Av is also serving as the Vice-President of the Canadian Organic Growers and is proud to be a member of Slow Food Canada, Food Secure Canada, and the National Farmers’ Union. Av is also a faculty member at Earth University (Navdanya) in India where he delivers courses on agroecology and organic farming. Av can be reached for questions or comment at 902-698-0454 or av@fs-cannabis.com.

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A New Model for Integrated Habitat Development

in 2018/Crop Production/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2018

For Bees, Birds, and Fish (IEHD-BBF)

Saikat Kumar Basu

Global bee populations are showing an alarming decline due to a number of factors like environmental pollution, indiscriminate use and over applications of various agro-chemicals, industrial agricultural practices detrimental to nature, changes in the land use patterns, and parasitic diseases of bees as well as lack of adequate supply of nectar and pollens for different bee species due to lack of suitable of bee foraging plants and natural melliferous flora. The challenges are not just restricted to honey bees and/or native bee species, but also to other insect pollinators such as moths, butterflies, and certain species of pollinator-friendly flies and beetles. Under these circumstances it is important to conserve the endangered bee species and other pollinator insects, mollusks (snails and slugs), birds (certain humming bird species), and mammals (bats) helping in the process of natural cross pollination.

A large number of global food and industrial/commercial crops, forage crops, wildflowers, ornamentals, vegetables, and forest species are dependent on biological agents or vectors of cross pollination for their successful reproduction and survival. The yield loss due to lack of suitable pollinators for cross pollination is a serious threat to the future of global agriculture as well as for maintaining the balance of our natural ecosystems. Loss of honey bees are having detrimental socio-economic impacts on the apiculture industry; and thereby impacting the livelihood and social security of millions of individuals around the planet.

A Stratiomyid fly foraging on wild chamomile flower. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Establishing suitable pollinator (bee) gardens or habitats or sanctuaries at suitable sites could prove to be instrumental in both bee and other pollinator insect conservation from a long term, ecological perspective. Using suitable pollinator mixes comprising of native grasses, wildflowers as well as annual, biennial, perennial forage crops (forage grasses, legumes, different Brassica family members) can help in establishing pollinator gardens, habitats, or sanctuaries in perimeters of forested areas, under used or unsuitable agronomic lands, unused and available rural locations, city and municipal parks and gardens, lawns, kitchen gardens, unused or hard to farm areas, in sites adjacent to natural or artificial waterbodies like ponds, pools, ditches, swamps, bogs, streams, or irrigation canals.

Aquatic Habitats

Freshwater wetland habitats need to be protected to conserve the aquatic ecosystems, the rich biodiversity associated with itand to protect nature for our future generations. Protecting freshwater wetlands does not necessarily require huge expertise, funding, or high levels of technology applications, but rather. simple innovation, creativity, awareness, and the desire to develop comprehensive multi-layer conservation strategy in the line of Multiple Tier Conservation Model (MTCM). A well managed and carefully planned freshwater aquatic habitat conservation strategy could be establishing Integrated Ecological Habitat Development for Bees, Birds and Fishes (IEHD-BBF). This proposed model targets multiple trophic levels within a dynamic natural or artificial freshwater ecosystem to conserve multiple species simultaneously.

Aquatic habitat integrated with pollinator conservation can provide multi level species protection for bees, birds, and fishes. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Natural or artificial aquatic habitats like pools, ponds, ditches, swamps, bogs, lakes, canals, etc… could be targeted for ecological restoration by planting short or high grasses, salt tolerant aquatic plant species, and grasses along with pollinator mixes comprising of annual and/or perennial legumes, wildflowers, and related pollinator friendly plant species or melliferous flora around target fresh water habitats. Such mixes will not only restore aquatic habitats, but also attract small and medium sized land birds and a wide diversity of pollinator insects like honey bees, native bees, moths, butterflies, certain species of pollinator beetles, and flies for nectar foraging, nesting, and breeding purposes.

From Flora to Fauna

If the waterbodies are well stocked with indigenous fish species, well protected grassy aquatic habitats will also attract a wide diversity of aquatic birds to nest, forage, and breed in such unique environmentally restored ecosystems. An integrated Bees, Birds and Fishes Conservation Model (BBFCM) can be extremely useful in protecting multiple species at the same time and location.

