Capitalizing on Quack Grass

Nine years ago, a pork producer and a cattleman in Manitoba found some common ground. Robert Krentz needed better yields from the grassland acreage supporting his cow-calf herd. A pork-producing neighbor needed a place to haul manure. The unplanned but mutually beneficial agreement began to unfold when a half section of poor, undeveloped land sold near Krentz' Evergreen Land & Cattle Company, just

Nine years ago, a pork producer and a cattleman in Manitoba found some common ground. Robert Krentz needed better yields from the grassland acreage supporting his cow-calf herd. A pork-producing neighbor needed a place to haul manure.

The unplanned but mutually beneficial agreement began to unfold when a half section of poor, undeveloped land sold near Krentz' Evergreen Land & Cattle Company, just an hour southeast of Winnipeg. Krentz soon learned the buyer planned to build a hog barn and more land would be needed for manure disposal.

Soon after, another half section was placed on the market. This time, Krentz snatched it up. His new pork-producing neighbor called and offered $10,000 ($7,500 US$) more than Krentz had paid for the land. Krentz turned the offer down.

It wasn't long before both parties realized their enterprises could compliment each other. Krentz' need for greater grass yields melded well with the producer's need to place the nitrogen-rich manure from the hog operation.

The pair agreed that fair cash rent for the pork producer's grassland was about $20/acre ($15 US$) and the hog manure was worth $10/acre ($7.50 US$). At last check, his grasslands were producing a generous 4.5 tons of quack grass per acre. The land and fertilizer package was worth nearly $10,000.

Eighteen months later, the two decided they were ready for a more long-term, legal agreement. They now have a “legal caveat” on the land title which gives the pork producer permission to apply hog manure on Krentz' land for 49 years. In exchange, Krentz was granted free use of the pork producer's grassland for the duration of the caveat. To secure the long-term agreement, the pork producer also agreed to pay the full cost of manure application, estimated at $20,000 ($15,000 US$) annually.

The story doesn't end there, however. Krentz has used the agreement as a template for developing similar caveat-based arrangements with six hog production/management companies. It has become the standard for the intensive livestock industry in Manitoba.

Right Place, Right Time

Krentz' cow-calf enterprise was in an ideal location for the construction boom that hit Manitoba's hog industry in the 1990s. His district had few residents and was best suited to forage production. It was also close to packing plants and feedmills and had good highways nearby.

As owner or renter, Krentz manages nine sections of land in a block that's within three miles of his home. The whole “system” today includes 43 production barns and space for 90,000 hogs. At one animal/acre, the grasslands can handle approximately 4,800 feeder cattle. Key features of the system include:

  • Each section is now completely fenced as a single operating unit.

  • Each section has a rotational grazing system, with eight paddocks separated by single-strand, high-tensile electric wire.

  • Each section also has a central corral system for water, supplemental minerals and handling.

  • Each section has a core of hog barns, with a supply of clean water and electricity.

“The area was suited for us, in that it was isolated from neighbors and land was available for the application of manure,” says Arthur Remple, partner in ProVista Agriculture Ltd., Stein-bach, Manitoba. ProVista operates three sow barns and a feeder barn in arrangements with Krentz.

“We purchased a parcel for each barn. Robert (Krentz) gave us a caveat for additional land he has in the area, for manure. In exchange, we rent back the land on which the barn has been built, for grazing purposes, and we pay for the application of the manure,” Remple says.

“When we went down there, it was virgin territory,” explains Gary Stott, senior director of business development for Manitoba's largest hog production/management company, Maple Leaf Foods. “There were large grasslands. Some had been cultivated, but Robert's preference was to go more into grass. Once we started making these arrangements, he sold his brood cows and bought yearlings.”

Today, in arrangements with Krentz, Maple Leaf manages a system of eight nursery barns and five feeder barns with spaces for approximately 30,000 pigs.

Along with the hog producers, two municipalities were involved in the development. Roads had to be built. Drainage work was needed. Utilities had to be brought in and wells had to be drilled for the new barns.

Officials in the adjoining rural municipalities took a positive attitude. They encouraged the boom in hog barns. The two municipalities now rank first and second in Manitoba for the number of hogs and barns.

“We have probably 50 sites and over 100 barns now,” says Laurent Tetrault, chief accounting officer for the rural municipality of La Broquerie. “We're done now, because the hog industry put restrictions on themselves. They're respecting zones between barn sites,” he adds.

The municipal tax base nearly tripled in the past decade in La Broquerie, mainly due to the hog industry. Municipal assessment now stands at $65 million ($48.75 million US$). In the same period, population increased about 40%. In 2003, the Rural Municipality issued 125 building permits with a record 42 permits in the home construction category.

Happy Rancher

Krentz credits hog manure's high fertility value for boosting his beef production. “Without manure, the tonnage of quack grass would probably be half,” he says.

Behind the recent success, however, lies a long history of hard work and experience for the Krentz family. In 1969, Robert Krentz and his brother, Gordon, came to the area 17 miles south of Steinbach with their parents.

“It was considered cheap land,” he recalls. “Most of it was forested with low-value poplar and aspen. I remember physically carrying stumps off fields and trying to produce crops. We developed thousands of acres into cleared land, but we never got good results. The land is sandy, it's low-lying and we have an abundance of rain.”

Krentz had up to 2,000 acres in tame hay production for 640 cows, in a cow-calf operation. Although they were unable to raise grain in the area, they did produce up to 700 acres of silage corn that was fed all winter.

Alfalfa would produce 2-3 tons/acre for about four years, he recalls, but it was “very expensive” for the amount produced.

With hog manure available, he decided to stop “saving” and reseeding the tame forages, instead letting the native quack grass take over. Although it's mostly regarded as a nuisance weed, quack grass thrives in high-moisture, high-fertility situations.

As expected, when the tame grasses died out, the quack grass became lush. But, more importantly, it extended the grazing season at both ends. He controlled the quack grass with intensive, carefully managed rotational grazing.

The feeders got 20% protein with every bite and the results were good. Krentz' stocking rate jumped from four acres/cow-calf pair on the poor, uncontrolled pasture, to one acre/feeder and even better. His highest stocking rate has been 625 feeders on 550 acres. Average gain is 1.8 to 2.0 lb./day on a 165-day season.

Quack Grass Value Confirmed

About four years ago, Krentz participated in a regional forage production trial with 23 other producers. He says, “When the results came back, we had the highest level of forage production with straight quack grass. It did 4.5 tons an acre!”

Different manure application rates have been tested. The general rate is 10,000 gal./acre, top-dressed, which is equivalent to applying 100 or 125 lb. of nitrogen/acre, he says. Three months after application, soil tests showed the field was back at 8 to 10 lb. of available nitrogen. “That quack grass is absorbing and sucking up everything it can get,” he says.

For five years, they have also been monitoring the potential for nutrient leaching. “We haven't found any at all yet,” he says.

Trial applications of up to 400 lb. of nitrogen/acre have been conducted for several years at another location on the farm. He says, “That quack grass stand is unreal. It (the rate) doesn't seem to be a problem, because we get a sufficient amount of moisture in this area.”

Looking back, Krentz doesn't miss feeding cows seven months a year, making silage and catnapping for most of the calving season.

Since striking that first arrangement with a hog producer, Krentz says, he's built the home of his dreams for his wife, Jody, and three sons, and he's found time in the winter to just enjoy being with his family and friends.