Workshop: Management-intensive Grazing in the Central Interior of BC

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On September 8th I hosted a day-long workshop on Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) for the Central Interior region of BC. The day began at the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Williams Lake campus where we conducted the indoor portion of the workshop. Initially, I provided the group with background information on the principles of MiG. Later we divided into 3 smaller groups, each of which tackled a set of questions based on one of three categories; Economics, Ecosystem Services and Climate Change. This was followed by a short group discussion and a delicious catered lunch. Afterwards, the group reconvened at a nearby ranch in 150 Mile House (Clint and Karen Thompson’s, San José Cattle Co.) to participate in a field tour. During the tour, I demonstrated the sampling procedures used in my Master’s research (comparing soil carbon levels between intensively managed pastures and conventional ones). The group also learned the basics of portable electric fencing from Clint Thompson, who uses these resources on a daily basis as well as supplying electric fencing equipment to many ranchers in the area. The day finished off with a soil pit which I used to identify different soil horizons and properties important to the study of soil health.

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In total, the workshop received an excellent turnout of 25 individuals. A short questionnaire was handed out at the beginning of the workshop. Based on this questionnaire, it was determined that about 60% of those in attendance were ranchers and 40% were not (many of these being from the Ministry of Forests and Range). Of the ranchers in attendance, about 50% currently practice MiG on their ranches, while the other half do not.

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The primary objectives of the workshop were as follows:

  1. Determine which principles of grazing management are practical and effective ion our region, and which require modification (based on different climates and conditions)
  1. Tie all of this together from a climate change adaptation and mitigation perspective
  1. Develop the framework for a document guiding effective and sustainable ranch management in the BC interior.

One of the main topics discussed included carbon marketing as an incentive for ranchers to actively try and increase the amount of soil carbon in their pastures through improved management practices. MiG was widely believed to help accomplish this, though limitations were identified; primarily water management.

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The concern regarding water management was raised for both supporting plant growth (irrigation, etc.), and for consumption by cattle. This hit home especially due to the drier than usual conditions experienced in the Cariboo region this past growing season. However, MiG was also proposed as one of the means in which ranchers can improve moisture retention in their pastures if it can increase organic matter in the soil. Another solution proposed to help reduce water loss from forage crops was the incorporation of trees and shrubs to reduce evaporation and transpiration from exposure to sun and wind.

Another limitation presented regarding MiG was the high input of labour. Although several other input costs (haying equipment, fertilizer, etc.) may be reduced by implementing this form of management, it is also important to consider the cost of labour involved in the day-to-day operations of managing cattle intensively. However, the point was also raised that by working closely with the cattle on a daily basis, there is the opportunity for much greater control over the impacts of cattle grazing on plant health (leaving residual growth, allowing plant recovery time, etc.). Furthermore, it is an effective means to monitor animal behaviour and health quite closely.

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Another principle of MiG which was identified to have some inherent limitations was based on matching herd size to the level of plant productivity. In other words, increasing herd size during peak plant productivity, and reducing herd size when forage becomes more scarce. This herd number flexibility was identified to sound effective in theory, but may be difficult to implement effectively in the Central Interior.

From a climate change perspective, several strategies were discussed that may increase a rancher’s ability to adapt and be more resilient to changes. Many of these strategies are linked to MiG practices, including bale grazing to increase organic matter on less productive sites (increasing nutrients and moisture retention), managing invasive species via high stocking densities, stockpiling forage to reduce the amount of hay fed during winter months, and increasing biodiversity of plants and animals.

Ultimately, the need for education was in the forefront throughout the workshop. Not only for the ranching community, but also those who can and should be supporting local ranchers who put in the extra effort to raise animals in an ethical and sustainable way. Furthermore, it was highlighted that being a successful rancher ought to be a continual learning process. Like any other industry, things are constantly changing and new technologies and information is being made available. It is therefore important to continue the pursuit of knowledge and try new things rather than simply always doing things in the same traditional ways.

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The informational brochure(s) produced based on this workshop (and the workshop itself) will help to achieve this. However, it was suggested that events such as this continue to occur within the community, and focus should also be directed towards educating the younger generations.

When asked “What potential barriers are there preventing ranchers from adopting MiG?” the group provided the following list: water, man-power, fencing (electric fencing is unfamiliar to many), paradigms (resistance to change) and time (MiG requires commitment to cattle movement on a regular basis).

Those present indicated that the main reasons why MiG ranchers have made the switch? Were as follows: economics (to be profitable), better use of the land base (greater productivity on same land-base), improved quality and growth of forage, long-term sustainability and reduced dependency on mechanical equipment and fuel.

Ultimately, the ranchers concluded that regardless of the name placed on a particular management style, the guiding principles for a successful ranching operation should be the following: be profitable and sustainable, with healthy plants, animals and soil while maintaining a rancher’s passion and personal well-being for their lifestyle.

Now that the workshop is complete, the next steps in the process are to a) create informational brochures for the public (one for producers and one for the consumer) and b) to continue research on the impacts of grazing management on soil carbon (as this relates to climate change adaptation and mitigation). To obtain more definitive results, the next step for this research project is to initiate controlled grazing trials that will help isolate the effects of grazing management on soil carbon. However in order to achieve this, we are looking for ranchers who would be interested in collaborating with us. This will require commitment on both sides, as we would be asking ranchers to alter the way they might normally graze their land.

If you would like to find out more about my research or MiG in general, feel free to contact myself by email at: daniel-denesiuk@tru.ca

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