Don and Marie Ruzicka recently retired after more than 35 years of farming. During their time at Sunrise Farm in central-eastern Alberta on Treaty 6 land, they transitioned from conventional to regenerative farming by altering their farming practices, protecting riparian areas, planting trees, and restoring grasslands. In the process, they witnessed incredible changes in the ecology of their farm. Don shares the story of how they used regenerative practices to restore their farm ecosystems.
It would be a mistake to suggest that my wife Marie and I began farming with the knowledge of how the importance of the flora and fauna contribute to the production of food.
When we began farming in 1983, we were not aware of the importance of having a relationship with nature. As we gazed at the landscape, we found ways to increase production by clearing trees and draining wetlands. Needless to say, that was not the correct path to success.
My personal take on this was that great care and attention must be given to managing the ecosystem that provides us with valuable services.
We stumbled across a course in Holistic Management being held in our area and decided that it may have some options as to how to re-think the way that we were farming the land. It involves a whole farm planning systems approach that helps farmers, ranchers and land stewards better manage agricultural resources in order to reap sustainable, environmental, economic and social benefits. My personal take on this was that great care and attention must be given to managing the ecosystem that provides us with valuable services. We took the eight day course in 1995-96 and it provided the motivation for change.
In 1999, a friend suggested that I read Wendell Berry, an American author and poet. In one of his books, “The Unsettling of America,” he suggests three questions that must be asked before commencing any work on or with the land: What is here? What will nature permit us to do here? What will nature help us to do here?
Since Holistic Management influenced our transition to the organic agrarian model of farming, these three questions were of optimum importance on our journey toward fulfilling our goals.
TRANSITION TO REGENERATIVE PRACTICES
We completed the Holistic Management course in February of 1996. I walked the land in the spring to see what “signs” the land was exhibiting. In areas where the native pasture was overgrazed, there was an abundance of sage, yarrow and invasive plants. My grazing method had been leaving the cattle on the same pasture for long periods of time which was leading to the less desirable plants beginning to take over.
The cultivated acres were seeded to perennial pasture which complemented the sloughs, wetlands, bush and native prairie that nature provided. We restored the sloughs and wetlands that had been converted to growing grain and planted various tree plantings to make up for the ones that we had cleared.
Pastured poultry, pasture hogs, grass finished beef and custom grazing became our way of farming.
In 2008, we fenced all 15-acres of sloughs. We decided to graze these sloughs only in dry years and the extra 10 days of grazing allowed our other pastures to grow longer, which extended our overall grazing season.
The benefits of changing our grazing practices were more numerous than expected:
- The ten days in the slough allowed another ten days for the pasture to grow which extended the growing and grazing season.
- No foot rot.
- Slough grazing was usually done in August so the number of ducks and other waterfowl increased as they were able to nest in the spring without cattle disturbing them.
- The number of garter snake sightings began to increase after fencing off the sloughs. Some of their diet comes from sloughs. Sloughs provide habitat for slugs, snails, worms, frogs, salamanders, small fish and tadpoles which benefit from less disturbance from cattle. Although an anecdotal observation, nature likely responds by increasing garter snake numbers when food is plentiful.
- Early spring flowering willows surrounding sloughs are a first stop for native pollinators such as bumble bees. If cattle were allowed to graze these sloughs in early spring, pollinator habitat would be compromised.
- When cattle were grazed into December and sometimes into the new year, they were allowed to take shelter in the sloughs and benefitted from the over mature grasses that provided bedding.
THE MEADOWLARK RETURNS
As one gets into the groove of understanding that everything is connected, it is amazing and astonishing to see what a slight change in land management can yield.
I note here that the western meadowlark that was prolific when we moved to the farm disappeared in 1989. I did not consider that it had anything to do with my grazing management. In May of 2000, eleven years later, the meadowlarks returned. Their spirited song became a catalyst for working at becoming more intimate with nature.
The obvious question was “why” did the meadowlarks return? The western meadowlark requires abundant litter from native forages for nesting. The rest periods had enabled those forages to grow and thrive, providing a home for the meadowlark and also abundant grazing for our cattle. This lesson suggested that nature would become a barometer and a major player in helping us to make decisions on how to manage the ecosystem.
The western meadowlark became the face of our farm sign as their return was the first visible sign signalling that it was possible to repair and restore habitat.
HOW THE FARM ECOSYSTEMS RESPONDED
The key to increasing biodiversity for us was to apply the principles of holistic management that maintain and promote habitat. Here are some of the species of flora and fauna that responded to making that commitment.
Sprague’s pipit nest in tame pasture. A prairie song bird, the sprague’s pipit, enjoys a similar diet and habit as the western meadowlark. Well managed native pastures of a diversity of grasses and legumes entice them to nest. Their diet is made up of small seeds from various grasses as well as terrestrial insects, with grasshoppers being a favourite. They seldom make their nests in pastures but if there is enough litter, they show up. Their young are fed mainly insects.
(Main photo) Eastern king birds are feisty! When they stake out a territory, they have no fear of hawks, crows or magpies that may try to enter their “space.” Being very athletic and acrobatic, they can out maneuver all. They prefer a diet of numerous insect species as well as berries and wild fruits. Nesting close to riparian areas is their preference.
(Small photo) A nest box with house wren eggs, which are the size of jelly beans. The house wren, for its size, likely has more fight and ingenuity than most other birds. If it has chosen a certain nesting box that a tree swallow has nested in, it begins to bring twigs and branches and fills the box to the top to the point where only the wren can maneuver its way in to lay its eggs at the back of the box. Sometimes, in spite, it will fill the box so that no other bird can possibly nest in that box and will nest in another box a short distance away. Perhaps this is a way of initiating its own privacy. Being curious as to how many sticks, branches and twigs were in a nesting box, a count was done. The total came to 877 pieces.
