Ranchers, conservationists share common aim

Beef production and grassland conservation have similar objectives, according to Ducks Unlimited.

“It’s very rare that you actually hear the terms of cattle and conservation together in the same conversation and the same context,” Emily Lowe, a regional beef agrologist based in Turner Valley, Alta., said about the non-profit organization.

“A lot of these claims that are made about destruction of habitat and whatnot because of the cattle industry are looked at from more of a global perspective rather than being regionally specific. When you dig into it from a regional level, a totally different story can be told,” Lowe said during a Rural Roots Virtual Ag Day July 14.

The day-long interactive event was hosted out of the County of Newell office in Brooks, Alta.

Lowe said the grassland of North America is the most endangered ecosystem in the world, at greater risk than the Amazon rainforest or the Great Barrier Reef.

“The northern Plains is one of the last four remaining intact temperate grasslands in the world and about 76 percent of it is owned by ranchers.”

Grasslands are home to thousands of species and help regulate the environment while sequestering carbon.

“What a lot of people also forget is that in order for these grasslands to remain healthy and productive, they need grazers,” Lowe said.

Like the bison before them, ruminant grazers help nutrient cycling through redistribution of forage on the land as organic matter and hoof action that helps seeds germinate and grow.

The act of grazing also promotes growth and improves the health of the landscape by allowing more rain and sunlight to penetrate the soil.

However, it’s about “striking a balance” between responsible food production and grassland preservation that provides environmental benefits, she said.

From 1996 to 2016, cattle numbers declined 20 percent and grass acres shrunk by 14 percent as acres of cropland increased.

Lowe said the ecosystems of grasslands and wetlands support plant biodiversity, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, temperature regulation, water purification and flood control.

“The annual value of all these ecological goods and services generated by one hectare of wetlands has been estimated to be between $5,792 and $24,330. The draining of just six hectares of wetlands releases the same amount of carbon dioxide that would be captured by switching from conventional tillage to zero tillage on 2,000 hectares of cropland,” she said.

One-third of all agricultural land in Canada is used for beef production. That landscape contains 68 percent of the country’s wildlife habitat.

“That’s a huge number and a very small area. I think that’s something that producers by and large can be very proud of and the fact that they are able to properly manage these areas,” Lowe said.

She added that Ducks Unlimited Canada and cattle producers have similar goals: good grass and water.

DUC has several conservation initiatives designed to make beef production more profitable. Some programs help free up capital or help with taxation through land donation.

A conservation easement program is attached to the land, so owners can sell while ensuring the property stays intact for future generations.

A forage incentive program offers a rebate for each acre of forage seeded back into grass. This includes leases where DUC will restore drained wetlands.

“We have technicians and engineers that are able to kind of figure out where wetlands would have been 100 years ago, rebuild them and then put a conservation easement lease on them to make sure they stay intact for 10 years,” Lowe said.

The revolving land purchase program enables DUC to buy land, rebuild or improve wetlands, apply an easement and sell the land to ranchers.

“Ducks Unlimited by no means wants to be a big landowner. We know that producers across Canada do a far better job of actually looking after these landscapes than we could because ranchers know the land. We want to make sure that it stays in the hands of ranchers,” she said.

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