In praise of water, and beavers

The water cycle in agriculture is broken

It frustrates me as I travel around the country witnessing how human nature can be so misguided. Sometimes we can be short sighted and forget that we need to look at the big picture. Even though we mean no harm, some of our agricultural practices can cause more damage than we think. Today, I would like to discuss water; in particular, the water cycle and the health of our riparian areas.

The problem that we have in agriculture is that the water cycle is generally broken.  Let’s look at our fields or pastures at a microscopic level when it rains. Without a protective layer on the surface of the soil, a raindrop comes hurtling to the ground and impacts the soil. It is like a small explosion that destroys the soil structure by breaking apart the aggregates. This damage causes soil capping that leaves a smooth surface that the next raindrop can’t penetrate. The rain no longer has anywhere to go, so it runs off.  As it runs off of the land, it takes with it the best parts of the damaged aggregates; our valuable humus is washed away.

What moisture did get into the soil is now vulnerable to evaporation. The moisture in the soil does not work by gravity. It actually works by diffusion. This is a movement from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration (wet to dry). If the top layer of soil’s moisture is evaporated by the sun and the wind, the lower moisture will then move up to the drier area. It will then begin to evaporate and more moisture will move up. Suddenly our water cycle has been reversed. As this moisture moves up through the soil and evaporates, it can also bring with it unwanted salts that can be detrimental to growth.

With a healthy water system, our water bodies will evaporate and the moisture will rise up and form clouds. These clouds will then get dense enough to form precipitation and fall back to the ground as rain. Here we need the rain to soak into the soil and infiltrate through the soil to again replenish the water bodies from which moisture can again evaporate.

So how do we stop this unhealthy cycle?  Leave more residue. We need to make sure that the first raindrop cannot hit the exposed soil. It needs to land on live or dead plant material, as that raindrop will then break apart and soak into the soil without damaging the soil structure. If the soil is in good health, the organic matter will hold on to the moisture. Excess moisture will infiltrate down into the soil and away to larger bodies of water, thus filling them from the bottom and not from run-off.

I believe that in the future, water is going to be a very valuable resource. Ask anyone from California. Holding on to water and protecting riparian areas will be an important part of maintaining our ecosystems and our industry. If this means that water bodies and ponds appear on our land, so be it. This is a good thing. In a lot of agricultural practices, we end up destroying these riparian areas in the name of profit.

The most limiting factor we have in many areas is water.  To produce a crop, you need upwards of 200 times more water than you need nitrogen. Which do you think is a more important nutrient? It frustrates me when I see grain farmers ditching their fields to drain away wet areas. Yes, we get to farm a few more acres, but at what cost?  How much flooding occurs downstream because of it? How much topsoil is washed away with it? How many riparian areas are destroyed? How much biodiversity is lost?

Do you know who is responsible for most of the biodiversity in this country?  Long before we were ever here, it was our friendly, hard-working beaver, that’s who!  This country was built by the beaver long before the fur trade depleted their numbers. To make a home, he backs up water, causing his environment to flourish in biodiversity because all life needs water. Plants, animals, fungi, insects and birds all rely on water and thanks to the beaver, they can all thrive within abundant riparian areas.

Each ecosystem relies on the other and it all starts with water. It aggravates me when we decide that the beaver stands in the way of industry. First off, the beaver were here first. Secondly, his job is more important than ours. He created the environment that allows agriculture to prosper. Thirdly, water is a very valuable resource. If he provides more for you, you should be thanking him.

The most common issue I see is when a beaver affects a road. Let’s address the problem, not the symptom. Fix or change the road. The beaver is building biodiversity, the road is in his way. We need to work with him, not against him. The other common argument against the beaver is that he cuts down all of the trees. Well, the 10 or 15 acres of trees he removes to build his home, would not be such a big deal if it wasn’t for the fact that the rest of the land was already bulldozed and has lost most of its trees. Maybe it was not you personally who cleared the land, but it was most likely done before your time by someone.

I know that some folks will be offended by this article as we have all grown up fighting against the beaver, hunting him, and cussing him. It is a paradigm, but just for a moment, sit back and think about what this country would be like without him.

I am not saying that we never have to manage the beaver. Environments can get out of balance (usually caused by humans), predators are sometimes scared off and we might need to rebalance the system again. But if we do, we need to figure out how to work with the beaver and allow him to do his job as well as letting us do ours. All relationships need to be win-win.

I believe fresh water is the most precious resource we have on earth. It should be the No. 1 nutrient you should be trying to manage. Without it, agriculture will cease. Try to build your soil and rebuild a healthy water cycle. The sustainability of agriculture depends on it.

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta.

Tagged , , , , , , ,
  • Joe Widdup

    So biodiversity is an issue of importance to you? Well in western Canada, our land was subjected to a glaciation period in recent geological history. The plants that took back the land when the glaciers receded are mostly a mixture of primary colonizers. Weedy species with little biodiversity and little value. There is more biodiversity in some square miles of rainforest than in the whole of the country of Canada .

