Nutrient Management Planning for Ranchers

Nutrient Management Planning for Ranchers

The British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture is sponsoring a research project to help better understand the amount of soil nutrients deposited on livestock feeding grounds in the interior of British Columbia. This information will be used to build reference values that can aid ranchers in understanding the carry-over fertilizer effects from manure and feed remnants deposited on seasonal feeding areas (sites used for pasture, hay or other crops during the growing season, and also for feeding, watering and bedding livestock in the dormant season). Through better nutrient management planning, producers can lower the costs for their forage production while minimizing any risk to the environment, through avoiding over application.

Fifty-eight ranching operations from Kelowna to Smithers, and points in-between will allow researchers to access their feeding sites this winter (starting January 2015) to take samples of beef cattle manure and/or feed remnants. These samples will be sent for laboratory analysis to determine the total nutrient content (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) and its availability for crop growth.

Those participating in the study will be receiving, free of charge, the results of the analysis of the nutrients deposited on their own ranch, as well as the regional averages.

Expressions of interest to participate in this research project are now closed. Results are expected to be released in mid-2015.

Funding for this research is being provided through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.


Silvopastures as Ranch Insurance

There can be many motivations for adopting agroforestry practices. While not a cure-all for land management, agroforestry presents a range of viable production options that can provide social, economic and environmental benefits through integrated use.

I think it can be constructive sometimes to view a silvopasture (integrated tree, forage and livestock production areas) as a form of insurance in the ranching sector. A living insurance policy through diversification that works on many levels.

First, it can be a form of production insurance as a means to diversify grazing resources on the ranch. Trees can help conserve moisture in their understory, and they delay the maturity of forbs and grasses. This means seasonal drought or high temperatures that can dessicate open grown-plants, are tempered in the silvopasture. These types of droughts can occur annually in some areas or are less frequent but still expected in other areas. But in both cases, having a portion of the ranch’s forage production derived from silvopastures insures against total forage losses. And silvopastures can maintain a source of higher quality green feed, when other grasses and forages have weathered away. Moreover, in northern areas, the main benefit may come from increased frost protection in the spring and fall. The ability of the overstory canopy to erase small radiative frosts adds valuable frost-free days to the growing season, thus extending the availabilty of higher quality grazing resources.

Second, it comes in the form of insurance for the whole operation against a significant downturn in beef cattle prices. Cattle markets are cyclical. Always have been, always likely will be (and I don’t see supply management systems taking root in the beef sector). Therefore, even the best and most efficient ranch operations in the world still need to plan for significant market down cycles where their profit margins will be dictated by conditions outside of their control. The BSE crisis in Canada has also taught us that export markets can collapse rapidly and for prolonged periods, with little fore warning in the modern globalized, food supply chains. Making sustainable use of another renewable resource on the ranch provides insurance against losses in your beef business bankrupting the operation. Silvopasture, and the opportunity to sell timber or other forest and non-timber forest products during a low in cattle prices, may be the difference for some ranches between staying in the business for the long-run and falling victim to short-term market pressures.

Third, silvopastures, through the host of ecological goods and services (EG&S) they provide, contribute to building and sustaining social insurance for individual ranches and the sector as a whole. Understandable, some producers may not relish the situation, but all must acknowledge the facts: if you live in a rural area, you are now in the minority. And if you farm or ranch, you are in the minority. The political power resides largely in urban centres, and without a constant and deliberate effort to build goodwill in communities, regions and nations, ranchers are more vulnerable to misguided policies and that will wrap them too tight in red tape to move, let alone carry out their businesses sustainably and profitably. Silvopasture and all agroforestry, through providing EG&S, aesthetics and other non-tangible benefits, contribute to sustaining the social license that the beef sector needs to keep operating in world increasingly dominated by urban dwellers divorced from the realities of agriculture.

Canada’s Shelterbelt Shutdown

Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s (AAFC) decision last week to axe its long-running shelterbelt program, is not only a set-back for agroforestry in Canada, but could also have severe short and long-term implications for the sustainability of Prairie agriculture.

AAFC’s move to close the Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, SK and terminate shelterbelt program by 2013 has obvious immediate implications for the program staff who were were handed pink slips. And after this year, the end of the shelterbelt seedling program means prairie agricultural producers will no longer have a source of free tree and shrubs as an incentive to plant shelterbelts to both protect their crops and generate other valuable ecological goods and services.

