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Soil Health & Cover Crops

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Seeds/Soil/Spring 2019

A Recipe for Success in Achieving Long Term Soil Conservation

Saikat Kumar Basu

Why Care for our Soils?

Soil is an important constituent of both agriculture and forestry; unfortunately, it is taken for granted most of the time. It is a cheap, easily accessible or available global resource for which we have often forgotten to take the necessary care. We have used it non-judiciously without proper planning and vision for the future.

The concept of soil health has always been there since the dawn of human civilization—but only quite recently have we started to better understand, appreciate, and care for our soils as part of sustainable agriculture. We as humans have possibly matured over time and realized that our exploitative and non-judicious use of our soil resources can limit our long-term agricultural productivity and jeopardize successful crop production.

Unless we are serious enough to take good care of one of our most abundant yet highly sensitive natural resources of this planet, the soils, we ourselves will be solely to blame for the degradation of our soils—thanks to the self-destructive approaches we’ve used to achieve very short-term objectives of making easy profits without thinking deeply about the long-term consequences.

Soil health today has emerged as an important aspect of proper soil management as a component of sustainable agriculture to help in quality crop production without depleting or damaging soil quality and helping in proper soil conservation at the same time (Fig. 1).

What Impacts Soil Health?

Several factors impact soil health, among the most important being over application of fertilizers and pesticides. The soil represents a dynamic ecosystem and an intricate playground of delicate physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. Any chemical application on the soil therefore has some positive or negative impact on the soil quality by interfering with the physicochemical and biogeological processes associated with soil formation. These changes include shifting the soil pH due to various anthropogenic activities that slowly impact the soil quality. Drastic reduction in pH makes soil acidic, while rapid increase in pH leads to alkalinity or salinity; both conditions make the soil unsuitable for a long time for quality crop production. Furthermore, increased emphasis on monoculture associated with our modern industrial agriculture year after year depletes the soil of essential macro and micro nutrients necessary for maintaining optimal soil health (Fig. 2).

Fig 2. Increased emphasis on crop monoculture is detrimental to long term soil health.

Over application of synthetic chemical fertilizers and various pesticides to secure crop production adds too much pressure on our soil, impacting not only the physicochemical and geological processes active in the soil, but also negatively impacting the soil macro and micro flora and fauna devastatingly over a long period of time. Several beneficial microbes like soil bacteria, Cyanobacteria, soil fungi, soil borne insects, spring tails (Collembola), earthworms, and other critters essential for maintaining soil health suffer population collapse due to non-judicious over application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Many such chemical residues remain in the soil for prolonged period and often percolate deep into the soil, reaching the groundwater table or adjacent surface fresh water resources via surface run off, with long term negative impacts on both soil and water. Often the beneficial soil macro and micro flora and fauna are altered or replaced by harmful species that prove detrimental to soil health and significantly impact crop production and forest ecology. Random unplanned crop rotations and fallow harm our soil more than we actually realize; making them susceptible to weed and pest infestations (Fig. 3), loss of precious top soil and lower crop production due to poor soil health.

Fig 3. Untended soil is subjected to weed infestation that interferes with quality crop production.

Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Promoting Sustainable Soil Health

To maintain optimal soil health for long term success in achieving quality crop production we need to take necessary steps and plan carefully. This takes needs patience, and deeper understanding, as well as painstaking observations to implement good soil health practices on cropland.

Regular soil tests are important to ensure that we are aware of the excesses as well as depletion of necessary macro and micro nutrients in the soil. We also need to look into the topography of the crop field, the low and high spots in the field, the areas impacted by acidification and salinity issues, detailed history of fertilizer and pesticide applications over the years and the successive crops grown. Any past issues associated with the soil should be recorded for future reference. The nature of pest and weed infestations should be recorded to identify any specific patterns with respect to local pest and weed populations. Such detailed record keeping together with advanced GPS- and GIS-generated high-quality images of the field over the years will provide a farmer or crop producer or a professional agronomist ample reference to make judicious decisions to secure comprehensive soil health strategy and crop management for the future.

Based on the above information, we need to adopt a specific crop rotation plan to ensure that the soil is not exhausted of essential soil nutrients. Application of fertilizers and pesticides should follow manufacturer’s guidelines stringently to avoid over application (Fig 4).

Fig 4. It is important to keep track of weed and pest species impacting crop production in a particular field for making judicious decisions regarding appropriate chemical applications at the appropriate stage and dosage following manufacturer’s instructions.

It is also important to note if soil compaction is causing a problem for the field. If this is an issue, then highly mechanized farming activities and movements of heavy vehicles need to be restricted to a specific easily accessible area to reduce negative impacts of soil compaction on the field.

Intercropping could be practised depending upon the farming need and also to use the soil resources judiciously. This can enhance crop production and add crop diversity to the field important for maintaining soil health.

