Establishing Cover Crops for Waterfowl on the Lower Fraser

Project by the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust

Location: Agricultural lands within the lower Fraser River delta (Municipality of Delta and City of Richmond)

For more information on this project, please contact Christine Terpsma, Program Co-ordinator, Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust, Delta, BC.

Purpose

The lower Fraser River delta (LFRD) is a critical migration node along the Pacific Flyway, and millions of migratory birds use its habitats as either a migration stopover or wintering site. Farmland in the LFRD provides annual feeding and resting habitat for a diversity of migratory birds, including waterfowl and shorebirds. Herbivorous waterfowl feed extensively on potato residues and hay and pasture grasses. Shorebirds feed on the invertebrates found in farm fields. Though waterfowl benefit from agricultural habitats, they can also impact the viability of farming operations by grazing off hay and pasture grasses, which consequently reduces the supply of feed for dairy and beef operations.

The LFRD is Canada’s most significant Important Bird Area, a RAMSAR site, and a priority area under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP). Establishing Cover Crops for Waterfowl on the Lower Fraser assists DF&WT’s Winter Cover Crop Stewardship Program, which establishes cost-share agreements with farmers in order to establish vegetative cover on fields before winter. Farmers engaged in this Stewardship Program plant cereal grasses, mixtures of legumes, or annual forage grasses as cover crops, which in turn provides feeding habitat for herbivorous waterfowl and shorebirds. Cover Crops mainly benefit herbivorous waterfowl, providing them with a protein-rich food source during staging and wintering periods. Cover crops also provide benefits to farmers, including luring waterfowl away from economically important hay and pasture crops, thereby mitigating overgrazing, which can impact the viability of local farms.

Long-term conservation impacts and benefits

This project is an integral part of a multi-stakeholder effort to support waterfowl populations and enhance soil conservation on agricultural land in the lower Fraser River delta. The Winter Cover Crop Stewardship Program was initiated in 1990 as a cooperative venture between local farmers, agriculture and wildlife agencies, and researchers from the University of British Columbia. Establishing Cover Crops for Waterfowl on the Lower Fraser is a continuation of over 20 years of agricultural stewardship, which directly enhances feeding and staging habitat for migratory waterfowl, wetland-associated species and migratory game birds. Although cover crop habitat is established within  a relatively short time period (April 1, 2016 – March 31, 2017), its long-term conservation impact is realized in the continued and sustained provision of 3,000 acres of high-quality upland habitat in an area that is critical to overwintering bird populations, yet is continually subject to pressures from competing land uses. Voluntary stewardship efforts of local farmers are critical to maintain farmland habitat in a manner that benefits migratory waterfowl.

New tools, methodologies, landscape practices or protocols

A new landscape practice implemented through this project involves the planting of novel cover crop mixtures, including (but not limited to) combinations of sorghum, clover, forage radish, sunflower, sugar beet, lentil and chick pea. Farmers will trial cover crop mixtures in order to maximize ground cover during heavy winter rains, and enhance soil organic matter accumulation. Planting cover crops in a mixture also provides an abundance of carbohydrate and protein-rich crops for the benefit of herbivorous waterfowl. In past years, farmers experimented with planting fields in pure stands of clover, a legume heavily grazed by waterfowl and also favoured by farmers because of its nitrogen-fixing ability. However because clover is sensitive to soil moisture and pH, in recent years, farmers and the Trust observed that some portions of farm fields seeded in pure clover (crimson and double cut red varieties) did not establish in a uniform manner. To achieve uniform establishment in 2016-17, farmers will experiment with novel cover crop mixtures. Cover crop mixtures can assist in breaking soil compaction, scavenge soil nutrients and encourage the presence of beneficial soil microorganisms. Cover crop mixtures also provide structural diversity within agricultural fields; songbirds forage upon abundant insect populations within cover cropped fields in the spring-summer seasons, and waterfowl forage on young leafy material that emerges shortly before their arrival in the fall. Farmers will continue to refine the management of several varieties of novel cover crops to enhance habitat value for waterfowl in 2016-17.

Stewardship

Through the Winter Cover Crop Stewardship Program, farmers become active participants in stewardship by directly enhancing agricultural habitat for migratory waterfowl, wetland-associated birds, and migratory game birds. Additionally, stewardship activities outlined in this proposal promote the long-term maintenance of soil resources by assisting farmers in re-building soil organic matter in fields, and mitigating damage to economically important hay and pasture crops.