Making a living off the land in Special Areas No. 2 has never been an easy prospect.
During the Dirty ’30s, farmers in this little pocket of southeast Alberta were among the hardest hit in the province.
And in a dry year, the area isn’t much better off today. There’s very little topsoil, very little rain, and the rocky soil isn’t really suited for farming.
But Dylan and Colleen Biggs of TK Ranch are making a living at it anyway — thanks, in part, to their long relationship with Ducks Unlimited Canada.
“Our whole management philosophy pivots on the idea that the more diversity we can encourage with our management, the more stability we’ll have,” said Dylan Biggs, who operates the 8,400-acre ranch near Hanna.
“You just have a healthier, more vibrant ecosystem when there’s diversity. And these Ducks Unlimited projects have created habitats that have that much more diversity.”
TK Ranch’s first Ducks Unlimited project dates back to 1957, when Biggs’ parents Tom and Mary undertook their first wetland conservation project. In the years since then, the Biggs’ family has partnered with Ducks Unlimited on four additional conservation projects, including dams and riparian areas that promote water retention, biodiversity, and productivity in the native grasses that border the projects.
“The wetland projects have been good for us in terms of holding water. It’s been a win-win over the years, that’s for sure,” said Biggs, who calves around 300 cows and finishes about 1,000 head of cattle on the native grasses covering his land.
“I guess their real benefit depends on how much you value water. Here of course, we value water tremendously.”
Biggs controls the timing and duration of access to these riparian areas for his cattle, delaying the bulk of his grazing in those areas until summer, when the grasses are more established.
“We either go in early and leave right away, or we don’t go in until later in July,” said Biggs.
“You certainly see a lot more growth with that kind of approach along the riparian habitat.”
It also ensures waterfowl have finished nesting by the time the cattle have started grazing, he added. Every year, the Biggs’ family defers grazing on around 30 per cent of their land during nesting season.
“Mostly, we’re just doing the best we can to manage our cattle to conserve nesting habitats for waterfowl and upland birds,” said Biggs. “With the habitat we’ve created, we end up with an incredible number of species of birds. If that habitat wasn’t there, you wouldn’t see that.”
Value in biodiversity
Farmers often underestimate the importance of waterfowl on their land, said Biggs. Birds can help with seed dispersal, pollination, and pest control — three important jobs on a ranch made up primarily of native grasses.
“We feel there’s value to biodiversity, so the biggest priority for us is trying to create biodiversity. Those riparian habitats are probably the most diverse areas in the grasslands,” said Biggs.
“Any time you can create more diversity and improve the productivity of the grasslands adjacent to your projects, it’s a good thing to do.”
For most farmers, the environmental benefits of wetland conservation are well known, said Darwin Chambers, Alberta’s head of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited Canada.
“Preserving wetlands and grasslands can promote biodiversity for waterfowl and wildlife,” said Chambers. “But wetlands can also add natural filters that improve water quality and quantity, while mitigating the effects of droughts and floods.
“I think those are all tangible benefits that can align with a producer’s operation.”
But what’s less well known among farmers is that conservation programs have changed a lot since those early days when Tom and Mary Biggs installed their first conservation project.
“We’re always evolving and meeting producers on an ever-changing landscape,” said Chambers.
Today, Ducks Unlimited Canada has four main programs for Alberta farmers: a forage diversion program that helps producers looking to convert annual cropland into perennial cover; a restoration program that promotes wetland re-establishment; a conservation easement program that retains habitats in perpetuity; and a revolving land conservation program, where Ducks Unlimited purchases a parcel of land, restores the wetland habitat, and sells the parcel back into the community with a conservation easement in place.
“There’s not one size fits all in conservation,” said Chambers. “Each producer has different goals, and each parcel has a different conservation value.”
Historically, Ducks Unlimited programs had stringent management restrictions in place, but that’s also changed over the years. Some restrictions have been lifted, and producers can also receive financial support from these programs.
“Producers need to shop around for options that can assist them with technical expertise or financial support,” said Chambers. “There are a lot of programs out there, and if you start digging around, you’ll find opportunities that will benefit you.”
These changes have led to a recent upswing in participation among producers, which has been absolutely vital for conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited.
“Conservation can only be done with the buy-in of landowners,” said Chambers. “Ultimately, they’re going to be the ones who make the management decisions that affect the land.”
And for ranchers like Biggs, wetland conservation just makes sense — both for the environment and for his bottom line.
“Any help producers can get surviving the financial challenges of the cattle business is a good thing,” said Biggs.
“For anyone who’s considering how to create a more stable environment for their livestock and land, there’s no doubt that a win-win scenario could be created by working with Ducks Unlimited.”