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regenerative agriculture

Organic Stories: Spray Creek Ranch

in 2018/Current Issue/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Organic Stories/Winter 2018
Tristan and Aubyn walking in the pasture at Spray Creek Ranch

Regenerative Ranchers

Michelle Tsutsumi and Tristan Banwell

Tristan and Aubyn Banwell, managers of Spray Creek Ranch, have shared quite the journey. They met in high school band class in Northern California, spent their university years as urban vegans and then homesteaded off-grid for five years before moving to the juxtaposed landscape of Northern St’at’imc Territory near Lillooet. Situated between rugged cliffs, endless forested mountains and the mighty Fraser River, Spray Creek Ranch is also home to cattle, pigs, and poultry, as well as an on-farm abattoir and meat shop. Of 260 acres, around 125 are under gravity-fed irrigation, including open perennial pastures, orchards, silvopasture, and homestead gardens. The remaining land includes mostly native forest and protected riparian areas.

For thousands of years, the land where Spray Creek Ranch is situated was a gathering place for St’at’imc people. The old homestead cabin and original irrigation ditches date back to the late 1800s and the land was deeded in 1897. More recently, the farm was a commodity cow-calf ranch, producing winter feed like hay or corn silage while the cattle spent the summer on range in the mountains. Calves were sold at auction in the fall and the cycle started again. In 2014, Tristan and Aubyn moved onto the land and began the process of reshaping the ranch from a conventional, small-scale commodity model to an organic and regenerative agroecosystem.

Regenerative Agriculture builds on the organic Principle of Care, whereby agriculture “should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment,” (IFOAM Organics International) by specifying concrete actions towards improvement. Thinking in terms of regeneration guides producers in their quest to increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve water cycles, enhance ecosystems, develop resilience to climate fluctuation, and strengthen the health and vitality of their communities. “Organic is our foundation,” says Tristan, “and we’re building from that foundation with regenerative practices.”

Conventional, continuous grazing is like driving a tractor without brakes or a steering wheel. We are now able to use our cow herd as a tool to improve the soil environment, which is the foundation of plant and animal health.

Soon after arriving on the farm in 2014, Tristan and Aubyn started Management-Intensive Rotational Grazing (MiG) à la Jim Gerrish and Allan Savory. This involves keeping the cows on the move anywhere from once every three days to a few times per day, depending on the season, pasture condition and their goals.

“Cattle are the primary tool for regeneration on the farm and they work hard every day turning grass and mountain water into fertility,” says Aubyn. Next come the poultry flocks—also major contributors to soil health—turning farm-milled organic feed into powerful fertilizer. They break up the cow manure and grass thatch that accumulates in the pastures, allowing new plants to germinate and thrive. Pigs act as a disturbance agent on the farm, breaking up the ground in preparation for reseeding more diverse pastures.

MiG is labour-intensive, but Tristan says that the benefits far outweigh the additional effort. “Conventional, continuous grazing is like driving a tractor without brakes or a steering wheel. We are now able to use our cow herd as a tool to improve the soil environment, which is the foundation of plant and animal health.” Using portable electric fencing, the cows are moved to fresh pasture, usually each day, along with their portable water and mineral feeder. Moving the cows across the ranch this way spreads their impact and fertility evenly over the pastures, encouraging healthy plant growth and carbon sequestration while disallowing the over-grazing, nutrient pollution and compaction that comes from conventional continuous cattle grazing systems. The level of attention to, and care for, their cattle does not stop here.

Tristan and Aubyn are selecting for smaller-framed cows, high fertility, calving ease, and heat tolerance using purebred Red Angus bulls. Acknowledging Mother Nature’s wisdom, they have transitioned the herd to later calving and a shorter breeding season. “The cows calve onto fresh green pasture in May and June, along with the deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep in the area,” Aubyn says. “Calving later has helped eliminate the calving problems we used to see. In 2017, we didn’t assist a single cow, had a 100% calf crop and 96% of the cows and heifers exposed were bred in two cycles.”

