Conservationists and agriculturalists frequently have butted heads in modern times, over the environmental effects of livestock production.
There’s no shortage of reports that accuse the livestock industry of contributing to climate change, degrading the landscape, polluting the water and generally messing up the ecosystem. Some of those concerns are real.
But the people who care about native prairie birds and the people who produce cattle have been talking lately — and they’ve found some common ground, right here in Manitoba.
A set of four initiatives announced last week will devote $1.2 million to keeping both on the landscape — by helping cattle ranchers stay in business.
A large chunk of that money will go to projects under the federally funded Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands program that will support voluntary, "habitat enhancement actions" by beef producers.
Other projects in the program will help southwestern Manitoba conservation districts support burrowing owl nesting and develop best-management practices for encouraging targeted species. Farmers will be asked to consider how their management practices affect species at risk when they participate in the provincial environmental farm plan process.
Cattle producers on eligible lands can receive up to $10,000 per quarter section, to a maximum of $50,000 per farm, to help develop rotational grazing systems, restore native pastures, control invasive woody species and do a better job of managing water.
These projects combine the efforts of government, conservation NGOs and private industry. Not only do they make these cattle operations more viable, they will help protect the last remaining grasslands that once covered the great plains of North America.
Christian Artuso, Manitoba program manager of Bird Studies Canada, said it’s the best hope conservation organizations have of saving grassland bird species such as the burrowing owl, Baird’s sparrow, and Sprague’s pipit, some of which have seen population declines of 90 per cent due mainly to habitat loss.
These species don’t just need grass, many need grazed grass in order to thrive.
Cattle produced under carefully managed grazing systems are a suitable substitute for the herds of bison that once roamed the plains. Modern rotational grazing systems mimic the short periods of intense grazing pressure followed by long periods of rest that characterized the effect of herds constantly moving over a vast geographical area.
"The prairie has been carved up," Artuso said. "There’s not much of it left, to be honest. Depending on whether you are talking about tall grass, mixed grass or short grass, it’s all less than 10 per cent of its former extent."
Most of what remains is in private hands under cattle production. Both the number of cattle producers and the number of cattle in Manitoba’s herd has been declining.
"If their land gets converted to other land use types, we’re losing. We cannot afford to lose any more grass, so No. 1 is to keep the cattle ranchers in cattle ranching; keeping the grazing as a process active on the landscape is very important," Artuso said.
Tim Sopuck, CEO of the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp., said the cow-calf sector is now recognized in the conservation movement as being part of the solution when it comes to saving endangered species. His organization will be working with Manitoba Beef Producers to deliver the program.
"This industry is of strategic importance and the more that we do help this industry grow, the more habitat we’ll have," Sopuck said.
It’s not just the birds and the cows that benefit. Perennial ground cover protects land from erosion. It is also increasingly seen as an important flood protection because it slows the flow of water across the landscape.
"This is exciting because it’s the first program I’ve seen where it’s not about displacing agriculture to achieve societal benefits, this is about how productive, efficient cattle production can actually lead to these societal benefits and these environmental objectives," said Brian Lemon, executive producer of the Manitoba Beef Producers. "So it’s a fundamental shift."
Laura Rance is editorial director for Farm Business Communications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 204-792-4382