Ideal pollinator foraging plants can help build sustainable pollinator sanctuaries. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Grasses in the mixes can help in soil erosion and restoration, as well as phytoremediation, while legumes will enrich the soil with natural nitrogen resources without application of any synthetic fertilizers. Care must be taken to avoid using any pesticides in such habitats to prevent chemical pollution. Over time, such aquatic habitats will also attract local wildflowers and aquatic plants to grow and thrive in these ecosystems attractive to various species of both terrestrial and aquatic insects including active pollinators, along with small to medium sized terrestrial and aquatic birds to nest and forage in such restored aquatic habitats. Well stocked waterbodies with native fish species will promote native fish conservation and at the same time provide a stable food source for a number of aquatic birds.

Small and medium sized mammals, reptiles, and amphibians will also be able to establish in such ecosystem utilizing the growing complex food chains and food webs over time. Overall, the innovative and multi-trophic level Integrated Ecological Habitat Development for Bees, Birds and Fishes (IEHD-BBF) model has huge potential for restoration and reestablishment of natural and artificial aquatic ecosystems with minimal care, attention, management and funding. Such ecological restoration using the IEHD-BBF model can serve the needs of dwindling bees and insect pollinator populations, along with local resident and migratory birds and indigenous fishes to successfully multiply in an integrated multi-species catering dynamic ecological system.

Nevade bee foraging on Phacelia in a restored ecosystem. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Regionally Specific Ecological Restoration

It is important however to note that plant yield and adaptation varies according to different ecosystems and agro-climatic conditions. It is also important to note that plants exhibit a strong Genotype X Environment interaction (G X E or GE effect). As a consequence, it is not advisable to use same pollinator mix at different locations and habitats for integrated habitat development. Locally adapted biodiverse pollinator mix selected through multi-location trials under varied geographical, geological, ecological, and climatic variations across different latitudes needs to be seriously evaluated for optimal results. Locally adapted pollinator mix with their unique combination of diverse species suited and adapted for individual agro-climatic and ecosystem regions has the potential to yield optimal results.

The flowering periods of the components of the pollinator mix need to be thoroughly investigated and tested against specific environment to evaluate what diversity of natural insect pollinators they are attracting and how well the plants included in the pollinator mix are adapting to the local parameters, withstanding competition against local weeds under field conditions. It will be important to identify the plant species that are performing best under natural conditions at different agro-climatic conditions with respect to establishment, regeneration, and attracting natural insect pollinators. If judicious selection of appropriate plant species is made with local adaptation to agro-climatic variability across different families; and with different flowering period; the resultant pollinator mix will be more suitable and yield optimal results in protecting and conserving pollinators as well as help is establishment or restoration of natural ecosystems.

Canada geese family in restored habitat. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu
Bee foraging on sainfoin flower. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure time and is passionate about nature and conservation.

Feature photo: Pollinator sanctuaries can help establish small ecological units over time. Credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

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Ask an Expert: Biodiversity and the Organic Standards

in 2018/Ask an Expert/Current Issue/Land Stewardship/Summer 2018
Stuart McMillan

An Inspector’s View

Stuart McMillan

This story originally appeared in The Canadian Organic Grower, Spring 2018, with thanks.

There are a number of great reasons to be an organic inspector. For myself, the primary one is getting to meet so many fantastic farmers, ranchers, and operators of organic operations across the diverse regions of Canada. Being able to ask people their reasons for decisions and directions on their operations is part of the job, and having them open up the entirety of their farms and facilities is an added perk. I have seen some stunningly beautiful corners of the country in my work. One element that stands out is the diversity of approaches taken in different regions of the country to achieve a common goal.

One of the strengths of the Canadian organic standard is that it recognizes the climatic and ecological diversity of the country and that the approaches taken in one region may not be suitable for another one. This approach is written right into the standards: “In the development of the standard, it was recognized that differences between Canada’s agricultural regions require varying practices to meet production needs” (CAN/CGSB-32.310, Introduction).

But this leads to one of the challenges I have encountered. Various goals and outcomes are mandatory across these regions. For example, it is expected that all organic products will come from a production system that “provides weed, pest, and disease control through enhancement of biodiversity, recycling of plant and animal residues, crop selection and rotation, water management, tillage, and cultivation” (CAN/CGSB-32.310, 1.2b).

This creates some curious challenges while trying to conduct an inspection in an efficient and expedient manner.How does one assess the enhancement of biodiversity? Some farms I have been to have a deep understanding of their region’s ecology and have implemented various practices to promote biodiversity, while other farms appear to not even know this is a requirement.