In light of recent patterns of drought and a warming climate, this program cut jeopardizes the foundations of sustainability of prairie agriculture. The shelterbelt centre opened in 1901, and over its history has produced and distributed over 650 million tree and shrub seedlings for conservation plantings. These plantings have saved countless hundreds of thousands of hectares of productive farmland from erosion. And it could be argued that a major reason that there is a significant agricultural sector on the prairies today, contributing significantly to Canada being a net exporter of food, is a direct result of this program and other conservation measures in response to the ecological crisis of the dust bowl era in the 1930s. Had this service not been in place, Canada’s ‘breadbasket’ could look more like the shifting sand dunes of North Africa. For there too in antiquity was also a highly productive grain producing region and foundation for the empire of Carthage, and now it is a barren desert.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s official explanation for the cuts are weak at best: “Farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago,’ Ritz said. “We want to make sure we’re focusing on the right programs for tomorrow’s agriculture.” This is short-term thinking at its worst. Conservation plantings help to buffer the full range of climatic extremes that can be experienced, not just the patterns of recent history. This rationale is tantamount to tearing the sprinkler system out of your house and selling the pipe for scrap metal because you haven’t had a house fire in the past few years. Tomorrow’s agriculture is founded in the same ecological reality as yesterday’s and today’s: no soil, no food.

It’s hard not to think that these cuts are politically motivated, rather than a necessary response to overall government austerity. Shutting down the shelterbelt program is AAFC’s response to a 10% budget reduction. Rather than tackling AAFC’s rather plump bureaucracy, senior management chose to eliminate front-line staff and services. According to the most recent Treasury Board estimates, the nearly 3 billion dollar AAFC budget supports well over 6000 employees. And nearly a third of this staffing is in what is termed “internal services”: management, human resources (HR) and other support roles (e.g. information technology – IT). This ratio of the amount of overhead to program delivery is not only ridiculously high by private sector standards, it even stretches the limits of acceptability through a government accounting lens. Re-organizing AAFC and looking for operating efficiencies by reducing the number of managers or utilizing more efficient centralized IT and HR support may have been the more difficult path to achieve a 10 percent reduction, but it would have freed the resources to retain a very worthwhile program.

Those with a strong laisez-faire political philosophy will argue that if shelterbelts deliver conservation and production benefits to land owners, the individual producers should invest in them without government support. This ignores the fact however, that significant public benefits accrue from conservation-driven agroforestry on private land in the form of clean air, soil and water conservation, preservation of biodiversity and the food security that comes from a strong and stable agricultural sector. The technical support provided and the trees and shrubs distributed through the shelterbelt program were really only an incentive for the investment in on-farm conservation. Producers still made significant and ongoing investments of time and resources in planting and tending their shelterbelts, and without compensation for the public ecological goods and services generated.

Laying waste to program that has delivered tangible benefits for over a century instead of tackling the roots of government bloat will help achieve Canada’s short-term budgetary goals, but it could put the entire sector at increased risk as we move forward with uncertainties of global climate change. The loss of the sheltbelt program is blow for agroforestry in Canada and undermines the foundations of sustainable agriculture.

Agroforestry on Public Lands – Where Costs and Benefits Can Divide

Agroforestry continues to gain recognition and adoption around the globe as a viable production system that can blend economic, social and environmental benefits. But the interest and uptake on publicly-owned lands has been underwhelming to say the least. I believe this stems in large part from the general lack of integrated timber/non-timber tenure opportunities, and the evolution of multiple-use for resource management over the past half century. The prevailing land use philosophy has been one of managing conflicts, not integrating activities to create positive outcomes.

In British Columbia, many of the western United States, and other areas where a high proportion of the land base is still held by the government, competing and sometimes conflicting land uses have been managed by developing compatible management regimes. Compatible management is not a fully integrated production system, but rather, in keeping with the ideal that everyone has the right to access public resources, it is a series of prescriptions to allow overlapping resource interests to be managed with the minimum level of conflict, or taking steps to mitigate the negative effects of one resource user on another. This is a fundamentally different approach from agroforestry management, where integrated timber/non-timber systems are designed, implemented and managed to create production synergies and reap the benefits of integration, be it through enhanced production, economic returns or other postive outcomes.

Although superficially integrated, multiple use (also sometimes referred to as integrated resource management, or coordinated resource management) also does not capture the full potential of agroforestry systems because most often the costs and benefits of production fall onto different balance sheets.