In late summer, grazing is carefully planned so that as much standing forage can be stockpiled on the farm as possible. This is then rationed out over the winter to extend the grazing season well into the new year. “Every day we’re grazing, the cows are working for us, and we’re saving hundreds of dollars,” says Tristan. What little hay is needed is purchased from local certified organic farms. Because the cows have a chance to recover their body condition on spring grass before calving, calves are able to winter with their mothers, postponing the stress of weaning until the calves are older. When calves are weaned, it is done so using a multi-stage process to keep weaning stress on both cows and calves to a minimum.

During the fall of 2015, baseline soil carbon monitoring was completed across all fields on Spray Creek Ranch. This was conducted in partnership with a Thompson Rivers University Master of Science student, Dan Denesiuk, who was part of Dr. Lauchlin Fraser’s interdisciplinary plant ecology and land management lab in Kamloops. Meaningful research conclusions will not be available for some years, but there are compelling qualitative observations that the land is celebrating the shift to regenerative agriculture.

In terms of increasing biodiversity, there has been an increase in the variety and abundance of clovers without seeding. The clovers initially came back from the pasture seed bank during the long rest periods between grazing, and are able to set seed again each season. Another key observation is that their 80% alfalfa hay fields filled in with grasses in only two years. Leaving tall residual after grazing appears to favour grasses, as they can recover more quickly than the alfalfa, which has less leaf area at the bottom of the plant. They have also decreased the amount of irrigation water applied to the land as organic matter builds and trampled forage reduces soil temperature and evaporation.

When analyzing the financial picture, it was evident that a right-sized commodity cow-calf operation would not provide a livelihood. At the same time, they knew that the land could provide much more with additional labour. Much deliberation was focused on the mix of enterprises that would work on the land and in the local markets. Thus began a period of adding and trialing elements, then eliminating the ones that were not a good fit. They also began development of an on-farm abattoir and meat shop, starting with obtaining a Class D slaughter licence. This allows on-farm slaughter of many of their animals, and their eventual goal is to slaughter, butcher, and package all their production right on the farm for direct marketing. The abattoir and meat shop is also developing into an independent enterprise that will help other local, small-scale producers get their products to market.

Beyond the reach of their business, the Banwells have found other ways to contribute to the well-being of the community. Soon after moving to Lillooet, they began working to reduce barriers for small-scale farmers in the area. In 2015, they trialled a cooperative marketing effort for Lillooet-area farms, which led to the creation of the Lillooet Agriculture & Food Society (LAFS). This non-profit supports local farmers, ranchers, growers and other passionate individuals who are building a sustainable food system. Bringing workshops to town, launching the Lillooet Grown brand, and tirelessly working to improve market access and local production and processing capacity has kept the dedicated board, staff, and contractors busy.

In addition to chairing LAFS, Tristan will be representing the North Okanagan Organic Association on the COABC Board starting in February. Aubyn sits on the board of the Lillooet Farmers’ Market Association, and is working to bring the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program to the community. The couple has been very involved with Young Agrarians (YA), taking advantage of mentorship and learning opportunities as well as sharing their knowledge at YA events. They also donate their products and time to support local fundraisers and initiatives like the Lillooet Friendship Centre Food Bank, the Lillooet District Hospital Foundation, the Náskan Ūxwal (I’m Going Home) Walk, Love Lillooet, the T’it’q’et Amlec Food Security Initiative and Lillooet Seedy Saturday.

Tristan and Aubyn have already had a remarkable impact in terms of strengthening the health and vitality of their soil, pasture, livestock, community, and livelihood through transitioning the land and their lives toward organic regenerative practices. The significance of protecting land and water for future generations is even more meaningful with their first child due in early February.

To follow along with their unfolding journey join their newsletter, find them on social media, or check out their website: spraycreek.ca

Michelle Tsutsumi is a part of Golden Ears Farm in Chase, BC, looking after the market garden, 15-week CSA Program, and events with her partner Tristan Cavers and daughter Avé. goldenearsfarm.com

All photos: Tristan Banwell

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

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