    We need to grow food to feed people. If given the choice we should protect the actual areas of biodiversity in the world and turn the rest into farmland. If you actually care about biodiversity, the best thing you could do is bulldoze flat the prairies and grow food crops from corner to corner.

    I spend my ecotourism dollars traveling to actual bio diverse areas to encourage preservation of those areas. I improve my land, ripping out the weedy popular and birch trees so the beavers do not have habitat. My conscience is clear because in this case I am supporting the environment where it counts. And where it counts is not here.

  • Kate

    40% of food in Canada and world wide is wasted. Additional acres are used for non-food like truck fuel. Much starvation happens when farmers are displaced off their land to make way for export crops like carnations. This idea of “feeding the world” is just propaganda to get you to over produce and keep the price low. Don’t fall for it. Leave a few acres for the beaver so we can keep Canada’s water cycle working.

    • Joe Widdup

      Food waste is an issue, but not nearly as important as you suggest in the first world. Proper storage cuts losses significantly. Outlawing sell by dates and best-before-dates on non perishable food items would be a good start. It would actually be good for the environment too.

      We don’t grow food to feed the world. We grow crops as a business. Food, fuel,industrial plastic feedstocks, pharmaceutical precursors, ornamental…. It makes little difference to me.

      Agreed that Ag is not short of the ability to produce more. Starvation is a systems failure, be it of corrupt/incompetent government or war.

  • Joe Widdup

    This article is overlooking the most important part of our water cycle in the Prairies, transpiration. Water evaporating from small standing water bodies is not very significant in the bigger picture. Evaporation is a passive event depending on sunlight and wind. Transpiration is an active biological process that we farmers try to increase in mass and efficiency. A health and actively growing crop releases more water into the air than a little bit of surface evaporation. The suggestion that evaporated surface water provides any sort of meaningful stabilizing effect on our rainfall patterns is absurd. We are dependent on water cycling from transpiration and water from oceanic evaporation.

    In an effort to grow healthier crops, I need to provide CO2 and O2 to the roots of my plants. To do this I drain away high water tables. Crops will drown in saturated soils. The plants are then able to send down roots and pull water up. The roots break up the soil structure, increase infiltration rates and bind soil particles. Rain that falls tends to infiltrate in rather than run off.

    Your silly “appeal to nature” argument is a simple logical fallacy. As farmers and resource managers most of us see the importance of optimizing the system. Nature is not optimal for food production.

  • David Bonli

    Thanks Joe for setting me straight. I hate to think of all the classroom hours I wasted years ago, listening to rangeland and forest ecology professors drone on about the ” rich biodiversity” of prairie grassland and aspen parkland. Obviously they didn’t comprehend the fact that ten to twelve thousand years, post-glaciation, is only enough time to introduce “weedy” species. And those pangs of guilt I’ve had draining a slough or knocking down a bluff to square up a field – just beating myself up thinking I was trying to make an extra buck when really I was feeding poor starving babies. Clear it fenceline to fenceline and drain ‘er all, then save the world lying on a beach in Costa Rica waiting for the environmental stewardship awards to roll in. Sounds like a plan. Kinda makes a guy want to drive out and shoot a few burrowing owls just for good measure. Just nests taking up good durum ground, and its not as though they’re contributing to real biodiversity like some Amazonan parrot, right Joe?

    • Joe Widdup

      I wasted some of those hours in listening to ecology profs too (UofS Ag grad here). Only later did I realize how little we have of value here. Its not only here, many areas also lack meaningful biodiversity. Much of the biodiversity we see is already artificial (the beloved earthworms are introduced, and while good for our soils in the south, they are destructive pests to the boreal forest). Most populated areas of the world are already stripped of their diversity. Mayan clear cutting of forests for fuel or Khmer clearing of forests for rice paddies centuries ago has left the world with few areas of truly important biodiversity. These areas need to be protected from development (often oil palm). Pretending we are in the same category as undeveloped SE Australasian jungle or Amazonian rain forest serves nobody.

      In Canada we have vast preserved areas of land. They serve an important service as recreational areas, but double as wilderness preserves. Canada has more preserved areas that any other country (I acknowledge that many of these areas are nearly inaccessible so its easy for us to be #1). Wildlife can be left in these areas to continue its evolutionary course.

      It, however, should be noted that the natural evolutionary course often leads to extinction. Burrowing owls should probably be left to their own future. They have enough support from preserved lands and intrusive legislation. Burrowing owls are not exactly unique either. I have seen a similar species that burrows in the lava flow fissures in the Galapagos Islands. If you want to argue against supporting a particular species, I would suggest allowing the extinction of Pandas. Pandas are a huge waste of conservation resources. Resources are limited and we have to carefully consider where to allocate them.

      Suggested Reading – Whole Earth Discipline an Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand. Its about making better environmental choices.

COPA Medallion COPA finalist in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
©2018 AGCanada is a production of Glacier FarmMedia Limited Partnership. Any affiliated or third party content is the property of its respective owner and is used with permission.
Please refer to Copyright Page for details.
Click here to view our Website Terms of Use.