Role of Cover Crops in Promoting Long-Term Soil Health and Soil Conservation

Cover crops are an important aspect for maintaining general soil health if used with scientific outlook and proper planning. Several cover crops choices are available. Annual and perennial legumes, various clovers and sweet clovers, bird’s-foot trefoil, hairy vetch, common vetch, cicer milkvetch, sainfoin (Fig. 5), fenugreek, fava beans, soybeans, field pea or forage pea, cowpea, chickpea, green pea, black pea, different species of beans, oil crops such as annual and perennial sunflower, safflower, flax, forage canola, different mustard species (Fig. 6), brassicas such as forage rape, turnips, collards, radish, forage crops such as tef grass, Sudan grass, sorghum, sorghum x Sudan grass hybrids, corn, cereals such as winter rye, wheat and triticale, different millets, such as Proso millet, Japanese millet, German millet, red millet, special or novelty crops such as hemp (Fig 7) , chicory, plantain, phacelia, buckwheat, and quinoa are only a handful of choices to mention from a big basket of abundant crop species currently available across Canada.

Fig 5. Mustard cover crop in full bloom.
Fig 6. Perennial forage legume sainfoin is an excellent cover crop that can be successfully used in crop rotation cycles. Sainfoin is also exceptional for pollinators, attracting bees and other insects in large numbers.
Fig 7. Hemp is a new speciality crop for Canada and has been generating serious interest among farmers for agronomic productions. Hemp has been found to attract diverse species of insect pollinators too.

Several grass species such as orchard grass, tall fescue, short fescue, meadow fescue, creeping fescue, chewing fescue, festulolium, timothy, annual and perennial rye grass, Italian rye grass, and various other forage and native species are being used in specific legume-grass mix, in highly planned and organized crop rotations or in soil reclamation and pollinator mixes for attracting insect pollinators to the crop fields and in checking soil erosion effectively.

Cover crops should be selected based on the agro-climatic zone and soil zones of the region and used in planned rotations. Species or different appropriate cover crop mixes are to be selected based on the long-term objective of the crop production. For example, cover crop mixes used as pollinator mixes could not only be planted in the field during a fallow; but can also be used in agronomically unsuitable areas, along field perimeter, under the centre pivot stand, hard to access areas of the farm, shelter belts or adjacent to water bodies or low spots in the field too.

Forage cover crops could be used where the field is partly subjected to animal foraging or grazing or ranching. Similarly, oil crops, pharmaceutical or neutraceutical crops, or specialty or novelty cover crops could be used in crop rotations with major food or industrial crops grown in the particular field in a specific agro-climatic region.

Fig 8 Cover crops rotations can be an effective long term solution for managing optimal soil health with long term positive impacts on soil quality and soil conservation.

Cover crops not only play an important role in crop rotation cycle; but, also help in retaining soil temperature and moisture as well as protect top soil from erosive forces like wind and water. The presence of live roots in the soil and a rich diversity of crops stimulate the growth and population dynamics of important soil mega and micro fauna and flora for sustaining long term soil health, soil quality and soil conservation. Cover crops help in balancing the use of essential soil macro and micro nutrients in the soil, as well as promoting better aeration, hydration, nitrogen fixation, and recycling of essential crop minerals, assisting bumper production of food or cash crops due to improvement in soil quality for successive high-quality crop production.

It is important for all of us to understand and appreciate that soil is a non-renewable resource and needs special care and attention. Unless we are careful to use this special resource so deeply associated with our agricultural and forestry operations judiciously, we may be slowly jeopardizing crop productivity—and our common future—in the not so distant future.

Proper planning and scientific soil management practices can play a vital role in keeping our soil productive as well as healthy. Use of crop rotations and cover crops are some of the important approaches towards long-term soil health, soil conservation, and crop productivity. We need to learn more about our local soil resources for our future food security and incorporate more soil friendly practices to prolong the life and quality of our soil.


Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation
Acknowledgement: Performance Seed, Lethbridge, AB

Featured Image: Fig 1. Scientific management of soil health contributes towards long term high quality crop production as well as soil conservation. Image Credit: All photos by Saikat Kumar Basu

A New Model for Integrated Habitat Development

in 2018/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Summer 2018

For Bees, Birds, and Fish (IEHD-BBF)

Saikat Kumar Basu

Global bee populations are showing an alarming decline due to a number of factors like environmental pollution, indiscriminate use and over applications of various agro-chemicals, industrial agricultural practices detrimental to nature, changes in the land use patterns, and parasitic diseases of bees as well as lack of adequate supply of nectar and pollens for different bee species due to lack of suitable of bee foraging plants and natural melliferous flora. The challenges are not just restricted to honey bees and/or native bee species, but also to other insect pollinators such as moths, butterflies, and certain species of pollinator-friendly flies and beetles. Under these circumstances it is important to conserve the endangered bee species and other pollinator insects, mollusks (snails and slugs), birds (certain humming bird species), and mammals (bats) helping in the process of natural cross pollination.

