When Farming Less Really Does Make More

Forage established adjacent to canola crop. Photo provided by Ducks Unlimited Canada.

The Value of Perennial Cover in Marginal Areas

Terry Baker is a fourth-generation farmer from Denzil, Sask. Nearly 70 years ago, Baker’s father identified a field area next to a wetland where his crop struggled to grow. The culprit was soil salinity. His solution? Seed the area to grass.

“The salinity cleared up, but we never farmed that strip again. That grass is used for hay to this day,” Baker says.

Planting perennial forages for salinity management isn’t new, but the practice has been gaining ground in recent years. And for good reason. Salinization is common across the Canadian Prairies, an area where moisture deficits, high annual evaporation rates, and ground water naturally rich in mineral salts all conspire to create an agronomic headache for farmers.

In Saskatchewan alone, over 5 million acres of agricultural land is estimated to be at moderate to high risk of soil salinization.

Most annual crops don’t tolerate saline soils, leaving affected field areas that hog inputs but don’t deliver on production.

Blake Weiseth is the director of research and demonstration at the Discovery Farm at Langham, Sask. He oversees how field trials are designed and implemented, including the farm’s Salinity Project. “When saline areas are managed the same as other cultivated areas, it often results in intense weed pressure and poor crop growth,” Weiseth explains.

Simply taking these areas out of annual production is insufficient; left untreated, salinity can spread, and affected areas become a troublesome source of herbicide resistant weeds that further reduce production.

Mr. Baker Had the Right Idea

Saline areas in crop margins, like pictured here, benefit from establishment of perennial cover. Photo provided by Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Seeding forage on saline areas can be more than a Band-Aid, it may also be a cure.

Discovery Farm’s Salinity Project is examining just how effective that cure may be. The project will explore the ability of three treatments of forage crops to establish in salt-affected soils. Along with assessing the productivity and economics of each treatment, researchers will investigate whether forages effectively alter soil chemistry and properties over time.

As a research partner, along with Nutrien Ag Solutions and Proven Seed, Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) has a particular interest in project results.

In 2017, DUC piloted its Marginal Areas Program (MAP), paying a financial incentive to producers to seed hard to access and poorly producing field areas to forage, including those impacted by salinity.

“MAP was the outcome of a number of conversations we were having with the ag sector at the time. Independent agrologists were looking for solutions for marginal areas, crop input providers were concerned with runoff and filtration, and DUC was interested in working with grain producers,” says Paul Thoroughgood, regional agrologist with DUC and one of the staff involved in the development of MAP.

MAP had the potential to achieve these outcomes and more, by incentivizing the establishment of perennial cover on unproductive field fragments.

When it comes to unproductive areas, the development of precision agriculture technology has brought with it a new capability. With a goal of increasing crop yields and profitability and optimizing use of traditional inputs, precision agriculture uncovers field areas realizing a negative return on investment. The approach has opened the door to more targeted management practices and made programs like MAP attractive.

According to Charlotte Ward, an agri-environmental specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture’s Farm Stewardship Program (FSP), strategies that eliminate or reduce inputs in marginal areas and re-allocate them to more productive acres on the field often increase overall farm profitability. FSP’s Permanent Tame Forage BMP provides funding to take marginal areas—including those impacted by salinity—out of production and seed them to forage.

At the end of the day, economics are a major driver for implementing any agronomic practice.

Other on-farm benefits of seeding forage in marginal areas are significant too: reducing herbicide resistant weeds, acting as buffer zones to meet product label guidelines, and helping manage clubroot issues in canola crops. Perennial cover along wetland edges and riparian zones stabilizes soil and protects water quality by filtering out crop-protection products and surplus nutrients.

From a conservation point of view, perennial cover equals habitat. Areas of forage increase diversity on agricultural landscapes and are used by a variety of bird and mammal species, as well as beneficial pollinating and predatory insects.

Aware of the critical role native pollinators play in agro-ecosystems, and that providing access to diverse floral resources can help these imperiled insects, DUC opted to add a floral component to MAP. Participating producers receive a seed blend of perennial species that improves the value of the forage stand specifically for pollinators.

One of the timeliest environmental benefits of establishing forage in marginal areas is carbon storage. Perennial grasses and legumes sequester carbon and are allies in the short- and long-term fight against climate change. Just recently, the federal government announced an additional $185M in funding for climate-smart best practices in agriculture, including the conversion of marginal land to permanent cover. Making this a practice we’re likely to see more of in the future.

And Mr. Baker—a man ahead of his time.