Drought is a four-letter word in Alberta right now — but also proof that it’s critical to make the most of any moisture we get.
“If we’re getting the types of rain we normally get, water infiltration probably isn’t that big of a deal,” said Ken Lewis, conservation co-ordinator with Red Deer County.
“But in a year like this, when we’re not getting a lot of rainfall, you want the pasture to capture every bit of moisture that we do get.”
That often boils down to better management.
“Some of the management practices we’re using are making it difficult for the soil to really capture the water that comes down,” said Aimee Delaney, conservation assistant with the county.
The county — along with Clearwater County and Alberta Agriculture — recently showcased a brand new system that demonstrates how much water infiltration and run-off results from different management practices. The tool simulates water infiltration and run-off from a typical rainfall of about one inch on five small patches of land. These land samples mimic what you might find on an average Alberta farm: natural forest, conventional till stubble, lightly grazed, heavily grazed, and riparian (or wetland).
In fact, all of the samples came from the same farm (within 50 feet of each other, in some cases), so the differences in water infiltration and run-off came down to management practices — not soil or regional variations.
The differences became very clear very quickly during the short demonstration.
Natural forest had the least run-off and the best water infiltration, followed closely by the riparian and the slightly grazed lands, said Lewis.
“In the lightly grazed example, where there’s very little run-off, all the water is getting captured by the land, and the plants are able to use it.”
The heavily grazed land had poor water infiltration and a significant amount of run-off — more than twice as much as the lightly grazed land.
“The soil is so compacted that it’s just not soaking in the way we would hope,” said Delaney.
But the conventionally tilled lands fared worst, both with increased run-off and a higher level of sediment in the water.
“It’s vastly different,” said Delaney. “With conventional tillage, there’s a lot of run-off and the colour of it is very dark, so that’s telling us that a lot of the soil is washing away with any rainstorm that happens.”
That shows the benefit of low or no tillage, Lewis added.
“It affects how much run-off we’re seeing if there’s more ground cover and litter in the fields,” he said.
The demonstration was a real eye-opener for Allison Ammeter, who was on the tour.
“We’re a minimum-till to zero-till farm, and we really believe in the process,” said Ammeter, who farms with husband Mike near Sylvan Lake. “I want my great-great-grandchildren to be able to farm if they want to, and the only way that’s going to happen is if we do a few things right, right now.
“We carry that through to everything we do. And I think we’d have a lot more water problems if we weren’t zero till.”
This new demonstration tool is a tangible way to show the difference between those management practices, Lewis added.
“This is a great way to see what happens in the real world when your fields are overgrazed and the soil is extra compacted,” he said. “If a bunch of the moisture that we’re getting is running off, that’s no good for your pasture and it’s no good for your cows.
“It gets the wheels turning on the little tweaks people can do to their management.”
For producers who are thinking about how to improve their pasture and water management, Red Deer County and several other counties offer financial support through the ALUS program, which can help pay for the upfront costs of conservation projects and ongoing maintenance of the land.
“This tool can help us see what a difference management makes on individual pastures — but take that across a million acres in Red Deer County and think about what a difference that would mean for water in the landscape,” said Lewis. “How we manage the land impacts how much water is going into the land — on a small localized scale, but on a big scale too.
“This unit helps drive that point home.”