A large number of global food and industrial/commercial crops, forage crops, wildflowers, ornamentals, vegetables, and forest species are dependent on biological agents or vectors of cross pollination for their successful reproduction and survival. The yield loss due to lack of suitable pollinators for cross pollination is a serious threat to the future of global agriculture as well as for maintaining the balance of our natural ecosystems. Loss of honey bees are having detrimental socio-economic impacts on the apiculture industry; and thereby impacting the livelihood and social security of millions of individuals around the planet.

A Stratiomyid fly foraging on wild chamomile flower. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Establishing suitable pollinator (bee) gardens or habitats or sanctuaries at suitable sites could prove to be instrumental in both bee and other pollinator insect conservation from a long term, ecological perspective. Using suitable pollinator mixes comprising of native grasses, wildflowers as well as annual, biennial, perennial forage crops (forage grasses, legumes, different Brassica family members) can help in establishing pollinator gardens, habitats, or sanctuaries in perimeters of forested areas, under used or unsuitable agronomic lands, unused and available rural locations, city and municipal parks and gardens, lawns, kitchen gardens, unused or hard to farm areas, in sites adjacent to natural or artificial waterbodies like ponds, pools, ditches, swamps, bogs, streams, or irrigation canals.

Aquatic Habitats

Freshwater wetland habitats need to be protected to conserve the aquatic ecosystems, the rich biodiversity associated with itand to protect nature for our future generations. Protecting freshwater wetlands does not necessarily require huge expertise, funding, or high levels of technology applications, but rather. simple innovation, creativity, awareness, and the desire to develop comprehensive multi-layer conservation strategy in the line of Multiple Tier Conservation Model (MTCM). A well managed and carefully planned freshwater aquatic habitat conservation strategy could be establishing Integrated Ecological Habitat Development for Bees, Birds and Fishes (IEHD-BBF). This proposed model targets multiple trophic levels within a dynamic natural or artificial freshwater ecosystem to conserve multiple species simultaneously.

Aquatic habitat integrated with pollinator conservation can provide multi level species protection for bees, birds, and fishes. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Natural or artificial aquatic habitats like pools, ponds, ditches, swamps, bogs, lakes, canals, etc… could be targeted for ecological restoration by planting short or high grasses, salt tolerant aquatic plant species, and grasses along with pollinator mixes comprising of annual and/or perennial legumes, wildflowers, and related pollinator friendly plant species or melliferous flora around target fresh water habitats. Such mixes will not only restore aquatic habitats, but also attract small and medium sized land birds and a wide diversity of pollinator insects like honey bees, native bees, moths, butterflies, certain species of pollinator beetles, and flies for nectar foraging, nesting, and breeding purposes.

From Flora to Fauna

If the waterbodies are well stocked with indigenous fish species, well protected grassy aquatic habitats will also attract a wide diversity of aquatic birds to nest, forage, and breed in such unique environmentally restored ecosystems. An integrated Bees, Birds and Fishes Conservation Model (BBFCM) can be extremely useful in protecting multiple species at the same time and location.

Ideal pollinator foraging plants can help build sustainable pollinator sanctuaries. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Grasses in the mixes can help in soil erosion and restoration, as well as phytoremediation, while legumes will enrich the soil with natural nitrogen resources without application of any synthetic fertilizers. Care must be taken to avoid using any pesticides in such habitats to prevent chemical pollution. Over time, such aquatic habitats will also attract local wildflowers and aquatic plants to grow and thrive in these ecosystems attractive to various species of both terrestrial and aquatic insects including active pollinators, along with small to medium sized terrestrial and aquatic birds to nest and forage in such restored aquatic habitats. Well stocked waterbodies with native fish species will promote native fish conservation and at the same time provide a stable food source for a number of aquatic birds.

Small and medium sized mammals, reptiles, and amphibians will also be able to establish in such ecosystem utilizing the growing complex food chains and food webs over time. Overall, the innovative and multi-trophic level Integrated Ecological Habitat Development for Bees, Birds and Fishes (IEHD-BBF) model has huge potential for restoration and reestablishment of natural and artificial aquatic ecosystems with minimal care, attention, management and funding. Such ecological restoration using the IEHD-BBF model can serve the needs of dwindling bees and insect pollinator populations, along with local resident and migratory birds and indigenous fishes to successfully multiply in an integrated multi-species catering dynamic ecological system.

Nevade bee foraging on Phacelia in a restored ecosystem. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Regionally Specific Ecological Restoration

It is important however to note that plant yield and adaptation varies according to different ecosystems and agro-climatic conditions. It is also important to note that plants exhibit a strong Genotype X Environment interaction (G X E or GE effect). As a consequence, it is not advisable to use same pollinator mix at different locations and habitats for integrated habitat development. Locally adapted biodiverse pollinator mix selected through multi-location trials under varied geographical, geological, ecological, and climatic variations across different latitudes needs to be seriously evaluated for optimal results. Locally adapted pollinator mix with their unique combination of diverse species suited and adapted for individual agro-climatic and ecosystem regions has the potential to yield optimal results.

