Don Guilford has never sowed a single seed of any of Manitoba’s native prairie plants, but his pasture land is a thriving tall grass prairie. Don is a big believer in the benefits of native prairie plants: he knows that they are good for the land as well as for his cattle. With proper land management, the native prairie plants sitting dormant in the soil flourished over the years.
Don practices Holistic Management (HM) on his ranch north-west of Clearwater, Manitoba.
Holistic Management (HM) is an agricultural management system which strives to create balance between agriculture, the environment, finances and the family. The management strategy pushes people to take a holistic approach to their lives, to realise that these components of life are interconnected. Holistic Management is a sustainable approach to agriculture which puts emphasis on long term decision making and management, and involves reflection on operation decisions and the family’s lifestyle. The management practices involved with HM maximise profit by decreasing dependence of fuel, machinery companies, and banks. At the same time HM requires less human labour.
Guilford uses intensive grazing techniques on his land for short periods of time. Where he would have once had forty cows grazing for an extended period, he now has 200 cattle grazing for only two days. His rotational grazing practices reduce the human and machine labour required on the ranch. The pasture land is divided into triangular shaped paddocks centered around one watering station. The paddocks are divided by a thin electrical wire which is easily moved every second day. Although the water is located at one central point, cattle spread throughout the paddock, resulting in even land disturbance.
The grazing technique used by the Guilfords and others practicing HM is intended to replicate native grazing patterns before modern agriculture, when bison and elk moved through the land. HM recognizes that the North American grasslands were once healthy and productive because of intensive grazing. The prairies were once characterised by bursts of severe grazing, resulting in the soil being turned up, trampled, and fertilized by the animals moving through. Herds would then leave for other land, leaving the grazed land to fully recover. Those practicing HM use their cattle to manage the quality of the land rather than simply managing cattle. A common viewpoint of many practicing HM is to keep to a minimum anything that rusts, rots and depreciates. The result of HM have proven to be decrease production costs and increase profits.
“My real interest is cattle, not running machinery,” says Don.
Tall Grass Prairie
The pasturelands of the Guilford Hereford Ranch are rich in diversity. Native plants include northern and western seed grasses, blue gamma, little blue stem, and big bluestem. A diversity of wildflowers is also present, which provide a source of selenium for cattle that would have otherwise have to be provided artificially. Don also has non-native alfalfa and smooth brome growing in the pasture, because these plants bring benefit to the land and his cattle. The plants growing today came from what prairie plants which remained in the soil throughout the years, these plants grew once modern agricultural practices of planting exotic species and chemical applications were halted.
From the land already thriving as tall grass prairie, Don intends to harvest seeds to spread over new land. Don Guilford admits that some of his land is probably the worst in the area. He has recently acquired land that has been over grazed throughout the years; it is hilled and dotted by sloughs. But he knows that he can make it healthy and profitable with proper grazing techniques. Although the land would be able to return to its natural state on its own given time, spreading seed heads will give the prairie a head start. By putting his cattle on this land, the heavy hoofs of the animals will quickly work the seeds into the soil and speed up germination time.
Rotation grazing practices end in October, and the Guilfords then turn to bale grazing for the winter months. By ending rotational grazing in October, there is enough plant matter left on the ground to prevent the ground from freezing, and to maintain moisture. As a result in the spring there is earlier plant growth and grazing can begin in early May for the May-June calving season.
For winter bale grazing, all bales are brought onto the field at once. Grazing is managed simply by moving an electrical wire every second day. The work to move the cattle takes about fifteen minutes and no heavy machinery is involved. With this method the cost of machinery, fossil fuels, labour and fencing are all very low. Because cattle are on the land year round manure doesn’t have to be hauled onto the land again resulting in lower fuel and machinery costs.
For protection from the cold winter winds, fourteen wind breaks were built for the cattle. The Guilfords found funding for the wind breaks through the joint provincial and federal Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). The wind breaks also double as a corralling pen. Don also developed shelter belts under the EFP.
Soil and Wind Power
In 2004, Don Guilford added wind and solar technology to his operation which supplies water to the cattle year round. The dugout system used prior to the new technology had resulted in foot disease in cattle and damage to soil and water quality. The technology is particularly useful for remote pasture lands where hydroelectricity would be costly. Information on the technology came from one of the many beef seminars Don has attended.
The power from the wind turbine is used to pump water to the water barrel. The solar energy is used to power backup batteries in case the wind energy fails. The batteries would allow the water pump to last two days without wind or sun. The equipment on the ranch was designed in order to allow for expansion of the system in the future.
Holistic Management Community
Don Guilford has taken the Holistic Management course three times. The first two courses were out of province, Don attended to gain a better understanding of the management practice. Finally, when the course was offered close to home, Don signed up once again. This time, he enrolled simply to become a member of the Holistic Management club that would grow out of the course.
Today the club consists of nine families, stretching from the Boissevain area to Clearwater. The group meets regularly for potluck dinners and to discuss their operations. The meetings provide the opportunity for the families to learn from one another and are an important source of support. Don recognizes one benefit of meeting as group as gaining the ability to eliminate some of the experimentation in agriculture. Different techniques are practiced on the 9 farms and the result of the techniques are shared with the group. Benefits and drawbacks are weighed and further decisions are made using what is learned.
You can contact the Guilford Hereford Ranch here.