In recent years, the US organic standards have tried to strengthen their promotion of biodiversity with linkages with other agricultural conservation organization like the Natural Resources Conservation Society (NRCS) to promote best land use practices by farmers. NRCS has developed a focused organic program called “Conservation for Organic Farmers & Ranchers”.

To date, Canada has been slower to have extensive federal support to promote on farm biodiversity. With the reduction in provincial extension services, especially services that can provide organic expertise, farmers find their support networks limited. Without sound guidance on how to improve biodiversity in a meaningful manner, many farmers are uncertain how to move forward. As a result, we continue to find this discrepancy of ecological practices on organic (and non-organic) farms in Canada.

While the flexibility of the organic standards can be an advantage, they are also at times ambiguous. Ambiguity leads to confusion, confusion leads to inaction. Inaction, when it comes to promoting biodiversity on organic farms, leads to erosion of the goals and outcomes of the organic system.


Stuart McMillan is the manager of Legends Organic Farm. He inspected organic farms, ranches, and processors across North America for over 10 years.

Ecological Farm Internships and the Law

in 2018/Organic Community/Winter 2018

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 4 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC. In 2017, the authors published a workshop report on Ecological Farm Internships that is available for download here: www.foodandlabour.ca/results-and-reflections.

This article is the fourth in a series that describes the increasing trend of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. In this article we explore some of the legal implications of these practices and the ensuing concerns from farmers and interns across the province. This article should not, under any circumstances, be considered legal advice and we recommend that the appropriate government departments or legal specialists be contacted regarding specific questions. Also, the laws surrounding farm internships in Ontario are extremely vague. We do not try to determine whether these internships are legal or not, as we are ill-equipped to do so as non-lawyers, but we do attempt to highlight the legal landscape as we understand it and the gaps and ambiguities that deserve further legal research

In previous articles, we established that ecological farm internships offer many things to trainees (e.g., knowledge and skill training), farmers (e.g., support for ecological food production) and the broader food movement. However, the legality of these labour arrangements in Ontario remains uncertain, especially after cases have been settled elsewhere in which unpaid interns were awarded back-wages. For example, in 2013, two farm interns in British Columbia claimed their work arrangement did not meet provincial employment standards and settled out of court for several months’ worth of back-wages. This case caused significant concern for farmers across the country using non-waged interns.

There have been increasing government crackdowns on (non-agricultural) internship programs throughout North America. According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, between September and December 2015 employment standards officers found that of 77 workplaces that had interns, almost a quarter did not meet legal requirements under the Employment Standards Act (ESA). As a result, many Ontario farmers have been deeply concerned that their use of non-wage interns could be judged in contravention of the law. One farmer commented, “I worry sometimes because there are some farms who aren’t doing things properly with payroll and that’s the type of thing that could end with crackdowns that affect all of us”. A farmer and non-profit director explained, “Some farmers are surprised when I suggest that there’s a risk because they are technically breaking labour rules and relying on the good will of the intern and the internship going well to avoid litigation down the line”.

In Ontario, there are two main areas of legislation that impact farm internships. First, the ESA sets out the rights and responsibilities of both employees and employers and contains fairly clear guidelines to what makes an internship. In short, if you perform work that is of benefit to another person or business, you are considered an employee and therefore entitled to rights under the ESA such as minimum wage. One exception to these rules is for trainees; however, these cases have very restrictive conditions. According to the Ministry of Labour, if an intern receives training used by employees, they would also be considered an employee unless the following six conditions are met:

  • The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
  • The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
  • Your training doesn’t take someone else’s job.
  • Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.
  • You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.(www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/internships.php)

In addition, farmers taking on interns should be clear on whether they meet regulatory compliance guidelines in Ontario. Aside from the ESA, employers must be in compliance with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). As operators will know, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) administers the WSIA and delivers no-fault workplace insurance and all agricultural employers must provide coverage to their employees. The OHSA also sets out a number of rights and duties for employers and workers. Compliance includes providing mandatory information about health and safety on the farm and the right to refuse work if it is believed to be dangerous.