The flowering periods of the components of the pollinator mix need to be thoroughly investigated and tested against specific environment to evaluate what diversity of natural insect pollinators they are attracting and how well the plants included in the pollinator mix are adapting to the local parameters, withstanding competition against local weeds under field conditions. It will be important to identify the plant species that are performing best under natural conditions at different agro-climatic conditions with respect to establishment, regeneration, and attracting natural insect pollinators. If judicious selection of appropriate plant species is made with local adaptation to agro-climatic variability across different families; and with different flowering period; the resultant pollinator mix will be more suitable and yield optimal results in protecting and conserving pollinators as well as help is establishment or restoration of natural ecosystems.

Canada geese family in restored habitat. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu
Bee foraging on sainfoin flower. Photo credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure time and is passionate about nature and conservation.

Feature photo: Pollinator sanctuaries can help establish small ecological units over time. Credit: Saikat Kumar Basu

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Footnotes from the Field: Celebrating the Flight of the Bumblebee

in 2018/Footnotes from the Field/Land Stewardship/Organic Standards/Summer 2018

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O. P.Ag

When I think of the ‘wholeness’ of a bioregional ecosystem and imagine the inner workings to identify which biological organisms could have the greatest influence on the entire system, nothing seems to compete with the influential power of the domesticated honey bee.

This industrious pollinator flies great distances to gather nectar and pollen. The Canadian Organic Standards (COS) Clause 7.1.10 recognizes the prodigious flying capacity of the honey bee by requiring apiaries to be protected by a three kilometre buffer zone from pesticides, GMO crops, sewage sludge, and other environmental contaminants. I decided to calculate just how big of an area a three kilometre radius would cover—an astounding 28.27 square kilometers! Wow! The domesticated honey bee’s influence in a bioregion extends over a huge pollination territory.


RELATED ORGANIC REGULATIONS

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.10 Location of hives
Where sources or zones of prohibited substances are present, that is, genetically engineered crops or environmental contamination, apiaries shall be protected with a buffer zone of 3 km (1.875 mi.).

CAN/CGSB-32.310 7.1.7 When bees are placed in wild areas, impact on the indigenous insect population shall be considered.


In stark contrast to the honey bee’s huge domain is the relatively small realm of influence the humble bumble bee commands. There are well over 450 native bee species in British Columbia and 45 of those are bumble bees.

The bumble bee is the only other social bee that makes honey. Bumble bee colonies are very small containing between 50 to 200 bees. Seventy percent of the colonies are formed by ground nesters, while others nest in cavities of dead wood or pithy stems.

The average bumble bee species will only travel 100 to 200 m from the home nest to collect nectar and pollen. The average domain of pollination influence for a bumble bee is between 0.031 km2 and 0.13 km2. Putting this all into perspective, for each honey bee colony’s influence domain of 28.27 km2 there could be between 200 to 900 humble bumble bee ground nesting colonies competing for many of the same nectar and pollen resources!

Frisky bumblebee. Credit: Gilles Gonthier

The good news for bumble bees is that many of them are specially designed to harvest nectar and pollen from native flowers that honey bees can’t access. The bad news is that native bee populations are in decline due to loss of native foraging habitat, pesticides, and mechanized farming destroying nests by tilling the soil.

Social bee colonies form ‘super organisms,’ with all individuals working for one home. The honey bee’s ‘super organism’ even exceeds in bioregional influence the largest organism on planet Earth, a honey fungus that extends its reach over 10.36 km2 of the Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Honey fungus is a plant parasite that manages its domain by selecting which plants live within its territory. The fertilization by pollination of plants by the bee has a similar selection effect on the ecosystem. By geographic area, one domestic honeybee hive has three times the bioregional influence of the largest organism on earth.

COS clause 7.1.7 recognizes that imported domestic honey bees have an impact on the indigenous insect populations. I would say that even though the vast majority of farmers cannot qualify to produce organic honey themselves, it should be recognized that the conventional production of honey is having a major impact on our native pollinators. Taking the lead from clause 7.1.7, we can conscientiously strive to protect and provide forage habitat and safe nesting sites for the humble bumble bee and other native pollinators.

Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C
Brown-belted Bumble Bee (Bombus griseocollis). Credit: Andrew C

By providing forage habitat and safe nesting sites for bumble bees, we are having a direct influence on the health and wealth of our home bioregional ecosystem. As an environmentally conscious and active community, we can have a positive impact in our bioregion by providing for our indigenous insect pollinators as we mobilize ourselves to address the environmental needs of these indigenous insects.

There are so many delicious wild berries that need the bumble bee. The flowers on these berries are enclosed so it takes a bumble bee’s specialized long “tongue” to get to the plant’s nectar. As the bumble bee ‘buzzes’ on these flowers the muscles it uses for flying releases the flower pollen and sticks to its long body bristles to be transferred to other flowers.

