It was a simple equation for Al Ayotte. It was a dry 2020 summer, and water was seeping out of his sandy-soiled pasture into a drain and flowing off his property.
“It doesn’t make sense, and it gets me mad,” he said.
“Let’s go reverse. Let’s pile up some water and let the water go back in the ground,” said Ayotte. “More moisture, more grass.”
Between cattle farming and custom grazing, grass is money for Ayotte.
He built the first dam himself, essentially an excavator scoop of sod and cattails that created a 10- or 12-inch barrier. Then he turned to Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District (SRRWD) for help and funding, and built two more.
Drought 2021 is the project’s first test.
Dam it all
Ayotte raises cattle and custom grazes between Ridgeville and Tolstoi in the RM of Emerson-Franklin. The sandy-soiled area has the greatest drought risk of the region, said SRRWD district manager Jodi Goerzen.
A tributary of the Roseau River runs through Ayotte’s pasture, bringing water from the Gardenton Swamp. Ayotte and SRRWD have built three successive dams along the tributary.
The dams are fairly simple — dirt with rocks and gravel piled on top, sloped on one side as a ‘runway.’ There’s no culvert. If the water gets high enough, it can flow over and down to the next checkpoint dam.
This spring, that’s what happened. Water backed up onto his land and filled the ditch. It collected rains along the way, and was full to the top near the end of June. Now it’s down to a trickle, but there was water above the first dam on July 9.
The last rain, about two inches, took three days to flow from the Gardenton Swamp to Ayotte’s land, but once it arrived it never left, he said. The water never reached the top of the third dam.
No doubt about it, the pastures and forage stand around are dry and browning up. Ayotte predicts he’ll produce 500 fewer bales than usual — bales he’d usually sell.
However, the dams are doing their job. Ayotte said the pastures along the ditch are greener than they would be.
“Even if it just stretched me two weeks, maybe,” he said.
The dugout nearest the drain was right full near the end of June. A field of oats along where water had backed up is green and heading out.
“That might end up being a third of my feed,” Ayotte said.
“Al’s sort of our experiment,” said Goerzen. “This is the first one we’ve done with the drought protection in mind... Al’s doing the applied research.”
Slowing and saving
This year, Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC) doled out $5.5 million to 12 watershed districts through the Conservation Trust, GROW Trust and Wetlands GROW Trust, all provincial endowments shepherded by MHHC and the Winnipeg Foundation.
The funds will go toward new land and water conservation projects, the organization announced June 28.
“Many of these projects will be done because farmers are saying, ‘hey, it’s a good idea to have some water,’” said Tim Sopuck, MHHC’s CEO.
These may include dikes and dams at a farm scale, perhaps only holding back a few acres of water, said Sopuck. Landowners might also decide to restore wetlands — essentially plugging ditches that were dug to drain historic wetlands.
Livestock producers are more likely to take on water retention projects, said Sopuck.
In SRRWD, retention projects are usually temporary or seasonal water storage, said Goerzen. However, after a few dry years and consistently variable weather, they’re also seeing retention projects provide some drought protection.
Planning can be similar for flood and drought protection, Goerzen said.
“I think that we’re in a perfect position to address a lot of the needs and meet a lot of the needs that are coming up on the farm right now,” she said. “Water security, it’s huge. Everyone says the only thing that’s worse than too much water is not enough.”
In the steep topography of the Inter-Mountain Watershed District, between the high points of Riding Mountain and Duck Mountain, retention projects are about slowing down water, said general manager Jeff Thiele.
After rain events, water gathers a lot of speed flowing down the area’s steep slopes and regularly washes out roads. They’ve even had washouts in this drought year, said Thiele.
With the approximately $400,000 from the GROW Trust, they will build another eight to 10 dams to slow down peak flows. It’s pre-emptive work in this dry year for run-off events to come.
In some cases, it may also hold useful water on the land for livestock owners, said Thiele. It’s more of a beneficial side-effect.
On Sean Smith’s dairy farm near Clanwilliam, his family’s water retention projects began to slow down water rushing across their land to a nearby slough. It was damaging pastures and roads in the process.
They then began trying to trap water for their forage stands using a variety of dikes and dams — some just temporary dams made of old silage bales dropped mid-stream.
This year, there was little spring run-off to trap, but after a recent four- to five-inch rain, water flowing from neighbours’ properties filled their creeks and dugouts. They’re drying up now, but were still holding water as of July 6.
“We have a ton of grass,” said Smith.
“You’re getting a yield, whether it’s from your pasture grazing, or lots of our hay stands will have low spots that might have water in spring and you won’t be able to seed through in spring, but if you get something growing there then you do get forage quality.”
The trapped moisture will also recharge the water table.
“You never know. There’s places in Manitoba right now that are having trouble with wells,” Smith said.
They’ve also used regenerative grazing and forage practices to increase their soil’s water infiltration capacity. Recent measurements showed their best land could absorb five inches of water in 45 minutes, said Smith.
“Everyone knows that rain is coming further apart and it’s coming heavy when it comes,” said Smith. Case in point, a recent four- or five-inch rain.
“We want to make sure we’re farming our land in a way that promotes water infiltration so when rain comes we’re able to absorb all that water,” he said.
What about a wet year?
It’s difficult to gauge the success of water retention in Al Ayotte’s pastures, he said. They’re coming from a dry year to an even drier year. The dams haven’t been tested against a constant deluge.
When asked if he’s concerned that a wet cycle will put his pastures under water, Ayotte’s response was quite the opposite.
“I can’t wait to get a wet season,” he said.
His experience with trapping water is that the flood wilts or even kills the grass temporarily, but it grows back thicker.
Last spring, they got six inches of water in one blast, said Ayotte. It flowed off his neighbours’ cultivated fields and onto his land.
“The water was black, and when I’d go in there my legs were itchy so there was probably like fertilizers in there... I said, ‘I want this water. This is mine,’” said Ayotte. “That piece triple produced all the other pieces.
“There’s no such thing as too much water when you’re growing grass,” he added.