The second area of legislation is the agricultural exemptions to the ESA. In general, farm workers involved in primary production (e.g., planting crops, cultivating, pruning, feeding, and caring for livestock) are not covered by some employment standards including minimum wage, hours of work, overtime, general pay with holidays and vacation (of note, this is different for harvest workers and landscape gardeners). However, one farmer noted that when interns do anything other than primary production, they may be on shaky legal ground: “If they’re going to a farmers’ market and manning a stall and working independently, it gets murky”. According to the Ministry of Labour, anyone whose work is related to the harvesting, canning, processing, or packing of fresh vegetables or fruits, or their distribution is entitled to all minimum ESA standards (www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/factsheets/fs_agri.php).

The legislation varies slightly in each province. In Alberta farm owners and related family members are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, but not waged workers. In British Columbia, all agricultural workers are entitled to minimum wage and vacation time. It should be stressed that there is a considerable uncertainty around internship law and agriculture exemptions to labour standards and at this time there is no detailed account of how these areas of law intersect.

Surrounding these legal details, there is an ethical question that many farmers and interns have raised about the value of labour and fair compensation. A labour lawyer noted, “There’s quite a tension there. How do you ensure protection, because, say somebody dies or gets seriously injured on one of these farms? [Employment laws] came in the early part of the late 19th Century as a means to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and set a floor so people could live”. While there are many benefits that emerge from ecological farming, most farms are businesses and farmers derive various benefits as owners. Anyone doing work on a farm is contributing to the value of that business and deserves compensation. This is especially important for new farmers building the skills, knowledge, and financial (or other) capital to eventually start their own farm business. The best advice we have heard is to always pay minimum wage and ensure employers and interns are adhering to all provincial legislation.

There are a number of government programs farmers can access to help support new farmer training and internships. The following are three good options:

Green Farm Internships (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada): Part of the Agricultural Youth Green Jobs Initiative, this program offers up to 50% of the cost of hiring young workers (up to $16,000 per intern) for environmental activities, services, or research that will benefit the agriculture sector.

Career Focus Program (Service Canada): This program supports 4-12 month agricultural internships for recent graduates of a qualified post secondary program.

Rural Summer Jobs Service (OMAFRA): The program provides wage subsidies for rural and agri-food businesses that employ summer students ages 14-30.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website:

foodandlabour.ca


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces. 

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Holistic Management

in Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2017/Tools & Techniques

Blain Hjertaas

Holistic Management is a decision making system that helps us make better decisions. It teaches us to make decisions that are simultaneously sociologically, environmentally, and economically sound. The end result is happy people, healthy profits, and regenerating soils.

Holistic Management emphasizes principles of regenerating the soil. Our modern industrial approach to agriculture has been a disaster leading to declining nutrient density in food. We consume just over a half tonne of food per year, in the process of producing this food 10 tonnes of soil are lost. Clearly a system of agriculture like this cannot continue.

Holistic Management teaches us the basic principles of regenerative agriculture. How each of us uses these principles is what makes holistic management so unique, as each uses their own creativity to make it work in their own situation.

Principle #1 Solar Capture

To be successful we have to capture sunlight. It is free and non-limiting. There are only three things we can do to increase solar capture: we can make solar panels larger, put more panels up, and leave them turned on longer. On the farm, plant spacing and diversity will largely determine the size and density of the leaves—and in turn how much solar capture is available. We have the potential to capture solar energy from snowmelt to snow arrival (in Saskatchewan, that’s approximately 220 to 250 days). Most annual cropping systems capture solar energy for 70 days of the year. If we are not capturing energy, our soil health is declining. The purpose of solar capture is to send energy to the soil. We need to look at inter cropping, winter crops, poly cropping, etc to increase our harvest of solar energy.

Principle #2 Water Cycle

To make crops grow we need moisture. We have no control as farmers as to how much or when it rains but we have total control as to whether the rainfall is effective (goes into the soil) or not effective (runs off). To make the water cycle effective we need to keep our land covered in litter (green or dead plant material). This absorbs the physical effect of the raindrops and allows them to enter the soil slowly. You can think of the litter layer like the skin on your body. If you have a major burn the consequences can be catastrophic. Litter provides a similar role for the earth. It keeps it warmer in cool times, cooler in warm times, and it allows the moisture to enter and prevents it from evaporating. Moisture is critical for life; to capture and hold it is critical for our success. One of our goals should be to capture every raindrop where it falls.