Buffer zones are an excellent starting place to plant native vegetation, trees, shrubs, and flowers that will become oases of survival for the humble bumble bees.
If you need further inspiration, think about the near extinction of the native bee pollinator for the vanilla orchid, which produces vanilla beans, the shiny green orchid bee. All commercial vanilla bean operations must now employ hand pollination!

Another shocker in the news is that Walmart and other interested corporations have been patenting designs for robotic pollinators. I’d rather keep the robots out of the pollination equation, especially since we can set aside buffer zones and wild areas and gradually restore unfragmented sections of land devoted to a wide diversity of native pollinator vegetation, undisturbed nesting locations, and overwintering sites for bumble bee queens.

Check out the link below for a library of seasonal listings for pollinator plants to build your pollinator gardens. Celebrate the amazing bumble bee!

seeds.ca/pollinator/plant_canada/index.php


Marjorie Harris is an organophyte, agrologist, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

Feature photo: Bombus Impatiens. Credit: Katja Schulz

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Organic Farming to Enhance Native Species

in 2018/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Living with Wildlife/Organic Standards/Summer 2018

Tanya Brouwer

Agricultural activities are often blamed for the demise of the planet’s environmental systems. It is not uncommon to hear about deforestation, drained wetlands, and dying grasslands when referencing agriculture. Yet the Canadian Organic Standard specifically states that “organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible.” This puts organic farmers in a unique and invaluable position as environmental stewards of some of the last large tracts of fertile land in the country.

Unfortunately, this noble mandate, while inspirational on paper, lacks the specific steps that organic farmers need to turn this goal into reality. It becomes necessary, then, for organic stewards to first turn inwards and understand the local, biogeoclimatic zone in which they operate. With this understanding, it becomes easier for farmers to recreate or retain habitat elements of the zone’s numerous ecosystems in order to bolster often dwindling populations of native species. At the same time, a knowledge of regional ecosystems allows organic operators to minimize farmer/wildlife conflict. The result is a scenario where farmers and wildlife form mutually beneficial relationships.

For example, many of the South Okanagan’s organic operations lie within the Bunchgrass biogeoclimatic zone (BG).  Very generally speaking, this zone is characterized by moderate winters, hot summers, and very little precipitation. Grasses are the dominant vegetation, interspersed with Rabbitbrush, Big sagebrush, and Antelope brush among others. The wildlife species native to this zone, including birds, bats, mammals, and insects, have evolved with the climate and resultant plant life and rely upon these ecosystems to fulfil certain life cycles. Agricultural plant species, on the other hand, are not part of this coevolution and, alone, can disrupt natural life cycles forcing some native populations to diminish and others to become perceived ‘pests’.

The good news: it is possible for organic farmers to coexist with native systems within the farmed environment without decreasing production goals. For instance, the South Okanagan is home to many snakes. The rattlesnake and gopher snake are some of the most well-known and misunderstood. Through persecution and habitat loss their numbers have dropped significantly. What many farmers fail to realize is that snakes, protected under the BC Wildlife Act, are an organic farmer’s friend for effective and ‘approved’ rodent control, so populations should be encouraged in a safe manner.

In the South Okanagan, rocky slopes are often used as denning sites. These should be maintained with a buffer of natural habitat. In order to prevent farmer/snake conflict, habitat hiding spots like piles of rocks or wooden boards can be created and placed away from busy work areas. If all else fails and conflict cannot be avoided, particularly with rattlesnakes, a farmer may opt to install snake barrier fencing.

Wetlands are also a vital element of the dry BG zone and support at-risk species like the Blotched tiger salamander and the Great Basin spadefoot toad. Healthy wetlands help farmers by reducing mosquito populations, recharging aquifers, and minimizing flooding to non-wetland areas. With over 85% of the Okanagan’s wetlands destroyed, farmers would be wise to protect them. Ensuring organic fungicides are applied on low wind days avoids negatively impacting amphibians. Exclusion fencing is a good first step for livestock operators and appropriate buffers with native plantings are also recommended in non-livestock settings. Wetland re-creation is another option in fields where wetlands have been drained.

Admittedly, many organic farmers, particularly those growing fruit, might be hard pressed to find room for a relationship with birds. Many birds, however, are voracious eaters of insects that are also detrimental to fruit crops. And, like other native species, numerous populations of native birds are on the decline due to human related habitat loss and competition from non-native species like the European starling. For these reasons, the Lewis’s woodpecker, found in the South Okanagan, is considered threatened. To encourage its comeback, large standing dead or live Ponderosa pine or Cottonwood trees should remain intact as they provide important habitat for this species (BOX). Ensuring that vineyard netting is tight and not hanging loosely will prevent stolen grapes and inadvertent bird catch. As a final incentive, Lewis’s woodpeckers, like all migratory birds, are protected under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act so meddling with this species and many others is considered illegal.

