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Cattle Country: Sustainable Agriculture – Indigenous perspectives, water management and precision technologies

May 1, 2024 — 

The following article was written by Peter Frolich, University of Manitoba, for the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE). It was originally published in Cattle Country in May 2024.

Nearly 300 researchers, farmers, policy makers, and industry members logged on daily to view the 9th Annual Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture Virtual Conference, March 12-14th 2024. The conference focused on topics that explored Indigenous perspectives in reshaping our food systems, as well as water management and using precision technologies to ensure agricultural sustainability. Co-hosted by the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE) at the University of Manitoba and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the event featured panel discussions, a GHG farm emissions modelling workshop and more. This year’s theme focused on embracing change to achieve a sustainable future in Canadian agriculture.

Indigenous perspectives in reshaping our food system

Robin Wall Kimmerer, plant ecologist, educator, writer and MacArthur Fellow kicked off the event with a keynote presentation titled “What does the earth ask of us: Indigenous knowledge for sustainability”. Kimmerer described the causes of our current environmental challenges and noted that there are ample signs indicating that change is needed. But the question is how? She suggested adoption of traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom, focused on nature-based solutions including reforestation, wetland restoration, regenerative agriculture, soil banking, and preserving peat lands in order to make meaningful change. Management practices such as the use of cover crops and green manure offer a way to give back to the land. Kimmerer also discussed the concept of an honorable harvest, a set of unwritten guidelines that justifies harvesting from the land but acknowledging the need for sustainable practices. The change needs to be profound, a new world view. Her words echo views of last year’s SCAC keynotes Tim McAllister and Henry Janzen as they described the need for whole systems change to reach net zero in agriculture.

Jason Cardinal is the manager of the Flying Dust Market Garden, located on a farmstead near Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. The garden evolved from a small, two-staff operation in 2009, to a 25-plus staff operation that generates fresh produce, berries, and honey, as well as raising bison. Most importantly, the market garden trains community members including students in agriculture and food processing through hands-on workshops. Community members use the garden to connect to the land and view it as a symbol of sustainable agriculture and local development. The garden provides nutritious food to community members, other First Nations, food banks, restaurants, farmers markets and wholesalers. Innovative ideas and forward thinking have increased revenue and allowed for expansion. With new funding, the garden has planted a food forest and will be investing in more bee hives, poultry production and a hydroponic operation to grow leafy greens and herbs.

Christina Gish Hill, an Associate Professor at Iowa State University, echoed the words of Kimmerer and emphasized the importance of looking for wisdom and guidance from ancestors, including an examination of seed banks. Hill works with Indigenous communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Omaha. Through her work, she is exploring Indigenous food sovereignty, defined as restoring, growing and maintain culturally appropriate practices focused on the community. Hill discussed the concept of rematriation and practicing reciprocal respect to restore relationships with the landscape leading to enhanced resiliency of communities, agriculture systems and the environment.

Jill Falcon Ramaker is an Assistant Professor of Community Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems and the Director for the Buffalo Nations Food Initiative at Montana State University. She discussed the geographical, cultural and economic history of Indigenous people that lived in the Northern Plains and Rockies region. The Anishinaabe people that lived in this region were a part of the longest sustained food system on Turtle Island, called the Buffalo Culture Food System. This system functioned for thousands of years until its existence was disrupted by colonialism. Falcon Ramaker described how the Buffalo Culture Food System focused on kinship, network exchange and reciprocity in the past. The Buffalo Nations Food Initiative is working towards rebuilding relationships and intertribal food sovereignty in this region. The initiative is focusing on cultural knowledge regeneration through ancestral seed propagation, and training Indigenous students to work in food systems through land and community-based education.

Water….at the root of it all

Helen Baulch is an Associate Professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability and Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Nutrient pollution, specifically excess phosphorus (P), is one of the largest water quality challenges on the prairies. Excess P in runoff can make its way to lakes and rivers. Lakes, in particular, are extremely sensitive to excess P as small amounts of this nutrient can cause algae blooms, impacting the ecosystem including fish populations, water ecology, as well as animal and human health. An added challenge is that some agriculture practices, including those that have a positive impact on landscape sustainability such as zero tillage can also have a negative impact on water quality due to increased nutrient runoff. Therefore, there can be trade-offs in the adoption of best management practices which are a regionally specific consideration. Baulch suggests that we need pragmatic “now” solutions to address water quality issues. Rotational tillage, changing nutrient management to keep the nutrients below the soil, flow control to help manage erosion, promoting protection of wetlands, avoiding winter application of manure and examining and updating “right rate recommendations” are a few examples of solutions to nutrient pollution of lakes and rivers.