Principle #3 Mineral Cycle

To have a functioning mineral cycle we need active biology. This occurs when we have solar capture to send sugar down the roots which becomes root exudates. This exudate is the food for the bacteria and fungi. The mycorrhizal fungi physically attach themselves to the root hairs of the plant. In return for the sugar, the fungi get minerals for the plant. These minerals are generally not available to plant; however the mycorrhizal fungi can remove minerals from the soil particles and transport it directly to the plant. This is a synergistic relationship where the plant feeds the fungi and the fungi feeds the plant. This is how nutrient dense food is produced. To have an effective functioning mineral cycle in place, we need to feed the workers below the ground (solar capture) and keep them warm and moist (litter layer and effective water cycle). The bacteria provide many diverse roles from producing enzymes required to being food for the predators which in turn releases nitrogen for the plants. It is wonderfully complex. All we need to do as managers is to foster and enhance and it will continue to get better. All of the living and dying of these billions of organisms is what ultimately sequesters carbon.[DS1]

Principle #4 Community Dynamics

Diversity is wonderful: the more the better. Diversity is not limited to what you plant. Look around; diversity is found in birds, insects, people, animals, and plants. There are synergies between species we do not fully understand. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: 1+1>2. The challenge becomes how we grow crops that we can harvest mechanically. Poly cropping and inter cropping are becoming new words to farmers as they learn how to put different types of rotations together to harvest the power of this diversity.

How these four principles come together on your farm is up to your creativity. As the four principles are enhanced good things begin to happen. Carbon sequestration begins in the soil. 1 gram of carbon holds 8 grams of water. Increase carbon storage, your farm becomes better able to withstand drought or extreme wet conditions. As carbon increases along with solar capture more life can live below ground. This life below ground increases the nutrient density of the food which is critical for our health. Our requirement for purchased inputs declines and yields go up which certainly helps profitability.

Society will benefit by more nutrient dense food, less infrastructure damage in severe weather events, and carbon being removed from the atmosphere. On my operation in South Eastern Saskatchewan, I have been monitoring soil carbon levels since 2011. I am averaging 22.88 tonnes of CO2 sequestered per hectare per year on a grazing operation. Each Canadian has a carbon footprint of 18.9 tonnes/person/year. Every hectare I operate more than sequesters one Canadian’s carbon footprint.

Regenerative farms provide tremendous value in ecological goods and services to all of society that we are not recognized for. On my 1000 acre operation at a value of $20/ton for CO2, my sequestration value is worth $175,000 per year to society. More water holding and more nutrient dense food and better diversity with endangered grassland birds returning—what value is encompassed there that cannot be quantified?

Holistic Management helps you to make better decisions to achieve the goals that you have for yourself and your family. Along the way your operation should become more profitable and your ecosystem more resilient.

Learn more: holisticmanagement.org


Blain Hjertaas is a Certified Holistic Educator with Holistic Management International. He has 15 years of practical experience using Holistic Management running a 1000 acre grass operation in Saskatchewan, where they also raise lamb, custom graze cows, and poultry. Blain has a passion for carbon sequestration and offers consultations and education on Holistic Management and how the environment functions and how our actions will ultimately influence the ecosystem.

Photo credit: Sandy Black

bhjer@sasktel.net

Promoting Productive Pastures

in Crop Production/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2016
Well managed pastures

Andrea Lawseth, B.Sc., M.Sc., P.Ag. AEL Agroecological Consulting

Pasture management is one of the main challenges for organic livestock producers throughout the province. In the lower mainland and on Vancouver Island, we struggle with wet climates and waterlogged grazing areas, while in the interior of the province the hot and arid climate poses other challenges that can be equally difficult to manage. Despite these difficulties, there are some techniques and tricks that you can follow to maximize the pasture that you have available and utilize your land more effectively.

Rotational and Limited Grazing

In order to maintain sales and productivity, livestock producers want to have as many animals on their land as the land can support. Sometimes we increase the numbers too much, which can result in overgrazing of pastures. Overgrazing occurs when 50% or more of the grass plant is grazed all at once. This can completely stop root growth and severely reduce grass production. Table 1 shows how grazing can affect root growth of grasses.

As the saying goes, “build your fence horse high, pig tight, and bull strong.” Fencing for rotational and limited grazing is often the best tool for reducing grazing pressure and overgrazing on your pastures. Rotational grazing involves breaking larger pastures up into smaller sections and only grazing one section at a time to allow the others to regenerate. This encourages even grazing of pastures as well as many other benefits such as: increased amount and quality of forage, increased growth of desired grass species, reduced weeds, better parasite control, better manure distribution, and more frequent animal-human contact.

