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Increasing yields with natural landscapes

Researchers say maintaining some natural habitat next to your fields can bring yield increases

Researchers are looking at how natural landscapes can bump yield in nearby canola fields in Alberta, and they want your yield data.

Previous research, done at various locations around the world, has shown that native habitat bestows yield gains and cuts insecticide applications on neighbouring farmland, says Gregory Sekulic, agronomist with the Canola Council of Canada.

“But we needed to investigate that in Canada.”

The Canola Council is funding research based out of the University of Calgary to do just that. Last year was the first of the four-year study. Researchers identified 140 sites in southern Alberta to examine how landscape affects native bees, says Dr. Jess Vickruck.

Vickruck, a self-described “insect nerd,” recently defended her doctoral thesis and moved with her family from Ontario to Calgary to join the research team. She says she sees the study as a way to find conservation initiatives that benefit both farmers and beneficial insects.

This year researchers are expanding beyond pollinators to look at how landscape affects other beneficial insect populations. For example, they’ll be focusing on predacious ground beetles, along with parasitoids that target cabbage seedpod weevils. Researchers also plan to set up studies that exclude pollinators and other insects, to see how that affects canola pollination.

“It’s a very big project and it has lots of moving pieces. But it’s really exciting,” says Vickruck.

Sekulic says they’re looking for help from farmers located south of Edmonton, or basically anywhere within a three-hour drive of Calgary. The plan is to look at yield data collected at set points from natural areas near those fields. Sekulic says they’ll then build an algorithm to calculate the spatial relationship between the natural landscape and the yield effect.

“Ideally a few hundred (fields) would be fantastic,” says Sekulic. “But we could probably start to build that algorithm with 50 or 60 fields.”

Yield bumps found

Much of the research on yield and natural habitat is out of Europe, says Vickruck. “And there’s pretty strong evidence to show beneficial insect communities influence yield in a positive way.”

Sekulic says they’ve used a British study as the backbone for this project. That study looked at yield boosts in three-year rotations of field beans, oilseed rape, and wheat. Cropland was intentionally turned into natural landscape, at rates of zero, four, and eight per cent.

The highest yields came from fields where eight per cent of the land hand been converted to natural cover, Sekulic says. “And to the point that at eight per cent ground cover, they were actually making more money on their total acres than they were if they had been farming their total acres.”

Back in 2002 and 2003, researchers studied the effect of natural landscapes on pollinators and canola yield in Alberta’s Peace region. The study, located near La Crete, looked at both non-transgenic and genetically-modified canola varieties.

Adult syrphid fly, a pollinator found in fields and gardens. Also called the hoverfly because of the way it hovers around flowers.
photo: Lisa Guenther

Canola fields with plenty of bees had higher yields and better seed set. Researchers also concluded that natural land within 750 metres of the crop provided habitat to yield-boosting pollinators.

“We’re trying to refine that and put a value on those acres,” says Sekulic.

The idea is that “instead of losing money on land that’s really marginal, you could use that marginal land as habitat for good bugs that increase your yield across the field,” he adds.

Exactly how the study will play out in southern Alberta remains to be seen. Vickruck notes southern Alberta’s landscape is very different from agricultural areas in Europe. Southern Alberta’s fields tend to be larger and more uniform, and from what Vickruck’s read, there hasn’t been much work done with pollinators in those types of landscapes.

Help from farmers would be “greatly, greatly, greatly appreciated,” says Sekulic.

Sekulic adds that it’s a chance for farmers to participate in leading edge research, “the results of which could actually help them increase their profitability while reducing effort to do so.”

Producers interested in participating in this research can contact Vickruck by emailing [email protected]. Farmers can also call her office line at (403) 220-3465 or her cell at (905) 359-7531.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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