Great horned owls prefer mature tall trees for nesting. As these trees are falling because of their age, it is affecting the presence of the great horned owl in many areas. They are nocturnal hunters. They prey on gophers, rabbits and waterfowl. We found that they also have a discerning palette and like to dine on jumbo white pheasants that we raised for a few years. The wire that was chosen to cover the roof of this shelter was not resilient enough to stop them from finding their way in. In the days before learning about Holistic Management, I would have disposed of the owl. However, if one continues to treat symptoms without addressing the cause, this owl would continue to show up for lunch. I retrieved a fish net and captured the owl, allowed him his freedom and covered the shelter with a much stronger wire.
(Main photo) Dugouts have been fenced off which provides habitat for dragon flies and numerous other species of insects, birds, and mammals. The water is pumped by solar pump from the fenced dugouts which keeps manure and urine out of the water. If cattle are allowed to wade into the water, then in drought years the phosphorus and nitrogen from animal waste causes algae blooms in dugouts and the water can become toxic.
(Small photo) Dragonflies and damselflies were scarce on the farm until we began fencing off dugouts, creeks, sloughs and wetlands. Fencing, which kept cattle out of these areas allowed forages, shrubs, berry bushes and trees to grow and thrive which created habitat for the dragonflies and clean water for livestock. Dragon flies consume midges, mosquitoes, moths, grasshoppers and grasshopper larvae. Along with meadowlarks, Mountain blue birds and Sprague’s pipits, the dragonflies are the first line of defence to control them. Agriculture has become dependent on chemical sprays to control grasshoppers which cause collateral damage within the ecosystem. A partnership with nature’s creatures pays many dividends.
(Small photo) Beavers create habitat for other mammals, fish, birds, frogs and ducks which are in turn food sources for coyotes, foxes and birds of prey. In severe drought conditions, water that has been dammed by beavers may be the last source of water for surrounding wildlife impacting the survival of many other animal species. Slough and wetland habitats created by beavers provide benefits that are critical to healthy ecosystems. Their dams allow water to be absorbed into the ground which replenishes the water table and increases riparian vegetation. Slowing water flow reduces erosion and decreases flood damage downstream. Along with bark from various species of trees, beavers eat aquatic vegetation and cattails.
(Main photo) Besides builders of dams, they are creative engineers in lodge design. Round straw bales were placed alongside all dugouts for Canada Geese to use for nesting. This flax bale is being re-purposed to build a straw bale/combination lodge.
(Left photo) Badgers are very adept at flushing out gophers as their main source of protein. They leave large holes in the ground where they dig up gophers, which can be used by the swift fox and burrowing owls (both species at risk). Voles, mice, rabbits and frogs are also on their menu. Being nocturnal, they also eat insects during the night as insects are dormant at that time of day.
(Right photo) Gophers (also known as the Richardson ground squirrel) are a source of food for badgers, hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes and other species. Their burrows provide shelter for burrowing owls, rabbits, snakes and bumble bees. The mounds of soil that they create are often looked upon by landowners as a nuisance. However, the aeration, mixing and fertilization of the soil promotes a diversity of plant growth which is beneficial to the prairie ecosystem. Their underground tunnels funnel water downward to aquifers.
Overgrazing of pastures can be a catalyst for gopher populations to increase which can result in loss of habitat for prairie nesting birds and a decrease in the many species of prairie forages. An overgrazed pasture is an ideal habitat for gophers as they can see their predators coming by land or by air. Pastures that are sustainably grazed maintain a healthy growth of forages and act as an effective tool for producers to use to reduce and control gopher populations. During the years of grazing, before taking holistic management, our native prairie was overgrazed to the extent that the ground seemed to move as a result of the many gophers scurrying around. A rest period of one to two years increased the forage growth which made the pastures less desirable for gophers to take up residence.
Grain treated with strychnine, a lethal gopher bait, has been used to poison gophers for many years. Concerns are increasing regarding its use as there is collateral damage to birds, insects and other predators that come in contact with it by eating the bait, or the carcass of the gopher.
(Main photo) Planting trees and shrubs on the farm. The importance of bees and other native pollinators influenced our goal of providing more habitat that would lure them as well as other wildlife to the farm and hopefully, encourage them to take up residence.
(Small photo) The newly planted tress and shrubs are growing well. New species of birds were attracted by the diversity of trees and shrubs. The buffalo berry bushes in this planting have barbs on their branches. Shrikes impale their insects on the barbs and leave them to dry before they return to devour them. Since these plantings are fenced off from livestock, ground nesting birds such as ducks and geese choose these areas to nest.
(Main photo) The first shelter belt designed to protect the farm site from northwest winds planted in 1984. The snow that was trapped over winter melted and provided welcome moisture to sustain their growth on years that lacked abundant rain.
(Small photo) Pictures from over the years that show the growth and development of a diversity of different trees and shrubs including a variety of berry bushes. The shelter belts provided corridors throughout the farm for wildlife to travel undetected by humans as well as predators.
(Left photo) A native bumble bee pollinates a wild rose on the farm.
(Right) Many diverse pollinators – including butterflies, flies, and moths – visited the farm.
An abundance of biodiversity in an ecosystem is an indicator of the health. Riparian areas are where 80% of all fish and wildlife spend all or part of their lifecycle. Since only about 3% of Alberta’s land base is riparian, they are critical to wildlife. The riparian areas provide a wide variety of food for migrating birds.
Tundra swans (main photo) and avocets (small photo) spend time in the riparian areas on our farm.
Folklore suggests that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Having experienced living close to the land for 37 years, we are convinced that the “wealth” at the end of the rainbow is not gold but rather an abundance of biodiversity provided by a healthy ecosystem