The Stewarts’ Journey with Native Grasslands Amidst Drought

Story by Erika and Cyle Stewart

We are Erika and Cyle Stewart, and we ranch alongside our three daughters and Erika’s parents Bill and Terry Strande. Together, we operate Pine Ranch in the Couteau Hills near Morse, Saskatchewan. We run a cow-calf operation and grass some yearlings on mostly native grassland.

New beginnings on native grass

In 2017, we moved our ranching operation from Merritt, BC to Morse, SK. We had always heard about native grass and how it was the best thing to raise cattle on, and we were excited to learn more. As we learned about our native grasslands – and how they are one of the fastest disappearing ecosystems in the world – we realized what a special opportunity we have to make our living in conjunction with them. Unfortunately, our area has been in a severe drought since we moved, so we have faced many challenges trying to graze our land properly to ensure the health of our grasslands. 

 

Managing through drought

We have always been interested in grazing management, but the drought brought that interest to the forefront. We have completed quite a few fencing and watering projects, to reduce animals’ impact around riparian areas, and to separate the native from the tame grass. To better enable rest and recovery of our native species, fencing off the native areas and improving our alternative sources of forage has been key. Our tame stands are old and not very productive, so we plan to complete a tame rejuvenation project – that is, adding legumes into existing stands of grass – but we need to receive some moisture first. Once that project is completed, we hope to intensively graze the tame stands, to be able to delay use of our native grass until later in the season. We have also been planting polycrops for winter feed, and to improve soil health under long-term tame forage stands. The past two years, these crops yielded extremely well despite the drought conditions, but this year we think there was just no remaining soil moisture, and the polycrops did very poorly. 

 

 

More knowledge, more opportunities

We are eager to participate in the Living Lab to learn more about native grassland species, and how they can co-exist with our management practices and our cattle. We are also interested in the carbon storage capacity of our soils, and how different styles of management may increase that storage capacity. We think the more we know as producers, the better decisions we can make. We see huge potential in the Living Lab research, because it is happening on working scale ranches as opposed to small scale plot research. We have already learned a lot from participating. It has given us ideas about how to improve our management practices, and new things to work towards. We are especially excited about the focus on the diversity of animals, insects, and their habitats on our working ranch landscapes. We want to ensure these animals thrive right along with our ranch business, to give our daughters the opportunity to keep living and working in this special prairie home.