It’s Time to Have a Mature Discussion About Water Management

No, it’s not drainage. Not really.

Water management is far more than draining a few sloughs onto your neighbours.

What is the most important resource for our crops? Fertilizer? Crop protection products? Soil itself? Well, it’s hard to imagine a resource more important than water, especially in our semi-arid growing region in the Prairies.

Side note, the water we use for our crops isn’t lost, or wasted, or anything like that. Most of it goes right back up to the atmosphere as the plant evapotranspirates it away to cool itself and complete it’s basic processes. The rest ends up in the seed we process into our food.

So, all this is interesting and all, but, so what?

The reason I think it’s valuable to go through this little exercise is to highlight what it means to farm in an area without irrigation. We can’t give our crops this water. We depend on it to come from the sky. We manage our crops to be as efficient as possible in managing what’s often our biggest yield detriment: water. Too much, or not enough, or just timed wrong.

This year, we had both too much and not enough.

In late April of this spring, we received two feet of heavy, wet snow. I don’t know for sure, but I’d estimate we had three to four inches of rain in that one storm, while the ground was still mostly frozen. All that water ran off the fields, filling sloughs, potholes, anything that was somewhat lower ground, filled right to the brim. I’ve heard some folks say how great that must have been to have gotten all that moisture. Call me ungrateful, but that water did more harm than good for us. It filled our sloughs and kept them full past the end of seeding; making sure we couldn’t seed nearly 10% of our entire farm.

the need for drainage
Water laying on thousands of our acres, with no drainage outlet, on May 10, 2023.

Not only is our income zero off of those acres, but they cost us money. As they eventually dry up over many months (and years, for the big ones), we have to go in and spray them and disk them up to kill the weeds and get them into shape for seeding next year (hopefully). These acres are a huge cost to us.

I think it’s also important to mention the cost of excess rainfall on established crops, which we’ve seen in other years. Seven bushels of wheat per inch of rain is a good number to hit: that means we’re being efficient with our water usage. But when it’s wet, that metric collapses. Excess moisture not only decreases water use efficiency, it kills crops, especially environmentally friendly crops like peas and lentils. In 2022, excess spring moisture on one of our lentil fields caused root disease to nearly wipe the crop out, costing us more than $600 per acre in lost income.

Making things worse this spring, we turned extremely dry after seeding. On some of our land, we have only seen an inch of rain since planting. All the water the soil can hold isn’t enough to feed a crop all on its own – we need rain. And the best acres to handle this type of weather are the very acres we couldn’t seed.

The word “drainage” scares a lot of people. It sounds like big farmers draining their sloughs onto their neighbours. It sounds like draining important wetlands and depriving nature of valuable habitat. The reality is much, much different – if done right.

Too often, the fear of developing broad-based policy on drainage keeps us from doing anything at all. And yet, it may be the highest return on investment of anything else we do on our farm.

In this area, and I’m sure many others, it isn’t as simple as getting a permit from the Water Security Agency and digging a ditch. We have nowhere for the water to go. Period. We do not have a natural outlet. Developing this will cost tens of millions and will require agreement from hundreds of farmers, landowners, and municipalities. It’s not impossible, but it’s an enormous undertaking.

We constantly hear from our governments about how we need to reduce emissions. About how agriculture needs to do more to save the environment from climate change. So far, the Canadian government has asked us to reduce nitrogen fertilizer by 30%. They’ve asked us to seed cover crops, to invest in “climate smart” grain dryers, farm machinery, and solar panels. They’ve refocused scientists working at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to spend more time researching greenhouse gas emissions and climate change mitigation practices. They have barely even mentioned water management.

All these sloughs we couldn’t seed this spring will get disked before we can seed them again. On nearly 10% of our acres, that is a lot of land that is going to be giving off significant emissions after being worked up. In 2022, we lost hundreds of acres we seeded to overland flooding from excessive rainfall at the wrong time. All those fertilizer inputs were lost on those acres.

the need for drainage
Water laying on our and neighbour’s land, with no drainage outlet, May 15, 2023.

Reducing flooding will help reduce emissions. It will help improve farmers’ incomes. And it will not have much impact on wetlands – most of the potholes full of water dry up by summer anyway. They aren’t true sloughs. With a real strategy, we could build permanent wetlands and drain into them. This would address the real need for wetlands for wildlife habitat while simultaneously improving crop yield stability for certain areas of the Prairies, like mine. There would be value in government programming and financing for projects like this – projects that will do far more to address emissions than a flat 30% reduction in fertilizer emissions ever will, while also increasing overall agricultural production.

The world needs more Canadian grains. The world needs more food coming from places with clean air, clean water, and clean soils. The Prairies are that place.

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