Of course, the tiny but mighty native pollinators should not be forgotten. Native species of bees, flies, moths, butterflies, and beetles are responsible for one of every three bites of food we take. Unfortunately, many of these populations are also on the decline. This is where native plants are especially important. In the South Okanagan, for example, the Mining bee is the first to emerge in the spring and benefits from Yarrow’s early bloom. As another example, the female Northern Checkerspot will lay her eggs on the underside of Rabbitbrush leaves. By planting a hedgerow or strip of native plants (or maintaining existing native habitat), organic farmers will help preserve species that are vital to crop success.

Obviously, many of these projects require some financial input. Additionally, learning this information requires time that many organic farmers simply do not have. Several communities and regions have stewardship societies with experts that will assist farmers in identifying critical habitat on their property. These groups are also aware of potential grants and other funding that can help fulfil conservation goals. Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship, Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, the Kootenay Conservation Program, the GOERT society on Vancouver Island, and the Environmental Farm Plan are great regional programs that farmers can access.

At the end of the day, organic farmers are also ecologists, managing the interrelationships of soil, water, plants, and animals to create a thriving, healthy operation. While the specific knowledge of local ecosystems may be new to some, it is likely that the nurturing of these ecosystem elements is a long time practice for many. Learning the details of a region’s biogeoclimatic zone is an extra step that will ensure the organic farmer is well on the way to fulfilling the organic standard’s mandate to protect Canada’s environment.

BIOGEOCLIMACTIC ZONE

BC is divided into 14 biogeoclimatic zones. Zones are large geographic areas with relatively uniform climate. They are named after 1, 2, or 3 of the dominant climax species. Spruce-Willow-Birch, Mountain Hemlock and Coastal Douglas-fir are some examples. Other provinces use different classification systems.

WILDLIFE PROTECTION

BC Wildlife Act: protects virtually all vertebrates from direct harm, except as allowed by regulations (e.g. hunting). Anyone who kills or harms an endangered or threated species can be fined $500,000 and three years in jail.

Migratory Birds Convention Act: federal legislation that protects all of Canada’s migratory birds, including their nests and eggs, unless allowed by regulations.

Large standing dead or live trees that provide valuable habitat for the conservation of wildlife are referred to as Wildlife Trees.


Tanya Brouwers is the Ecostudies coordinator for the Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance. She also is an organic verification officer and a farmer. For any questions related to this article or to book a workshop, email her at ecostudies@osca.org.

Photo: Keith Manders, rancher, helping Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship plant native trees and shrubs to enhance a riparian buffer (along Aeneas Creek) on Garnet Valley Ranch in Summerland. Credit: Okanagan Similkameen Stewardship

Annual Clovers Suitable for Organic Production System

in Ask an Expert/Crop Production/Fall 2017/Land Stewardship/Seeds

Saikat Kumar Basu

Clover is the common English name for different species of plants belonging to the genus Trifolium comprising over 250+ species distributed across the planet. These are legume plants that belong to the plant family Leguminaceae (Fabaceae) indicating these are plants capable of successfully fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Clover is commonly used as a pasture and/or forage crop and is usually highly palatable and nutritious for the standing livestock. Annual, biennial, and perennial species of clovers are reported across the planet and are treated as an important legume forage crop. Clovers are also called trefoil. Wild clovers are most common in the temperate Northern hemisphere but high altitude species are also common around the tropics.

Clovers usually have trifoliate leaves with dense spikes of small white, yellow, red or purple flowers. Clovers are known around the planet to be an excellent pollinator plant attracting diverse species of bees, beetles, moths and butterflies. Clovers are a low maintenance nitrogen fixing crop that produces abundant flowers and high quality seed under both irrigation and rain-fed conditions depending upon specie(s) or cultivar(s) used. They are successful under variable soil conditions including some acidic soil and are often used for reclamation purposes. They reduce the application of synthetic fertilizers on the farm and are hence economically viable. Clovers can be grown singly or in combinations with other cereal crops or forage crop like alfalfa as parts of mixed legume pastures. Clovers are of particular interest to organic farmers due to their suitability for the purpose of green composting.

Photo: Frosty Berseem Clover. Photo Credit: J.Hall

For organic green manure/nitrogen fixation purposes, these crops should be grown alone and either grazed or harvested as hay or alternately combined with soil post maturity (“plowed” down). If growing with a companion/cover crop as in with silage or with a cereal in an organic system, for Best Management Practices (BMP), kindly consider the following:

1. Plant the clover first—either broadcast and harrow pack or shallow plant with a seed drill to cover as much ground space as possible.

2. Wait 7-10 days to give the clover an opportunity to germinate (head start).

3. Plant the cover crop over top of the clover. Plant the cover crop at 40-60% of the normal planting rate.

4. While harvesting these crops for fodder, do not remove foliage below the lowest leaves (about 6 inches) or the crop cannot regrow. Additionally, once the crop flowers, it will have limited vegetative capacity so plan your management according.