Consider for example, the widespread practice throughout western North America of forest grazing by livestock. Overlapping forage and timber tenures are a common occurrence, and historically also a common source for some very vitriolic management conflicts. Because, unless those tenures happen to be held by the same interest, there are some strong disincentives to each party wanting to adjust their management beyond their regulatory obligations. Compatible management, based on decades of research and management experience does allow for the rancher and the logger to peacefully coexist. But it rarely allows for true silvopasture, and the benefits from full integration, to flourish. Livestock grazing can reduce competing vegetation from around young trees, but the livestock manager has no incentive to adjust the timing, intensity or duration of the grazing to achieve maximum benefits. Because in compatible management frameworks, they simply don’t directly benefit by enhancing the survival and growth of trees permitted to someone else’s tenure. And likewise, forest managers have no incentive to adjust tree stocking or spatial arrangements to enhance forage production. These changes may bring about greater total production (and revenues) of timber and forage per unit area, but their only returns are generated on the future timber revenues, not annual livestock grazing.

Similar situations exist and can be used to explain the lack of forest farming systems. Fully integrated agroforestry management can create ‘virtuous circles’ in which the silvicultural activities undertaken generate benefits for the non-timber resources (NTFR – berries, mushrooms, etc.), and the management of the NTFRs is of direct benefit to the quantity and/or quality of the timber resource. But when the costs borne by one party through additional planning or management inputs do not line up with direct benefits to that same party, they will most certainly gravitate towards implementing the minimal amount of integration activity necessary to allow them continued access to their public land tenure.

Compatible management is clearly superior to the conflict and resource management chaos of a more laissez faire management philosophies. And I’m not suggesting that agroforestry will supplant conventional timber and non-timber interests any time soon. But, if agroforestry is ever to really become firmly established as an option in jurisdictions where the public owns and dictates land use standards, new integrated agroforestry tenures need to be created. Then the costs and benefits will fall on the same balance sheet, and management can be dictated by a clearer system of risks and rewards.

Disconnected in the Golden Age of Wireless

Last week I spent the better part of one work day without my electronic tethers. A technical glitch knocked out regional cellular service, and I rely upon the airwaves for all my voice and data (internet) needs. Besides setting me to thinking about the need for systems redundancy in running my business, it also gave me time to think about what it means to be connected.

Not that a short stretch of radio silence is all bad. It also keeps the unwanted and seemingly never-ending flow of unwanted communication at bay. With my contact information floating around on the web, I not only suffer highly filterable email spammers, but also frequently the interruptions of cold-call/direct mail scammers and never-take-no-for-an-answer dreamers. I’ve learned to quick filter out most of these: when someone is trying to sneak a sales pitch upon you with a teaser email they either give way too much information (e.g. launching into a long lecture about how I’m not ranking well in the search engines) or they are cryptically terse (e.g. “agroforestry… let’s talk”). But either way they still eat into my productive work time.

My brief disconnection from the information superhighway came in the same week in which I participated in a discussion on how to best extend technical and business development information to agricultural and woodlot producers. Despite the prevalence of high-tech connection options, this ‘boots in the dirt’ crowd have not fully embraced electronic information delivery. The average producer still desires a hands-on, and in-person approach to communications and learning. This, of course, pushes back against the trend of moving extension 180 degrees away from this ideal. Shrinking human and financial resources in government agencies and not-for-profit organizations, against the backdrop of a vast geography that must be served, have meant a move towards centralized expertise serving large territories. And even the ability to get someone on the phone is becoming increasingly scarce. Social media, cloud resources and discussion forums are becoming the standard, not the leading edge, of information delivery and communication.

This can present logistical problems for me because not only do my clientele not readily embrace Web 2.0, some may even look upon those that use it with derision. For someone constantly dealing with tangible production challenges, social media can be seen, at best, as something for evenings and weekend recreation, but certainly not as a legitimate business communications tool.

Counter this with a different kind of disconnection. The end markets for agricultural and forestry products, and the power to sway policy makers, is in the majority urban demographic. And while the average urban dweller has embraced the information age, they are ever increasingly detached from the land. Impressions of land management issues are now formulated virtually in sound-bites and tweets, and more disturbingly, there is a growing percentage of the population that are completely disconnected from, and apathetic to, the challenges and opportunities of natural resource management. This leaves the whole public policy debate open to an advocacy-driven process, settled by who has the best PR strategy, and not something that necessarily reflects the best situation on the ground in the short or long term.

And because the public opinion tug of war is increasingly waged in the social media, it leaves producer groups and their reluctance to use these communication outlets but with arguably the strongest direct connection to the land, with the weakest voice. And, only when we can remedy these social disconnections will the growing rural – urban divide begin to shrink.

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