Canadian couple practices regenerative agriculture on a dairy farm
Paul and Erin Kernaleguen are dairy farmers near Birch Hills, Saskatchewan, and they are very committed to regenerative practices in growing forage for their cattle. They farm with Paul’s parents, Jos and Brenda Kernalegeun.
“We were a conventional dairy operation until 2012 when we started looking at doing things differently. Our average annual precipitation is only about 12 inches, but we’d had two years in a row with 40 to 50 inches,” says Paul.
The couple planted corn and barley for silage, but those crops kept drowning out.
“We could not get corn or barley established, so we planted oats. Once we started looking for different options, we went down a path of using different plant blends and polycultures,” he says.
“In our first experiment, we used barley, oats and peas planted together. We didn’t use any fertilizer because peas would fix nitrogen imbalances. Back then we were spending about $250 per acre trying to grow corn. With this new blend, our inputs were only about $30, and we harvested 16.9 tons per acre. Before, we’d never had any corn that would yield even close to this,” Paul adds.
Using polyculture cover crops
After their success, Paul and Erin started growing polyculture cover crops on the entire farm. Since then, they’ve seeded different blends for different groups of cattle to fit their nutritional needs.
Instead of seeding several crops and mixing them together in a total mixed ration (TMR) to feed their cattle, they grew them all together as one crop.
Cost savings have been significant, with lower inputs, strong yields and high-nutrient value in the feed.
Paul notes in the past, they were seeding barley, corn and alfalfa and harvesting them separately. When it was time to feed cows, this meant going to three different silage bags and creating the mix.
“So, we seeded it all together, and called it ‘seeded TMRs,’ which we feed to different groups of cattle,” Paul says.
“We just go to the ‘heifer bag’ and load up. Sometimes we might have to top it off with a little more energy or protein – depending on the mix, how the silage tested and the specific group of cattle,” he says.
“When growing protein and trying to meet requirements for different groups of cattle, we save money,” he continues. “We used to get a large semi load of canola meal every five weeks. The first year we tried this, we only had to get a load every 16 weeks, then every 25 weeks, and now we get less than two loads a year.”
Benefits of regenerative agriculture
Additionally, Paul and Erin have seen benefits in animal health and production.
The TMR ration was about 60 percent concentrate and 40 percent forage – for maximum production. However, after switching to multi-species silage, it is now the opposite – about 60 to 70 percent forage and only 30 to 40 percent concentrate.
“We now have healthier cows, which are producing more butterfat per cow, and conception rates have skyrocketed – everything is bred,” Paul says.
Soil health has also improved.
“We were farming around water holes and slough ground and didn’t have as much production. So, we broadcast seed for varieties of tubers like radishes and sugarbeets which could grow around edges and help dry up sloughs to help us gain more land,” he explains.
With innovative seeding, the Kernaleguens went from farming about 200 acres every year to farming 500 acres. By using the five principles of soil health, they made more of their land productive.
These five principles are soil armor – keeping soil covered, with no bare ground; minimizing soil disturbance with reduced/no till practices on cropland and adaptive grazing strategies on grazing lands; increasing plant diversity with rotational crops and including warm and cool season grasses and forbs in pastures; keeping living roots in the ground all year and integrating livestock grazing.
Growing with likeminded individuals
“We went to zero-till the year after we experimented with a polyculture on 50 acres,” Paul shares. “Kevin Elmy of Friendly Acres Seed Farm in Yorkton, Saskatchewan helped us more than anyone. He’s been involved in cover cropping for about 20 years, and he became our mentor.”
“Now we are also part of a group of likeminded people, calling ourselves the Dirty Dozen. We are neighbors or schoolmates, and we go to the same soil health and cattle marketing conferences,” he adds. “We’re all in our 30s and 40s, and this group has been a great place to bounce ideas around and grow together.”
Paul continues, “The importance of something like this is huge. If a person is the only one in their region trying something different, they always wonder if they are doing the right thing. Having a group of people who are all in this together is a big help.”
“We talk to each other nearly every day about any of these topics and new ideas and what’s working and what’s not. This is the reason we’ve all made it this far,” he says, further noting during the COVID-19 pandemic the group stayed in touch through Zoom meetings.
Each month they select a different topic like soil health, cattle marketing or stockmanship and bring in guest speakers.
“We have a mentor for each month to walk through skill sets of different areas, and everyone can bring ideas, challenges or questions to the table,” says Paul.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.