Beef production's new waterworldDate posted: July 25, 2006
Research to evaluate beneficial management practices (BMPs) will help cattlemen protect water quality.
Southern Alberta's network of rivers and associated riparian areas mean many things to many people.
An angler's paradise, with some of the best fly fishing in the world. The heart of many cities and towns, including Calgary, the commercial centre. A natural wonderland for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts.
For Alberta cattlemen, this network also represents a critical, precious resource that falls under their stewardship – water.
Now a major research project, ambitious in scale for Canada, is underway to help cattlemen meet that important water stewardship responsibility, by evaluating beneficial management practices (BMPs) to protect water quality.
The Watershed Evaluation of BMPs (WEBs) is a four-year project initially funded at $5.65 million with additional incremental funding since added. This national initiative seeks to quantify at a micro-watershed scale (about 300 hectares in size), the relative environmental and economic effects of selected BMPs on water quality.
The project, conducted from 2004-2008, involves seven regional micro-watershed sites across Canada, including the Lower Little Bow Watershed, near Lethbridge, Alta.
"Our focus is to see which practices work the best to protect water quality and at the same time get the most bang for the buck."
– Dr. Jim Miller
"Our focus is to evaluate BMPs, to see which ones work the best to protect water quality and at the same time get the most bang for the buck," says Dr. Jim Miller, of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) who manages the Lower Little Bow Watershed component of the project. "Producers can apply for BMP funding through the National Farm Stewardship Program and environmental farm planning process to make improvements to their operations. Our research will help to identify the best ways to invest those dollars, for the benefit of both cattlemen and the watershed areas in which they operate."
Championing environmental stewardship
The WEB project is part of the broader Greencover Canada program, a five-year, $110-million Government of Canada initiative to help producers improve grassland-management practices, protect water quality, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
Greencover Canada is led by AAFC and includes a number of partners. It focuses on four components:
The Watershed Evaluation of BMPs project is primarily funded by AAFC, with Ducks Unlimited Canada a key project partner, contributing $1.25 million of the total funding.
"The seven regional WEBs watershed sites are in areas of historical benchmarking, where long-term background conditions and trends at the watershed level are well understood," says Miller, a research scientist in AAFC's Environmental Health Program. "In the case of the Lower Little Bow, this is a watershed area that not only has been well evaluated over the long term, but one that is in the heart of a major cattle production area. This makes it an ideal site to evaluate BMPs relevant to cattle production."
Miller says that water quality has never been a more important issue for the beef industry. Fortunately, Canada has strong science in place, and solid resources for further research, to help provide the industry with simple, practical and economical management solutions.
"We have a pretty good handle on beneficial practices," says Miller. "The more detailed knowledge we uncover, the better equipped producers will be to select options that best suit their individual operations and situations. We know a lot about how to protect water and there's more we can learn. We can also learn a lot more about fine-tuning management approaches to get the same results with greater cost efficiency – that will be a major benefit of the current study."
Bang for buck is key
Economic considerations are fully integrated into BMP thinking, says Miller. As defined by AAFC, a BMP is any agricultural management practice, or system of practices which a) ensures the long-term health and sustainability of land-related resources used for agricultural production, b) positively impacts the long-term economic and environmental viability of the agricultural sector, and c) minimizes negative impacts and risk to the environment.
"It's about balance," says Miller. "We know there are greater expectations than ever to protect water. We also know producers have faced challenging economic times. The goal of BMPs is to find ways to meet the needs of both the environment and the industry, not to promote one over the other."
In many areas of Western Canada, watershed management techniques at the agricultural production level offer a first line of defense for protecting water quality, notes Miller.
The list of agriculture-based substances that could contaminate a water source includes sediment, fertilizer, pesticides, animal waste, animal pharmaceuticals, fuel, oil and other hazardous products used in production, and by-products used in processing.
"When people talk about water quality, agriculture is often a big part of the discussion in this region," he says. "Agriculture shoulders a lot of responsibility for protecting the resource, and how it handles that responsibility plays a big role in how the industry is perceived as a welcome part of the community."
Shields against contaminants
In the WEB project, researchers are evaluating both BMPs that protect surface water supplies, such as dugouts, small reservoirs, rivers and lakes. In some cases the quality of groundwater may also be considered.
"BMPs are judged by their ability to reduce the potential for contaminants to enter the water source," says Miller.
There are three general types of BMPs that do this: managing agricultural inputs, controlling erosion and runoff, and implementing barriers and buffers.
For the Lower Little Bow study, Miller and colleagues are investigating five specific BMPs:
The multi-disciplinary research team includes scientists and staff from AAFC; Alberta Agriculture Food and Rural Development (AAFRD); County of Lethbridge; Fisheries and Oceans Canada; the University of Alberta; and Ducks Unlimited Canada.
For the buffer strips component, the team is evaluating a variety of in-field buried runoff collectors, to compare the combined effect of vegetation type and buffer width on runoff water from irrigated crop fields.
Looking at manure management, researchers are comparing the effects of manure application based on nitrogen (N) versus phosphorous (P) plant uptake. "We're using treatments geared to meet annual N uptake of the crop, annual P uptake of the crop, and P uptake for three years," says Miller.
Fencing components are a major part of the study, he says. To date, the team has installed fencing around an 800 metre reach on either side of the river, to eliminate cattle access. "Cattle instead have access to an off-stream water system that we've installed," says Miller. "Water quality is being monitored both upstream and downstream of the fenced area."
In the component without fencing, the set up includes a winter and summer pasture used by 500 head of cattle, with an off-stream watering system installed. "We are evaluating water quality in the river both before and after BMP implementation. We are also using a rainfall simulator to generate runoff adjacent to the river, so that effect can be evaluated."
For the conversion of annual cropland to forages, the team is using a site that includes two irrigated barley fields adjacent to the river. Again, a rainfall simulator is being used when needed. "We want to evaluate runoff both prior to and after the conversion," says Miller.
Roadmap to the future
Once the study is completed, it will provide producers with improved approaches to fine-tune their operations, he says. Partners hope the WEBs project will turn into a long-term monitoring and evaluation program that will provide a framework for continuous improvement of BMPs.
"Strengthening our approaches to environmentally responsible agriculture is an ongoing process," says Miller. "But the WEBs project will also benefit producers in the short term. The costs and benefits of the BMPs implemented will be evaluated using economic analyses to determine the most cost-effective BMPs, using an approach based on 'least cost per unit of water quality improvement,'"
"That's the type of analysis that will help provide a solid, science-based foundation for the future of environmentally responsible agriculture in Canada," he says.
"This is an important step to help the agriculture industry, including the beef industry, operate more sustainably, and have a more successful future as a result."
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