Building Strength Through Biodiversity: How Can Farmers Cash In?

Written by Cecilia Stuart

Regardless of size or location, farms are closely connected to their surrounding environment—through the soil, water systems, insects and wildlife. All organisms within an ecosystem depend on each other, and the healthiest ecosystems contain a wide range of species that interact in diverse and mutually beneficial ways. Biodiversity refers to the variety of plants, animals and microorganisms present in an ecosystem. 

Agro-biodiversity tries to mimic natural species diversity by increasing the variety of crops and other organisms in a single farming system. It offers farmers many useful tools to improve soil health and reduce reliance on inputs without sacrificing profits. Having more species working together creates more stable farming systems that are resilient against harsh conditions like severe weather, pests and disease.

Climate change is posing new challenges to Canadian farmers—severe and unpredictable weather has made growing more difficult than ever. It’s important that plants and soil are resilient to these conditions so that farmers can keep their businesses, feed their communities and continue to see profits. 

By providing ways to enhance insect, weed and disease control and improve soil health naturally, agro-biodiversity allows farmers to save on input and labour costs while creating new revenue streams and spreading out economic risk. Biodiversity is critically important to organic farming systems as farmers work to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds without the use of synthetic inputs.

In this article, we’ll cover a few key practices you can use to boost biodiversity on your farm.

Crop Diversification

Crop diversification refers to growing more than one crop in the same farm system. It has many benefits for farmers, including:

  • Breaking weed and disease cycles
  • Improving soil health, thereby reducing erosion and conserving moisture
  • Reducing the need for inputs by increasing the amount and variety of pest-fighting microbes in the soil
  • Creating new market opportunities through the introduction of new crops

Diversification is like insurance against crop failure—even if one crop fails to meet yield targets, farmers can continue to run their businesses. It also has added benefits of reducing environmental harm by sequestering carbon in the soil. 

A simple way to experiment with crop diversification is to add a small grain crop like wheat, barley, oats or rye to a rotation that already includes corn and/or beans. Small grains can play many roles in a farm system—they can be sold as main crops, used as a feed or grown as cover crops to reduce weeds between growing seasons and boost cash crop yields. 

For more information on how to introduce small grains to your farm and the state of the Ontario market, check out this webinar from EFAO’s annual conference. EFAO also has a Small Grains Program that provides financial support to farmers interested in diversifying their crop rotation by adding a small grain crop followed by a legume cover crop or forage crop. It offers payments of up to $40 per acre up to 100 acres as well as training and support for small grains production and marketing. To learn more, visit the EFAO website.

Intercropping

Intercropping means growing two or more crops in the same field at the same time, and takes inspiration from the fact that plants rarely grow alone in nature. Intercropping can result in mutual benefits like smothering weeds, enriching soil fertility and more.

Indigenous farmers have practiced intercropping across Turtle Island for thousands of years. One example of this is the intercropping of the Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash. When grown alongside each other, the cornstalk acts as a trellis for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen and stabilize the corn in high winds, and the squash’s broad leaves and deep roots keep water in the soil and discourage weed growth.

Intercropping boosts yield sustainability by ensuring that an entire field is not vulnerable to one pest or disease. There is also evidence that it can lead to higher overall yields. Research from Western Canada shows that some combinations of crops like canola and peas  may have mutual benefits when grown together, such as Nitrogen transfer between pulse crops and non-Nitrogen fixing crops and increased Nitrogen fixing in the legume plant. Researchers in Manitoba are also testing combinations like corn and soybeans or chickpea and flax.

Research centres like South East Research Farm in Redvers, SK are doing additional research to meet the growing demand for practical information about intercropping. Current research conducted through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership in Saskatchewan is trying to answer: which crop species and varieties grow well together? Can intercrops reduce the need for fungicides or other pest control products? How dense should plants be? Is it better to plant crops in separate rows? 

This presentation from South East Research Farm offers some additional insights into challenges and best practices for intercropping pulses and oilseeds and includes guidance on how to begin intercropping chickpeas and flax or green lentils and mustard. This article explores some solutions for post-harvest separation and storage focused specifically on large-scale intercropping.

Crop Rotation

Most farmers are familiar with crop rotation—the practice of planting different crops sequentially on the same plot of land to improve soil health and combat pest and weed pressure. Planting corn, wheat and beans one after another is a common three-year crop rotation cycle. But crop rotations can employ a wide variety of crops including oats, peas, root vegetables, brassicas, salad greens, herbs, squash and more. There is no limit on the duration of a rotation cycle, with most being under eight years.

Planting the same crop in the same field yearly puts the crops and the farmer at a disadvantage: the crop draws the same nutrients from the soil each year, eventually depleting the stock, causing diseases and pests to easily take hold.

Crop rotation interrupts this cycle and improves soil health and fertility by increasing organic biomass from different crops’ root structures and enhancing microbial activity. Life in the soil thrives on variety, and beneficial insects and pollinators are also attracted to the variety above ground. Crop rotations usually result in yields 10-15 percent higher than the same crop grown in monoculture settings.

The most basic crop rotation cycles through three types of crops: cultivated row crops, close-growing grains, and rest crops (including cover crops and green manure). This model can be tailored to individual and regional circumstances, and it is generally suggested that farmers incorporate as much diversity as possible for better results.

This webinar from EFAO’s annual conference, while focused on cover cropping, provides some great tips for beginners looking to experiment with crop rotations ranging from four to seven years (including cover crops and green manure). 