5. Consider limit grazing the crop as it produces a mass of vegetation and animals will trample the crop and waste a lot of the forage.

6. Alternately, you can consider planting clover in alternate rows (for example two rows of cereal followed by one row of clover). This will work better with wider row spacing (like 10 inches).

Two new annual clovers, namely, FROSTY Berseem clover and FiXatioN Balansa clover have great potential for organic farmers in Western Canada. Both clover seeds are small (FiXatioN at 265,000 seeds/lb after coating); and are therefore extremely cost effective in comparison to traditional species like Crimson Clover and Hairy Vetch. Due to the smaller seed sizes, it is better to plant the crops shallow at approximately a quarter inch, to allow for optimum emergence. Both clovers are annual and function best as either a fall planting to overwinter or spring planting. These annual clovers are fall planted in several locations to allow a full productive crop the following spring. They both have excellent winter survival but can suffer from winter kill. It is advisable not to plant clover crops too early in the spring. The one exception might be in old alfalfa stands where later planting may affect the remnant alfalfa.

Photo: FiXatioN clover. Photo credit: J. Hall

FiXatioN Balansa Clover

FiXatioN is excellent high quality, annual, legume forage with low/no incidence of bloat and high amount of biomass production. Can be planted on its own or in combination with other forages. The crop can be planted on its own to produce high yields of quality legume forage and to fix nitrogen for subsequent cropping.

Post emergence, FiXatioN will have limited growth for 20-40 days as it develops a significant root system to then allow extensive dry matter growth. The crop will start out in a rosette stage and then grow both laterally and vertically. The lateral growth provides very good soil coverage and will often smoother other volunteer crops and weeds, making it a great tool for annual nitrogen fixation and weed control in an organic farming system.

The crop is excellent in nitrogen fixation. Trials conducted in Illinois and Oregon in the US has demonstrated 200 lbs N per acre. FiXatioN has deep taproot system breaking hardpans and scavenging soil nutrients; thereby accessing nutrients that are trapped deep in the soil and bringing them up to be available for subsequent crops. Root channels developed by the root system of the crop provide paths for water to penetrate deeper soil zones. It can be sown for the dual purpose of improving soil health along with the benefit of excellent annual legume forage. Plant 5-8 lbs/acre; 3-5 in mixes.

Frosty Berseem Clover

Frosty Berseem Clover can survive early season frosts; and can be planted on its own or with other forages (like alfalfa) resulting in high yield of quality forage legume for the purpose of harvesting or to graze. The salt tolerant crop has big tap root system and can fix nitrogen efficiently, scavenge nutrients, break up hardpan and also serve as an excellent pollinator crop. Can be planted as a cover crop for establishing alfalfa (10-20 % of mix), giving an opportunity for earlier cutting. Also works well to be planted with established alfalfa stands in either thin parts or bare patches. Frosty grazes well alone or in a variety of mixing options. Frosty can be used as key legume in your annual forage mixes or used as an emergency crop in years short of forage. Frosty is a well-grazed annual clover, with low bloat/no bloat legume (less filling). Plant 12-15 lbs/ acre, 5-7 in mixes.


Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation.

Acknowledgements: Grassland Oregon (USA) & Performance Seed (Canada)

Photo Credit: J. Hall

Ask an Expert: Pollinator Mix

in Ask an Expert/Land Stewardship/Seeds/Summer 2017

An Important Solution for Conservation of Bees and Other Insect Pollinators

Saikat Kumar Basu

Insects such as bees (Order-Hymenoptera), some species of flies (Order-Dipetra) and beetles (Order-Coleoptera), moths and butterflies (Order-Lepidoptera), under the Class-Insecta and Phylum-Arthropoda constitute an important army of natural pollinators that help in the process of pollination in several important crops and forest trees. Pollination is the process of transfer of pollen grains form anther (male reproductive organ) to the stigma (female reproductive) of the same flower (self-pollination) or a different flower (cross-pollination). Cross pollination is achieved either by non-biological agents like wind, air and water; or via biological agents like different species insects as mentioned above, mollusks (snails and slugs), some species of birds (such as humming birds) and animals (such as bats).

Unfortunately, the populations of insect pollinators like honey bees and native bees are showing drastic reduction over the past few decades due to parasitic diseases, over application of pesticides and other agro-chemicals in the agricultural fields, fluctuations in climatic regimes, ecological and environmental stresses, and lack of ideal foraging habitats for season long abundant food and nutrient supply to mention only a handful across the United States and Canada.

Diversity of native bee species in western Canada. Photo credit: S. Robinson

Over 700 native bee species have been reported in Canada with around 400 species located in Western Canada alone across various habitats and ecosystems. Since the native bee populations across Canada are going down drastically, serious, comprehensive, sustainable and environment-friendly efforts are necessary to successfully conserve bee populations (both native bees and honey bees) and thereby secure the future of Canadian agriculture and apiculture industries from a long term perspective.

