Saskatchewan family shares passion for cover cropping

Dark clouds roll in as a charter bus drives down gravel roads near McCord, Sask. Marla Gavelin, one of the people hosting the field day from the Prairie South Holistic Management group, speaks to the people in attendance. She compares the Gavelins’ farm to the Sahara Desert with a deep laugh, and the 70-plus people at the field day laugh with her.

Of course, that day McCord finally gets some rain, sending everyone running from the Gavelins’ cover-cropping field and back onto the bus.

Calvin Gavelin, Marla’s husband, says they never expected such a large crowd at their first field day, but put it down to people’s interest in the topic — holistic management.

“People want to learn it on the field scale, and from a farmer,” he says. “Saturday night, that crowd, we were supposedly done at eight o’clock, they were still there at 11 o’clock. Discussions were going strong.”

The next day, there were over 40 people back again, he adds, as “people wanted more.”

A rough start

The Gavelins’ holistic management approach focuses on cover crops, which are a variety of plants that are grown to protect and cover the soil.

Gavelin watched a friend grow cover crops in his area in 2017. Like many people, he was initially skeptical. However, when he saw how beneficial the cover crop turned out to be, his opinion changed.

In 2019, they planted their own cover crop, but when they received hail that summer which wiped out the entire field, Gavelin thought they were done for.

“We actually got hailed out 100 percent in July. It was very gut-wrenching, I didn’t know what to do with it. But it came back, and it rallied hard. And that field set up our whole herd for the 2019 winter. And it was amazing. It was the first time in my life that I never started a tractor for the majority of the winter. The cows were out there grazing it. They were happy, content, in great shape,” he says.

“That first year when we got hailed out 100 percent on that field, I thought I wasted my time. But that crop turned around and showed me the potential.”

Calvin Gavelin (right) and Avery Shepherd (left) examine Gavelin’s cover crops at the Prairie South Holistic Management field day on June 25.

Melissa Bezan

In 2020, the Gavelins took a holistic management course alongside many of their neighbors. The course is offered by Ralph Corcoran and runs over six days for a group of people who live in the same area to establish goal-setting, financial planning, as well as pasture and land planning.

“It was very rewarding,” Gavelin says. “It was very life-changing for our operation.

“They’re not a set of principles. It’s more an idealism that you can use in any industry or any occupation that you do. So it’s just the walking through the processes.”

According to Holistic Management International, the form holistic management may take (for example, cover cropping, intensive rotational grazing, etc.) depends on the producer and their operation’s needs. The website states that holistic management practices can increase water infiltration and retention, create more food and fiber from the sun by increasing land productivity, improve wildlife ground cover and increase organic matter in the soil as well as bring more carbon from the atmosphere into the soil .

Spreading the word

Near McCord, Sask., the group that took Corcoran’s course on holistic management didn’t stop after the course was done. From there, they created the Prairie South Holistic Management group to show other people the benefits they’ve reaped from holistic management.

In June 2022, they hosted their first conference and field tour.

“It was a little mind-boggling and nerve-wracking for our first time,” Gavelin says. “It’s the power of sharing information among us. That is more rewarding than anything, because having the ability to discuss opportunities for your farm, and even seeding alternatives, that just made our operations a little stronger.”

Their group varies in the types of people as well, and has changed since they’ve taken the course.

“We’ve had people ask to join and we’ve let them join,” Gavelin says. “We’re basically proponents of how well this is doing. And we’re a variety of age ranges too. We have people who are close to retirement, we have people with young families like myself, or other couples. It works for all of us.”

Gavelin’s focus is on cover crops, but different people in the group concentrate on different aspects of holistic management.

Gavelin has seen some of the benefits holistic management cites, particularly when it comes to soil.

“What we’re finding with our cover crops, the ones that we grazed last year, there was also a soil health benefit that I never expected,” Gavelin says. “And when we did our fertility test last fall, when I hired Nutrien to do it, they were very skeptical of that. But when the results came back in that field, the cover crop that we grazed in October is actually sowing 30 pounds more and the biological activity of the soil is higher, and the CO2 levels are higher. That cover crop is doing more than just feeding my cows, the soil is improving.”

Also because of all the different nutrients offered in his various cover crops, he has seen an improvement in his cattle herd.

“When we preg-checked in September, the vet was just over the moon excited about our conception rates. Because none of our neighbors or even anybody in the country was even close to it. And she said, ‘What are you doing differently?’ And I said, ‘Well, they were grazing cover crops,’” Gavelin says.

Gavelin says they were also putting more weight on the cover crops than they had on normal vegetation.

Not only that, but the cover crops persisted through the brutal drought of 2021.

“And then when we had some August rains, it just flourished. And that 80-acre field produced enough feed for five-and-a-half weeks for my 200-head operation. They started grazing on October 1, and the economics of it and the drought, that field paid for itself many times over.

“Even last year’s drought, taking the risk has proven itself that it was very rewarding, because when all my monocultures were dead, my cover crop flourished. So when people come and see that, then they can relate it back to their operations. And then they can take the chance whether it’s five acres or 10 acres or whatever they’re willing to trust or even commit to, it gives them the opportunity to look at it.”

Kevin Elmy, based in Saltcoats, Sask., is a cover crop consultant for Imperial Seed, and also runs Cover Crops Canada.

“When we look at nature, nature never has a monoculture. And this is what we’ve been trying to do for the last 100 years in the Prairies,” Elmy says. Through cover crops, “we’re creating a really strong ecosystem that’s going to build our soil biology and create better feed for animals.”

Elmy echoes Gavelin’s statement that people are often skeptical of how well cover crops work before they see them. He says this is because of the fluid nature of cover cropping.

“When we start talking about cover cropping, there’s no recipe saying this is the blend to use,” Elmy says. “Whether it’s different parts of the province or the Prairies, or different soil types, different climate types, seeding equipment, all of these different variables, people want that button saying ‘This is how we grow canola.’ This is the recipe, that’s how we do it.’ When we look at cover cropping, it takes into account so many more variables that you know you’re going to have to work on developing that blend for you. You’re going to be able to go in and modify your plans to match the conditions.”

Benefits beyond the field

Switching to holistic management practices and cover cropping hasn’t just helped Calvin Gavelin’s farm, though. It’s also helped his relationship with his wife and his children.

“Just walking through the processes on our operation has actually strengthened the bond between myself and my wife. And holistic management and doing cover crops, my kids are actually excited to be out there in the field. They’re out there themselves. They’re asking to move cattle because they’re excited to go out there. They’re excited to see the variety of plants that we’re seeding.

“So that first year when we winter-grazed those cover crops, that was the first time that I actually had time for my kids, whether it was skating or other winter activities. I wasn’t feeding cows all the time.”

Interest is growing, too. Elmy says more people are getting into cover cropping all the time, and that is echoed in the interest Gavelin has seen on his farm. With people constantly asking to check out his plots, Gavelin will now be involved with a Living Lab.

Announced by federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau in July, Living Labs brings together farmers and scientists to address agri-environmental issues. Two Living Labs will be coming to Saskatchewan — and Gavelin will reach people interested in cover cropping through it.

“I have people asking me to do this for the next five years, to do cover crop plots. And they just want to see it, or they want to experience it. And it’s the industry asking that,” he says, adding that “everybody wants to know what’s actually going on. And I said, ‘The only way to know it is to start data collection.'”

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