Having a strong crop rotation is a key part of obtaining organic certification in Canada, and there are several programs that offer financial support to farmers in the midst of transition to an organic system. To learn more, check out COG’s Growing Eastern Ontario Organically program and COTA’s Organic Conversion Support Program.

Cover Cropping

Cover crops are meant to improve soil health by boosting soil nutrients and organic matter, managing pest populations, reducing erosion and more.

Some cover crops, like sunflowers, can be harvested and sold. Others are used for grazing or forage, or turned into the soil as green manure. Cover crops can be used in place of synthetic fertilizers and/or chemical pesticides—an effective and climate-friendly way to reduce input costs. Additionally, having something growing in the ground year-round allows farmers to sequester more carbon and support greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

A series of long-term studies in southern Ontario recently showed that cover cropping consistently increases soil organic matter and leads to higher yields of soybeans and corn. Researchers experimented with cover cropping oats, cereal rye, radishes and a combination of rye and radish paired with a combination of vegetables and cash crops.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba and the Ontario Cover Crop Steering Committee recently shared the results from their 2020 Ontario Cover Crop Feedback Survey, which showed that 91 percent of 520 respondents saw benefits from cover cropping, including improved soil health, reduced erosion and more soil organic matter.

Ongoing research is demonstrating growing interest in cover cropping and making the case to fund future research and policy development in Canada. An example is initiative in the Main Bayfield, Bayfield North and South Gullies watersheds that provides up to $30 per acre (up to 100 acres) to farmers who experiment with cover cropping as part of a plan to improve water quality in the area.

You can learn more about common types of cover crops here and find a tool that helps you make decisions about which crops to plant here.

Rotational Grazing

Most pastures are continuously grazed, meaning that livestock has access to one or a few large fields all year round. Continuous grazing often results in low forage yields since the plants in the pasture are not given time to recover and the soil is continually compacted. As a result, farmers may have trouble relying on pastures as a main food source and need to supplement with additional feed.

Unlike continuous grazing, rotational grazing separates land into smaller paddocks that livestock can regularly cycle through. This puts high pressure on a single paddock for just a short period of time (usually one to three days) before it is given a long period of rest time to allow plants to regrow and deepen their root systems. Time in a single paddock should not exceed five days. In five days, grasses will begin to regrow, and having livestock eat the regrowth before it is established will prevent the pasture from flourishing. However, farmers should generally base rotational patterns on the rate of plant growth, which will differ from season to season.

It is recommended to have at least ten paddocks for every group of animals you have, although having 20-30 paddocks per animal herd will net the greatest performance for both the animals and the pasture. Although this may seem like a lot of paddocks, most of them can be made with electric fencing. With the right planning, results can be achieved with light and movable fencing.

Rotational grazing offers significant benefits to farmers. In addition to cutting feed costs, it can also save time if paddocks are arranged effectively (roughly 15 minutes per day versus manual livestock feeding, which can take upwards of an hour every day). It also balances the ecosystem, improving biodiversity and reducing weed growth due to overgrazing. It can also reduce erosion and boost soil organic matter.

Additional Practices

We’ve covered some of the most common ways to increase on-farm biodiversity, but there are many more techniques and tools that can help you reap the benefits of a diversified farming system.

  • Reducing tillage minimizes soil disturbance, which increases soil organic matter and improves fertility, nutrient cycling and storage—all leading to greater crop yields. 
  • Seeding into stubble decreases soil disturbance and increases soil organic matter while discouraging weed growth.
  • Maintaining or increasing the amount of non-crop, undisturbed land (such as hedgerows, forests and prairie strips) on your farm creates more natural habitat space, attracting more species that bring benefits like pollination and insect control. This land can also act as a travel corridor for wildlife to move safely between habitats.
  • Some threatened grassland bird species like the bobolink rely on hayfields for nesting. Haying during nesting season (mid-May to mid-July) can destroy nests or leave young birds vulnerable to predators. There are a number of management practices that farmers can use to help protect the bird populations, including early or late haying.
  • Limiting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers reduces harmful effects on non-target organisms and prevents chemical pollution. Scientific research shows that organic farms typically have more biodiversity than conventional farms due to organic farming’s focus on eliminating chemical inputs and increasing crop diversity   

All of these practices can work together to increase the resilience of the farm ecosystem, which means improved stability even in the face of unpredictable growing conditions.

Putting It All Together

Many biodiversity-boosting practices are easy to implement and effective at increasing farm resilience and profitability while countering the negative effects of climate change. They are a valuable tool for farmers who want to adapt to the realities of climate change and work to mitigate future damage.

Soil health is at the heart of all of this work. Healthier soils grow more resilient crops that can capture and store more carbon from the atmosphere. Improving soil health, one of the key tenets of regenerative and organic agriculture, is both a climate solution and an economic boon for farmers. To read more about regenerative and organic agriculture and climate change, check out our post on alternatives to nitrogen fertilizer (coming soon)

There’s no doubt that farmers have the creativity and skill to experiment with new practices that benefit their farms, communities and local environments. Organic farming either encourages or requires many of the practices outlined above as part of a holistic approach to protecting the environment and encouraging sustainability. To learn more about organic certification requirements in Canada, visit our page on Canada’s Organic Standards. To find grants or financial support that can help you transition to an organic farming system, check out our Organic Climate Solutions resource library.

This knowledge article is part of our Organic Climate Solutions campaign. Check out OCO’s Organic Climate Solutions campaign, funded in part by the Government of Canada, to learn more about how farmers can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and be part of the climate solution.

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