Study looks for marginal cropland solutions

University of Saskatchewan professor hopes farmers will work with her as she researches wetlands and marginal areas

Working with farmers, a University of Saskatchewan study is looking for ways to better manage unproductive land in the province and improve the environment.

“We’re looking to recruit 10 more grain producers for the study this year that have marginal cropland or wetlands,” said Christy Morrissey, professor in biology at the University of Saskatchewan who is overseeing the project.

The four-year study is focused on unproductive areas in fields to design effective incentive programs for improving sustainable farm production.

The venture is comparing different field management practices that may lower pesticide use and wetland contamination while enhancing farmland biodiversity.

It’s also evaluating crop productivity and economic costs of management practices to support sustainable farm planning and incentive program development.

“The plan with this research is to find a solution that reaches a producer’s concerns, but also improves the environment. We’re working with producers to co-design solutions for this problem,” she said.

Of the 36.6 million acres seeded to major crops in Saskatchewan, Morrissey estimates at least 10 percent of this land is marginal, saline or adjacent to wetlands that should not be farmed for cash crops.

The province’s total farm area is about 61 million acres with 60 percent of that under crop, which has been growing steadily over the last decade.

As a result, more than 70 percent of wetlands have been drained and more than 90 percent of remaining wetlands have been visibly impacted by agriculture, she said.

As farmers push deeper into marginal areas to increase yields, their input costs go up on less productive ground, which generally results in a break-even margin.

Now in year three, the project’s goal is to find solutions that work for farmers and the environment.

Producers are asked to convert between 10 and 25 percent of a quarter section to perennial forages, strategic areas that are low producing, marginal or near wetlands.

“They can choose to do it near or surrounding wetlands, or they could do it in areas that are saline or have low production value,” she said.

“They help design where these are going to go and we use their field maps and their yield maps to figure that out. Then they go ahead and plant these diverse forages in the areas. We’re monitoring them for not only the kind of overall field level yields and profits, but also the impact on water quality, soil health, and bird biodiversity.”

Producers are compensated $75 per acre for the land they are converting from crop rotation (usually canola and cereal) to forage.

“They repeat on three fields so that we can look at the variability in, for example, different crops and how they responded. So they choose the ones they are going to do and we match them to a control field that we don’t manipulate. They just do business as usual,” she said.

Results from the first two years of data show no difference in yields or profits between the treatment and the control fields.

“Even though we have fields with up to 20 percent crop taken out of production, so far at a field level, we see no significant loss of yields or profits after conversion,” she said.

“This means these marginal areas were not profitable in the first place and the savings on inputs alone are substantial.”

The study includes small producers, up to the largest participant, who farms 23,000 acres and has nine fields in the evaluation.

Several operations use the forages for their own livestock, while grain producers arrange to hay the land and sell the forage.

“We aren’t including that in our calculation of profit, but potentially that’s another source of revenue that they’re gaining from using the forages for animal feed. They can manage those however they want,” she said.

The experiment involves four producers and 30 fields — 15 in treatment and 15 that are controlled.

Morrissey said working with producers to find solutions to agricultural sustainability issues has been a valuable experience, which is leading to science-based policies built on producer input.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is develop a policy for various incentive programs that could be rolled out more broadly across the province,” she said.

“We’re trying to collect that economic data as well as environmental data. That is essentially to figure out how much would it cost to actually have producers do this. And really, if there are all these additional benefits to the environment, to ecosystem services, what are those worth? Producers potentially could benefit from that as well through an incentive program.”

Conservation organizations already have existing marginal land programs, such as seeding forages near wetlands.

“But none of these have any sort of scientific or economic data to support how much producers might be needing to be compensated to do that, or what the environmental or production benefits might be from it,” she said.

“So I think this is a big step towards trying to find a solution, but also collect real data that will support the kind of policies that incentivize practices that are beneficial to both the farm and also the environment.”

For more information, visit christymorrissey.driftchamber.com/marginal-areas/.

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