Use of pollinator mix or bee mix by Canadian producers such as organic growers can help significantly in promoting the conservation of native bee and honey bee populations across the nation by establishing ideal bee habitats or bee sanctuaries. A pollinator mix is a specially designed seed mix of several annual and/or perennial species of native wild flowers and grasses or annual/perennial wild flower-forage crop mix that can flower over a long period of time and help bees and other insect pollinators by providing them with ideal habitats to forage and nest over an extended period of time.

Pollinator mix can be seeded along the fences of crop fields and ranches, along hard to rich area of the farms, unused or agriculturally unsuitable patches, uphill or downhill farm patches difficult to crop, or unused, undisturbed weedy patches along water bodies, along irrigation canals, low traffic and undisturbed parts of local parks or gardens, backyard kitchens or ideal spots of a hoe lawn, in and around golf courses, provincial parks and gardens.

Radish plot attracting native bees. Photo credit: S. K. Basu

Pollinator Mix rich in some annual/perennial forage legumes can also help organic producers to fix nitrogen and micro nutrient deficiencies of the soil, fix nitrogen, and help in building quality bee habitats for pollinator dependent crops like seed canola, seed alfalfa, tomatoes, berry crops, orchard, and forest trees to mention only a few. Creating ideal bee habitats or bee sanctuaries in long or short stretches or commercial production of pollinator mix by organic producers can significantly help the dwindling bee populations of Canada.

How can the Pollinator Mix be useful:

1. Protecting honey bees, native bees, and other insect pollinators, thus allowing pollinators to get established and thrive in their natural ecosystems and helping in the process of pollination.
2. Bee sanctuaries for cities, municipalities, golf courses, ranch, and pastureland or in unused or polluted areas not suitable for agronomic and real estate enterprises can generate green spaces helping secondary target species such as smaller birds and animals to thrive.
3. Bee sanctuaries can also serve as ideal bird habitats for birds such as ducks, geese, pheasants to visit, forage, nest, and hide from predators.
4. Better yield and environment for organic producers growing both pollinator dependent/independent crop systems.
5. Environmental stewardship and establishing better farm environment and environmentally sustainable farm practices for growing pollinator dependent crops by both organic farmers and conventional non-organic crop producers alike.
6. Replacing weedy patches in and around farm area and establishing ideal bee habitats or bee sanctuaries reduces the seasonal outbreak of weeds in the organically producing farm areas.
7. Enrichment in soil quality and soil nutrient profile vital for organic producers to secure quality crop production due to presence of legumes and soil fixers in the Pollinator mix.
8. Utilizing unused areas of farm, hard to reach areas, inaccessible locations, around fences, roadsides, boulevards, around shelter belts, undisturbed and unused parts of the farms, around water bodies, irrigation canals, lakes, ponds, ditches, and swamps could significantly contribute towards increasing the vulnerable Canadian native bee populations.
9. Establishing high quality and sustainable bee sanctuaries in and around pasture, rangelands, and ranches. Pollinator mix with higher proportion of pollinator-friendly forage seed mix could be grown within rangelands left fallow for a season and could be even grazed by animals later in the season when the flowering period is over.
10. Promoting sustainable agriculture.

Fig 4. Annual forage clover: An important forage pollinator species. Photo credit: S. K. Basu

List of some important wildflower species attracting bees and other insect pollinators:

  • Erigion (Flea bane)
  • Arnica (Wolf bane)
  • Aster conspicuus (Showy aster)
  • Gaillardia (Blanket flower)
  • Allium (Wild onion)
  • Asclepias (Milkweed)
  • Viccia sp. (Vetch)
  • Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod)
  • Chamerion (Fireweed)
  • Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
  • Delphinium (Larkspur)
  • Campanula (Hare bell)
  • Phacelia (Scorpion weed)
  • Dahlia purpurea (Prairie purple clover)
  • Helianthus annuus (Annual/Perennial Sunflower)
  • Borage officinals (Borage)
  • Aquilegia canadensis (Wild columbine)
  • Annual/Perennial Gaillardia sp.
  • Alyssum maritimum (Sweet Alyssum)
  • Myosotis sp. (Forget-Me-Not)
  • Nemophila menziesii (Baby Blue Eyes)
  • Tradescantia ohiensis (Ohio Spiderwort)
  • Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower)
  • Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan)

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, travelling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada & Performance Seed, Lethbridge, AB; email: saikat.basu@alumni.uleth.ca

Acknowledgement: Performance Seed (Lethbridge, AB), S. Robinson (UFC, Calgary, AB) & W. Cetzal-Ix (ITC, Campeche, Mexico)

Feature image: Bee foraging on wild flower. Photo credit: W. Cetzal-Ix

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