Livin’ on the edge

From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon

I like to live right on the edge. That is where all of the excitement is! There is great risk, but also great rewards. I’ve done some pretty crazy things in my life — from sky diving to bull riding — and I love the rush.

The edge is a great place to live. Oh wait, that is not what I am referring to. Did you know that my employees love the edge as well? Life for them is better on the edge. Some of my employees live in the trees, some live in the water and some love the wide-open spaces. It is the interaction between these ecosystems that builds biodiversity, right on the edge. Each ecosystem has an edge and it meets up with another ecosystem’s edge. The water ecosystem meets up with the riparian-area ecosystem, which meets up with the upland ecosystem, which meets up with the woodland ecosystem.

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It is at these edges that crucial interactions between ecosystems develop. Millions of interactions can be created for our biology. Sometimes this edge is where the food is. Sometimes this edge is where these creatures will become food. It is a dynamic interaction of life and death that will help build more and more biodiversity in your operation. How much edge do you have?

If I could build my land, I would create as much edge as possible. Let’s look at a plain quarter section of farmland. My perfect piece of land would have about 20 per cent bush area, 10 per cent riparian area and 70 per cent productive uplands. Let’s build it. It is a square, 160 acres, that is a half-mile by a half-mile.

If we assume all of the land around us is different than ours, we start with two miles of edge. First thing I would do is create a shelter belt of trees around the perimeter. This gives me another edge between my neighbour’s land and the trees, plus one between the trees and my land. I just doubled my edge. Now I have four miles of edge. Biodiversity will increase.

I would love to have a creek run through the middle of it. Nothing builds biology like water. Instead of a straight canal cut up the middle, I would prefer one that meanders back and forth, with a lot of curves. The straight creek would only give me about a half-mile of edge on each side, but the winding creek will give me maybe double the edge. I may get up to two miles of edge between the water and the riparian area, and another two miles of edge between the riparian area and the uplands. Our total is now eight miles of edge.

Let’s add some more trees. I would like small bush areas throughout my land and maybe another tree line. I do not want all of the trees in one spot, so let’s spread them out across the whole 160 acres. Birds and bats need the trees for shelter and protection. With multiple small areas of trees, we might add another mile of edge. That is nine miles of edge.

How about some dugouts and sloughs? We need some stagnant water as well, because to foster biodiversity, we need standing water for reproduction. Ducks and other waterfowl need nesting areas. Many of our beneficial predators such as frogs and dragonflies need these riparian areas to live and reproduce. Life begins with water.

We also need to protect these waterbodies in order to keep them vibrant with life. I would not avoid grazing them altogether, but we need to manage them in order to enhance the biodiversity. Mismanagement can be devastating to the edge. Our riparian area may even have more than one edge. The edge at the water blends into cattails, which then blends into lowland grasses, before it meets up with the upland grazing lands. A couple of sloughs and a dugout might give us another mile of edge at the water’s edge and another two at the riparian edge. We are up to 12 miles of edge.

How about a polyculture of plants? How does that give us more edge? The different types of plants can invite different types of biology to the game. Different fields can create edge, or for that matter, even a “weed” patch creates more edge. A patch of tansy can create an ecosystem as its woody stems can help protect a bird’s nest. That area of rose bushes can give pollinators a sweet treat and still provide snow catch and wind protection. Do you think we could add up another mile of edge because we have different areas of pasture with different types of plants? That would give us 13 miles of edge all in a half-mile by half-mile quarter section of land.

Now you may have heard me say before that there is a mirror on the soil surface. What happens above ground also happens below ground. If we are developing edges above ground, we also have edges below ground with our soil life. We just doubled our edges again. Make that 26 miles of edge on one quarter of land. Now that will build some biology!

Most farmers in our area try to eliminate the edge. They want straight lines and want to drain out all the riparian areas. Trees are bulldozed in order to make more productive farmland. Like I said at the beginning, I would like to see about 70 per cent of productive forage on any piece of land because when you aim for 100 per cent, you end up with a lack of biodiversity. A lack of biodiversity will always lead to a few species having the advantage, which in turn leads to the system getting out of balance. The health of the whole ecosystem suffers. The less edge, the more pests. This will make us reliant on quick fixes and costly inputs to combat symptoms that appear.

As we get older, we are supposed to also get wiser. Do not lose your edge. Rebalance your system by creating more edge, not less. Your biology will love it.

About the author

Contributor

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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