As the saying goes, “build your fence horse high, pig tight, and bull strong.”

If you decide to implement rotational grazing then it is best to start by dividing a large pasture in two and grazing each of these separately. You can then divide further later on. Ideally it is best to have 4 pastures that provide enough grazing for 7 to 10 days as this gives each pasture a rest for 3 to 5 weeks. To divide pastures you can use electric fencing or tape at a height of approximately 90 cm (3 feet) or chest height of your livestock. This is a relatively inexpensive method that has proven to be highly successful. It is important to remember that you will need to monitor pasture growth at different times of the year and rotate accordingly.

Limited grazing involves turning your animals out for limited periods of time (once or twice a day, before or after work, for a few hours at a time). More supplemental feeding will be required and grass height will need to be monitored, but it provides the same benefits as rotational grazing.

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Pasture Renovation

Most pastures in BC are in need of some repair due to overgrazing, wet winters, alkaline or acidic soil types, or dry summers. Grass that is lacking density with 50% weed growth or more will need to be renovated to some degree. Management strategies could include a combination of improved pasture drainage, fertilizing, harrowing, liming, and re-seeding depending on budget constraints.

The first step in dealing with an overgrazed or mismanaged pasture is to evaluate what you have to work with. Find a good weed guide to help you identify which weeds exist on your property and take some samples of your pasture soils to send them to a lab for analysis. Your lab of choice will be able to guide you on their most desired sampling technique and will be able to determine the full composition of your soil and nutrient needs.

Improving drainage through the use of surface or subsurface methods such as French drain tiles can eliminate standing water and ideal conditions for weed growth. Aerating the soil will also help water to penetrate below surface soil layers. Additionally, fertilizing with well composted manure will greatly improve soil structure and drainage. Spreading a thin layer of compost will help soil to increase its water holding capacity and will provide a great medium for spreading grass seed. It is recommended to spread once in the spring and again in the fall. Furthermore, harrowing with either a chain harrow or a tractor will also help to improve drainage and break up any clumps of manure compost you have spread.

Liming is an excellent technique for areas with very acidic soil. Weeds such as buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) or field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) are good indicators of acidic soil as they are well-adapted to these conditions. Liming should be carried out in the spring and fall and more often if needed. Again, a soil test will help to determine the pH of your soil.

Finally, re-seeding with an appropriate seed mixture for your property will help to out-compete weeds and maintain good forage production. The key to choosing a mixture is diversity. The varying grass species in a mix will grow in their respective microclimates within your pastures, which will lead to lower vulnerability to disease and pest outbreaks. However, it is still important to tailor your grass mix to the type of soil on your property and the expected use of the pasture (i.e. grazing, sacrifice area, or hay).

Make sure you mention the topography of your pastures and soil characteristics (gained from a soil analysis) to your seed retailer so that they can help identify the right mix for you. The best time to broadcast overseed your pastures is in late September to early October after you have spread your manure compost. Seeding rates will vary with grass species so check with your retailer before seeding.

Before allowing livestock onto the pasture to graze you should allow newly seeded pasture grass to reach a height of 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in) and remove your animals when they have grazed the grass down to 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in). This will ensure that the grasses have enough food reserves to permit rapid re-growth. Re-growth can take up to 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the time of year, so it is important to keep animals off wet, overgrazed pastures. Wet pastures can also lead to health problems such as foot rot and parasite infestation.

Keeping pastures mowed to a uniform height of 3 inches will help to stimulate equal growth of your grass plants. This will also help to control perennial weeds that do not respond well to mechanical control methods.

Properly managing pastures generally requires a shift in thinking from viewing the crop as a way to feed the animals to viewing the animals as a way of managing the pasture. As a grass farmer, your main goal is to ensure that the grass on your pasture is healthy enough to outcompete the weeds. Through rotational grazing and prevention of overstocking pastures, you will create the right environment to allow your grass to thrive and the soil to remain healthy and productive.


Andrea is the Principal/Owner of AEL Agroecological Consulting and a Professional Agrologist with over 11 years of experience in food system and agricultural land use planning, sustainable agricultural promtion, organic certification, and food security. AEL Agroecological Consulting provides agri-environmental consulting services to all levels of government, non-profit organizations and individuals.

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