Living Labs projects wrap up first year

Going into the second year of the project, impacts already being felt

Construction of a dam and water retention project at Swan Lake First Nation.

Despite a slow start, the teams behind the Living Labs — Eastern Prairies are diving into field research, says a newsletter from Manitoba Watersheds.

“There have been some recent challenges with the weather and COVID-19, which have slowed us from getting into the field,” wrote researcher John Fitzmaurice in Manitoba Watersheds’ spring newsletter. “I can assure you that we are eager to get out to continue these conversations and get these projects started.”

Living Laboratories is a federally funded, cross-Canada project in which farmers, researchers and other partners work on farms to produce tools and techniques tailored to local environments and needs. Living Labs — Eastern Prairies is a regional subgroup of that effort.

“The idea is to have farmers work with scientists and other partners to conduct experiments right on their farms,” the organization writes in the newsletter. “Having farmers as equal partners gives them a direct voice in the innovation process.”

In 2018, in consultation with producers and conservation groups, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada identified four watersheds representative of the different eco-regions in the eastern Prairies. They are:

  • Upper Oak River Watershed in the Assiniboine West Watershed District;
  • Swan Lake Watershed in Pembina Valley Watershed District;
  • North Shannon Creek Watershed in Redboine Watershed District; and
  • Main Drain Watershed in the Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District.

The Living Labs — Eastern Prairies team includes producers from the target watersheds, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Manitoba Association of Watersheds, the associated watershed districts, Swan Lake First Nation, Keystone Agricultural Producers and others.

The team worked to identify environmental issues facing local landowners and what collaborative research could be done. In fall of 2019 field work began with stakeholders.

Research topics include evaluating the use of regenerative grazing management to capture and sequester carbon in grassland soil; identifying and evaluating practices to enhance beneficial insect habitat in cropland and set-aside land while minimizing production risk; development of tile drainage management practices to reduce nutrient and habitat losses in the eastern Prairies; and measuring the socio-economic impacts of beneficial management practices adoption for producers and communities.

“It’s a complex network with lots of moving parts,” the newsletter said, “but we think Living Labs is an effective way to drive innovation and extension in sustainable agriculture, and we are working hard to prove it.”

In the North Shannon Watershed, year one was focused on landowner meetings, introducing producers to the program and discussing potential sites, writes Justin Reid, manager of Redboine Watershed District.

Work began on planning and design for a water retention site, two pollinator plantings, soil sampling and forage planting.

“In year two (April 2020 to March 2021), we will dive into the construction and planting phases of the pro­jects identified in year one, and will hold more landowner meetings to come up with additional project sites for years three and four,” said Reid.

In the Main Drain Watershed, the first year was “a whirlwind of information sharing and solidifying the importance of best management practices,” wrote Jodi Goerzen, manager of Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District.

This included a presentation on soil health and regenerative agriculture, which drew over 130 participants from across the district, which the organizers say sparked conversations amongst producers about the importance of innovation and individualized planning on their farms.

Another workshop taught about pollinators, biodiversity and predation. This increased interest in the conversion of underproductive annual croplands to perennial pastures.

In the last year, Main Drain producers established nine alternative watering systems and fenced off over a dozen dugouts and riparian areas which kept about 1,100 head of cattle out of local waterways.

Several more watering systems and fencing projects have been established just outside the Main Drain watershed. By highlighting the positive impact that keeping cattle out of waterways has on water quality, soil health and biodiversity enhancement, Living Lab — Eastern Prairies is already making an impact beyond the boundaries of the Main Drain Watershed, said Goerzen.

In year two, already underway, quality sampling will be occurring across the watershed to help paint a picture of the effect these BMPs are having on our waterways. Research scientists are working with producers to monitor tile drains and to provide data on the effect of innovative cropping methods.

A pasture-based retention structure with complementary alternative watering system, livestock crossing and riparian-area fencing is in the works as are several independent off-site watering systems and perennial plantings.

In the Swan Lake Watershed, Swan Lake First Nation partnered with AAFC scientists and the Pembina Valley Watershed District to dive into Living Lab — Eastern Prairies starting last fall, writes Cliff Greenfield, manager of Pembina Valley Watershed District.

The research planned is field scale and in areas farmers want to look at making improvements.

The Swan Lake First Nation Pro­ject SL-SL49 was nearly completed last season. It includes enhanced drainage with installation of tile over an 11-acre wet area in the field and a water retention dam to treat the run-off from the tile and upstream area.

Photo: Manitoba Watersheds.

A saturated buffer and wetland terrace will be completed this season to also treat the run-off. Typically, tile run-off has elevated salts and nitrates and reduced phosphorus, and this can be treated and reduced with the improvements that are planned for this season.

Pollinator-friendly plants will be grown in the disturbed areas of the project and monitoring will be done to measure the impacts of these enhancements. AAFC staff are working on a seed mix design for this site and will run the water monitoring program.

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