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In praise of water, and beavers

In praise of water, and beavers

It frustrates me as I travel around the country witnessing how human nature can be so misguided. Sometimes we can be short sighted and forget that we need to look at the big picture.  Even though we mean no harm, some of our agricultural practices can cause more damage than we think. Today, I would like to discuss water; in particular, the water cycle and the health of our riparian areas.

The problem that we have in agriculture is that the water cycle is generally broken.  Let’s look at our fields or pastures at a microscopic level when it rains. Without a protective layer on the surface of the soil, a raindrop comes hurtling to the ground and impacts the soil. It is like a small explosion that destroys the soil structure by breaking apart the aggregates. This damage causes soil capping that leaves a smooth surface that the next raindrop can’t penetrate. The rain no longer has anywhere to go, so it runs off.  As it runs off of the land, it takes with it the best parts of the damaged aggregates; our valuable humus is washed away.

What moisture did get into the soil is now vulnerable to evaporation. The moisture in the soil does not work by gravity. It actually works by diffusion. This is a movement from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration (wet to dry). If the top layer of soil’s moisture is evaporated by the sun and the wind, the lower moisture will then move up to the drier area. It will then begin to evaporate and more moisture will move up. Suddenly our water cycle has been reversed. As this moisture moves up through the soil and evaporates, it can also bring with it unwanted salts that can be detrimental to growth.

With a healthy water system, our water bodies will evaporate and the moisture will rise up and form clouds. These clouds will then get dense enough to form precipitation and fall back to the ground as rain. Here we need the rain to soak into the soil and infiltrate through the soil to again replenish the water bodies from which moisture can again evaporate.

So how do we stop this unhealthy cycle?  Leave more residue. We need to make sure that the first raindrop cannot hit the exposed soil. It needs to land on live or dead plant material, as that raindrop will then break apart and soak into the soil without damaging the soil structure. If the soil is in good health, the organic matter will hold on to the moisture. Excess moisture will infiltrate down into the soil and away to larger bodies of water, thus filling them from the bottom and not from run-off.

I believe that in the future, water is going to be a very valuable resource. Ask anyone from California. Holding on to water and protecting riparian areas will be an important part of maintaining our ecosystems and our industry. If this means that water bodies and ponds appear on our land, so be it. This is a good thing. In a lot of agricultural practices, we end up destroying these riparian areas in the name of profit.

The most limiting factor we have in many areas is water.  To produce a crop, you need upwards of 200 times more water than you need nitrogen. Which do you think is a more important nutrient? It frustrates me when I see grain farmers ditching their fields to drain away wet areas. Yes, we get to farm a few more acres, but at what cost?  How much flooding occurs downstream because of it? How much topsoil is washed away with it? How many riparian areas are destroyed? How much biodiversity is lost?

Do you know who is responsible for most of the biodiversity in this country?  Long before we were ever here, it was our friendly, hard-working beaver, that’s who!  This country was built by the beaver long before the fur trade depleted their numbers. To make a home, he backs up water, causing his environment to flourish in biodiversity because all life needs water. Plants, animals, fungi, insects and birds all rely on water and thanks to the beaver, they can all thrive within abundant riparian areas.

Each ecosystem relies on the other and it all starts with water. It aggravates me when we decide that the beaver stands in the way of industry. First off, the beaver were here first. Secondly, his job is more important than ours. He created the environment that allows agriculture to prosper. Thirdly, water is a very valuable resource. If he provides more for you, you should be thanking him.

The most common issue I see is when a beaver affects a road. Let’s address the problem, not the symptom. Fix or change the road. The beaver is building biodiversity, the road is in his way. We need to work with him, not against him. The other common argument against the beaver is that he cuts down all of the trees. Well, the 10 or 15 acres of trees he removes to build his home, would not be such a big deal if it wasn’t for the fact that the rest of the land was already bulldozed and has lost most of its trees. Maybe it was not you personally who cleared the land, but it was most likely done before your time by someone.

I know that some folks will be offended by this article as we have all grown up fighting against the beaver, hunting him, and cussing him. It is a paradigm, but just for a moment, sit back and think about what this country would be like without him.

I am not saying that we never have to manage the beaver. Environments can get out of balance (usually caused by humans), predators are sometimes scared off and we might need to rebalance the system again.  But if we do, we need to figure out how to work with the beaver and allow him to do his job as well as letting us do ours. All relationships need to be win-win.

I believe fresh water is the most precious resource we have on earth. It should be the No. 1 nutrient you should be trying to manage. Without it, agriculture will cease. Try to build your soil and rebuild a healthy water cycle. The sustainability of agriculture depends on it.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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