Willemijn Appels is a Senior Research Chair at Lethbridge College and leads the Mueller Irrigation Group. Her presentation focused on sources of water used in irrigation, the role of water districts in regulating water, allocation of water to farmers and strategies to improve water use efficiency. Given that water is finite, we will see more pressure on water resources in the future. Beyond increasing infrastructure and building water reservoirs, farmers can play a role by adopting precision technologies including the use sensors that optimize water usage and allow for more precise delivery. In addition, plant breeders can play a role by developing plant varieties that are more drought tolerant and require less water. It was evident from her presentation that water is both highly valued and undervalued with the need to examine use at the water shed scale.

Ryan Canart is a producer and the General Manager at Assiniboine West Watershed District. The main concern of the 83 members in his district is responding to the variation in weather patterns resulting in both flooding and drought – sometimes within the same growing season. Past farming practices have resulted in the draining of wetlands resulting in the loss of carbon (C). This has led to a decline in the soil’s ability to hold and store water and buffer the extremes of wet and dry weather that contribute to soil erosion. Canart described programs offered through the conservation district that focus on using plants and animals to increase soil C and to restore and conserve wetlands. These include use of cover

crops, shelter belts, rotational grazing and water retention using small dams and backflooding infrastructure. On his own farm, Canart uses cattle as a tool to increase the land’s ecological resilience.

Precision technologies for a sustainable future

This session featured Gabriel Dallago, an assistant Professor with the Department of Animal Science at the University of Manitoba and Stefan Signer, a dairy farmer and a board member for Dairy Farmers of Manitoba and Dairy Farmers of Canada. The livestock industry is faced with several challenges including increased demand for animal-sourced protein, as well as environmental and social sustainability. At the same time, much of the agricultural sector is faced with labor shortages. Precision agriculture can address these challenges through the collection of data using artificial intelligence (AI) tools, including sensors. For example, AI is being used to collect data on frequency of milking, cow feeding, time of breeding, sire selection and health. The data serves as a source of information that producers can use to make management decisions. Precision agriculture allows us to monitor the animals on an individual scale to provide useful management decisions that address efficiency, reduce GHG emissions and improve animal welfare. Both speakers were excited about the future of AI in the dairy industry.

Keshav Singh is a research scientist at AAFC in Alberta who uses digital technology to better understand anatomical, developmental, physiological and biochemical properties of plants. Digital imaging sensing systems can be used in greenhouses and in small field plots. Arial drones can be used for large fields and satellite drones are used for large scale field mapping.

Sean Thompson is a director at Olds College Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production and also runs a Shorthorn operation on his farm in Alberta. The Access Centre is home to a 1000-head feedlot, 1000 acres of pasture, as well as labs and greenhouses. They work with industry, academia and government to test new technologies that address animal health/welfare, increase production efficiencies and environmental sustainability focusing on regenerative agriculture. Projects include soil biological additives to improve soil health, satellite tools to asses forage biomass, virtual fencing, noninvasive tools to measure soil carbon stocks and more.

Student Videos, Holos Workshop and the Barley Sandwich Session

Graduate students were encouraged to feature their research to improve the sustainability of agriculture in 3-minute videos. Thirteen students featured their research projects ranging from livestock production, agronomy, and entomology to grain and oil crop processing. The top videos this year were submitted by Michael Killewald and Breanna Zwick, from the University of Manitoba and Shreemi Prabhakaran from Dalhousie University. The People’s Choice Award was given to Hamza Jawad, also from Dalhousie University.

More than 150 conference participants joined the Holos™ model training workshop and received hands-on training using the model, designed to estimate and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions based on information entered for individual farms.

Also back this year was the Barley Sandwich Session. This end-of-day session was designed to stimulate conversations between conference attendees, scientists, producers and industry in livestock, soil health and water use. The 2024 Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture Conference organizing committee, comprised of

researchers, industry and producers, was co-chaired by Kim Ominski, Director of NCLE, and Roland Kröbel with AAFC. The organizing committee would like to thank all those who attended and helped to make this annual conference a success. See you all next year!

Visit the SCAC 2024 conference website to view recorded presentations, information about speakers, student research videos and more.

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