Survey explores link between birds, soil health


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The relationship between regenerative agriculture practices and benefits for at-risk prairie birds is being examined in avian surveys across Westman farms this summer.

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The relationship between regenerative agriculture practices and benefits for at-risk prairie birds is being examined in avian surveys across Westman farms this summer.

The Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA) is teaming up with the Manitoba Wildlife Branch of the provincial government and the Manitoba Important Bird Area program to explore the benefits of regenerative agriculture on four different farm operations, including in Strathclair, Clanwilliam, Shellmouth and Hartney.

The study will look at the soil health benefits of regenerative agriculture practices on dairy, forage/beef, grain and mixed farms owned by MFGA board members to obtain benchmarks on bird populations.

The Sprague’s pipit is protected under the Species at Risk Act federally. The bird’s Canadian population declined by 87 per cent since 1970. (File)

Each farm will be consulted beforehand as part of an information-gathering exercise during which the surveyors and landowners will be introduced and share on-farm knowledge and direction on survey areas, as well as information on the history of the management of the land and current practices.

Tim Poole, a species-at-risk biologist with the province, is leading the study, which will use point counts, a standard method of monitoring bird abundance.

“During a single point count, all birds present, either seen or heard, within a five-minute fixed time period are noted,” Poole said. The exact area selected for counting will be decided ahead of time in consultation with farmers, and the total number of points will be determined on a site-by-site basis during the monitoring period.

Data collected from the study will include a record of each species detected, number of individual birds, distance from observer and a breeding code. Any species detected or not detected during a timed count will be recorded to ensure each producer receives a full species list for their property.

The data can then be used to calculate the abundance of birds in a species per point count, Poole said.

“This data will be used to demonstrate the importance of different regenerative agricultural systems for various bird species.”

The survey will also look at how at-risk bird species as the bobolink and Sprague’s pipit are interacting with or responding to different regenerative agriculture practices.

The bobolink is losing habitat across Canada as more land is being used up for the production of grain and other crops. However, forage fields can be very beneficial to the birds, thanks to the cover it gives for nests full of eggs. Bobolinks are also at risk due to the increased use of pesticides, Nature Canada’s website says.

Protected under the Migratory Birds Conservation Act of 1994, the bobolink is also covered by wildlife acts that vary from province to province. Recovery goals currently include enhancing and maintaining the bird’s habitat and working with landowners as the MFGA is doing to promote practices such as planting winter wheat, which leads to nests going untouched until after the birds have no more need of them.

Sprague’s pipit is a songbird known for having the longest flight display of any other bird species. They fly 50 to 100 metres off the ground, circling their territory. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed the Sprague’s pipit as threatened, and it is protected under the Species at Risk Act federally. The bird’s Canadian population declined by four per cent per year between 1970 and 2019, adding up to an overall decline of 87 per cent over that time period, the Nature Conservancy of Canada says on its website.

Threats to the Sprague’s pipit include loss and fragmentation of their native prairie habitat, the use of pesticides and climate change. Because the species is so sensitive to habitat changes and requires large blocks of intact native grassland, they are a particularly useful indicator of prairie health.

Bird health is inextricably linked with soil health, MFGA executive director Duncan Morrison said. Practices such as covering land with perennial plants and cover crop is helpful because it offers safe places to nest and lots of habitat for insects.

“There are different micro-organisms, there’s a whole ecosystem below the surface,” Morrison said. “That’s what we’re really interested in following up on.”

Finding out how profitability is tied to soil health is also something the MFGA is interested in learning more about, Morrison said. Previous studies by the group show that using plant diversity helps to establish microbial diversity in soils, that soil health is improved by less tillage, that plants grown throughout the year feed soil microbes, and that keeping soil covered leads to reduced erosion.

Highlighting the benefits agriculture can have on the environment is another reason Morrison said the MFGA is keen to do studies and surveys focused on populations such as at-risk birds.

Farmers often get a bad rap for practices that are seen as less than environmentally friendly, such as the use of fossil fuels and pesticides. Weather and climate are influenced by agricultural practices, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s website states that by managing croplands and pastures, farmers influence a series of physical, chemical and biological interactions between the earth’s surface and atmosphere, which in turn affects air temperature and precipitation.

In 2018, agricultural activity — not including fossil fuel consumption — accounted for about eight and 31 per cent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada and Manitoba, respectively. Manitoba’s agricultural GHG emissions increased 43 per cent between 1990 and 2009 from 4,700 to 6,700 kilotonnes carbon dioxide equivalents. That number declined to 5,600 kt in 2011 but has since risen back up to 6,700 in 2018.

But a growing interest in regenerative agriculture means that farmers in Manitoba and across the country can feel better about how their operations impact the environment, Morrison said.

“There’s always negative stories around farming, but what we’re really looking for is the positives — if a particular farm is supporting a particular population of birds, for example,” he said. “That says that soil health boosting practices are absolutely instrumental in getting a better handle on the environment.”

If all goes well with the survey, Morrison is hopeful it will be just the first step in a larger leap toward expanding the MFGA’s reach. Details from the survey will be shared with producers and presented at the 2023 MFGA Regenerative Agriculture Conference.

“It’s step one of what we hope is 10 steps. We hope to expand and to really get a good handle on regenerative agriculture practices,” Morrison said.

The Sun contacted the provincial government and the Manitoba Important Bird Areas program but did not receive a reply by press time.


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