For most of the people listening to Neil Dennis speak at the Western Canadian Grazing Conference in Red Deer on Wednesday, the images he projected onto the giant screens at the front of the room were cow dung — plain and simple.
But to the Saskatchewan farmer, each dropping revealed a wealth of information about the nutritional history of the animal that had left it.
“That cow pie there tells me that your nutritional value in that field is good,” he said of one patty.
“This one tells me there’s too much roughage,” he remarked on another.
Shape, texture and colour provide insights into microbial activity within the soil, continued Dennis, and the prevalence of dung beetles offers clues into the biological state of a pasture.
“I spend a lot of time looking at cow pies. They can tell you a lot about your cows.”
Dennis is a dedicated student of grazing practices, with his classroom a 1,200-acre farm he calls Sunnybrae.
For nearly 25 years he’s been experimenting with high-density grazing — running as many as 1,000 head of beef cattle on a half acre of land.
Such practices might be expected to destroy forage lands, but Dennis’s farm is a picture of plant diversity, with healthy soil, a longer-than-average growing season, excellent moisture retention and a dearth of weeds, flies and parasites.
It also produces more pounds of beef per acre than any of his neighbours’ lands.
The key to Dennis’s system is the rapid movement of cattle from one paddock to the next, and long intervals of regrowth between grazings.
“Most of them are never any longer than two hours on a paddock,” said Dennis, who uses automatic gates to quickly move livestock between temporary enclosures secured by electric fences.
Once the dense herd leaves an area, it’s given months to recover.
“That’s the most important part of the whole thing is the recovery time.
“If you eat it off and come back too soon, it hasn’t healed itself and it hasn’t set up a new root system under it.
“You’ve got to make sure you give it enough rest time to put new roots down and replenish and get new leaves up to full potential.”
With conventional grazing practices, said Dennis, cattle favour the tastiest plants.
“If you keep doing that year after year, the plants they like, you put them under more stress. You wreck the root system and the root systems on the ones they don’t like — that’s what fills in and you essentially have a poorer quality pasture.”
In the late 1980s, Dennis was struggling to eke out a living on the mixed farm his great-grandfather had homesteaded in 1900.
“The last thing I wanted to do was change, but I was either going to be flipping burgers somewhere or on the farm — and I love the farm.”
After initial poor results, which he now realizes were because he didn’t give his paddocks sufficient time to recover, Dennis attended a holistic grazing course in 1998. He resisted, but after five years realized the system worked.
The carrying capacity of his land has increased by 300 to 400 per cent, he said, and is now home to more than 40 species of plants. Water infiltration is much improved, carbon content is higher and the mineral cycle better.
His frequent movement of cattle breaks fly and parasite cycles, and denser grazing results in a better distribution of manure and urine.
Dennis even thinks cattle accustomed to high-density grazing adjust to feedlots quicker.
Even compaction of the soil hasn’t been an issue, he said.
“You can have a pile of cows on an acre. As long as it’s a short time it doesn’t matter.”
It does take time and money to set up a high-density grazing system, acknowledged Dennis, but once in place it’s easy and inexpensive to operate.
“It takes me 18 minutes to put up a quarter-of-a-mile fence, up and down.
“I’ve got more spare time now than I’ve ever had.”
Dennis said he’s still learning, and continues to experiment with his cattle and land — following a simple rule.
“You have to have a plan in mind of what you want to do, and use the animal as a tool to accomplish where you want to go.”