Column: Knowledge and opinion in agriculture: do you know what you are talking about?

I write this early in the morning when I am fresh. My thoughts are more clear.

I write this early in the morning when I am fresh. My thoughts are more clear. There is a muddle of information out there and I need to focus. Needless to say the creative mind can be distracting, as it works quickly and focus is not its long suit.

This morning I am visited by a knowledgeable person (expert) who is charged with advising and assisting in management of a demonstration which we have sponsored on the ranch.

Experts and consultants are supposed to be able to focus on the task at hand and be informed by evidence and information usually beyond the reach of mere practitioners.

I welcome this expertise. This is why.

Some years ago the B.C. government, with farmers, looked at what new ideas there were to produce different things and make ranches and farms more financially sustainable.

One big idea out there was that growing several crops at once might be good for farms and for the land at the same time: specifically agroforestry practices. Here in central B.C. this meant that growing grass and trees on the same land base just made sense.

This is “silvopasture” a subset of the broader concept of agroforestry. In some of the world it is growing nut trees which shade grass for cattle and to provide nuts to fatten pigs (millions of acres in Spain) or legumes (pea family), trees and shrubs which provide pods high in protein for livestock to graze.

So there was a steering committee of government and farmers to guide this process.

Projects were designed from opportunities offered by producers who would partner with the public agencies to demonstrate the viability of the ideas.

Our family had bought some nearby land that was logged and flipped by someone in that business. So all the commercial trees had been taken and the land had a rough “park-like” or “savannah” appearance.

We offered this land as a site for a demonstration of growing both trees and grass since we were in the business of growing beef and building houses from timber.

The idea we presented was to use cattle to keep the brush down to allow tree growth and to promote the growth of grasses and forbs which could be part of the grazing, particularly early spring and fall.

We would save money on the hay we would otherwise have to feed. Shortening the winter feeding season could be a financial boon to our industry if the silvopasture is nutritious and we have the right cattle that can thrive on nature’s bounty alone.

As it turns out, keeping ahead of the brush that would choke out the young trees and grasses stands as a significant challenge.

The land had to be zoned into different management areas for different targeted treatment: late winter bale grazing on top of hazel brush, early spring grazing where there are lots of young aspen suckering from logged aspen, and general browsing on high protein woody plants like rose, alder, saskatoon and willow.

All this should be done without damaging the sustainability of the peavine,  which is a mainstay and highly palatable feed for cattle out here (Beaver Valley) in the transition zone between the dry belt and wet belts.

This is low budget project. Expenses must show a positive return. But there is significant investment by government and ourselves in the planning, management and monitoring. The public should be able to benefit from our collective efforts.

We can rest assured that the next generations will benefit from knowing that agriculture can be a knowledge-based activity: but that it takes effort to develop that local knowledge and be better stewards of land-based businesses.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.

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