Growing the soil to grow food — what regenerative ag in cattle production looks like

For Andrea Stroeve-Sawa, the principles of regenerative agriculture are nothing new. She jokes that at six months old, she learned them through osmosis when her dad took one of the first courses Allan Savory offered in the States in the early 80s.

Stroeve-Sawa manages Shipwheel Cattle Feeders in Southern Alberta, an operation that incorporates a few enterprises: from a feedlot, to compost, to bees. And her challenge now? To continue to improve the operation, following in the footsteps of her father, Blake Holtman, who she says already raised the soil organic matter on their 91 per cent sandy soil by 5 per cent. It’s “a huge responsibility and immense pressure,” she says.

“Typically in agriculture we focus on growing plants from the soil,” she says. “When you can change your mindset to a ‘regenerative mindset’ you will then use the plants to grow the soil.”

Despite challenges, Stroeve-Sawa is excited about the possibilities of regenerative agriculture.

“We’re on the cusp of something really big, and I’m excited to see where it goes.” (story continues below)

In this interview, from Alberta Beef Industry Conference, Andrea Stroeve-Sawa discusses what ‘regenerative agriculture’ means to her, why there’s a sudden interest, and whether or not the agriculture industry is ready to fill demand if it truly is ‘the big food trend for 2020’.

Shipwheel history

It was in the 1980s that Blake Holtman took a life- (and farm) changing course, and transitioned from continuous grazing to paddocks, cells, and rotational grazing. Stroeve-Sawa says people told him he was crazy, and some predicted he would wreck his land. Still, he persevered, and, she says, one particular grazing cell went from less than 6.9 stock days per acre in 1987 to 105 by 2013 (through many mistakes/learning opportunities)

Learned wisdom

In her presentation at the Alberta Beef Industry Conference, Stroeve-Sawa provided some advice to those considering changing things, specifically in the light of regenerative agriculture. A few of her points:

  1. You’re going to make mistakes — just learn and carry on.
  2. Set your goal, aim high, with clear expectations. Consider specifics, like the water and mineral cycles, fungi, and wildlife.
  3. Don’t be afraid to change the plan if it’s not leading to your goal.
  4. Get out there and observe the changes: “you cannot control what you don’t measure.”
  5. Stay focused on what you want, not what you don’t want.
  6. Fearful? Address: what’s the worst thing that could happen, what would you do to address it if it did, and what’s the best thing that could happen?

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