Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

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Winter Cereals: Good for Farmers and Ducks
by Kim Kiel and Joy Gregory, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Undisturbed nesting, attractive cover, and high nest success rates are three reasons why North American Waterfowl Management Plan partners are excited about fall-seeded cereals. Farmers like the good yields, crop quality, and spreading out their workload with early September seeding dates and a mid-August harvest.

Planting winter cereals, such as winter wheat, is definitely a win-win situation. "The ability to emerge and out-compete weeds, such as wild oats, can save farmers up to $15.00 per acre on herbicide costs," says Barry Bishop, an agrologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC).

Fall-seeded crops offer residual spring ground cover and minimal spring disturbance, both beneficial for nesting waterfowl, upland birds, and other wildlife. "These fields average around one duck nest per 10 acres and that's considerably better than you'd find in any other annual cropping system," said Bishop, who works with soil conservationists and commodity groups to promote winter cereal production on direct-seeded land in the Aspen Parkland Region of central Alberta.

Besides enhancing nesting opportunities for waterfowl, the endorsement of winter cereals is helping DUC implement the three visions outlined in the Plan's 1998 update. Partnerships are developing with several producer groups in Alberta. In association with the Alberta Reduced Tillage Initiative and the Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission, DUC hopes to increase the Province's acreage of fall-seeded crops. By working closely with these groups, DUC and the producers keep abreast of the latest winter cereal research and studies.

More partnerships means a greater impact on the landscape at large. "Within our priority landscapes, there is going to be cultivation. The more we can encourage conservation farming, the more wildlife will benefit," said Brett Calverley, Alberta Plan coordinator and DUC biologist. "Winter cereals," noted Calverley, "are in step with the Plan's promotion of sustainable farming practices."

Research by the Canadian Wildlife Service in southern Alberta indicates that conservation farming practices (including direct seeding and planting winter wheat) enhance biodiversity. In addition to providing protective cover for waterfowl, winter wheat and other minimum till crops are beneficial to a variety of grassland songbirds. Horned lark, savannah sparrow, Baird's sparrow, and chestnut-collared longspur have shown a preference for minimum till and winter wheat crops in southern Alberta. It is, however, the benefits to farmers that make winter wheat an excellent program to promote conservation farming.

"In general, my winter wheat crops have consistently out-yielded Canadian Prairie spring wheat," said Mel Erickson, who has grown winter wheat in central Alberta for 5 years. He expects more farmers will try winter cereals in an effort to maximize efficient use of their equipment and bank the cost of wild oat herbicide.

"The experience of farmers who've grown winter cereals for several years underlines our approach to the topic," explained Bishop. "We think these crops are agronomically feasible and economically strong and we know they enhance wildlife habitat. The bottom line is profitability and a healthier environment for us all."

For more information, contact Barry Bishop, Ducks Unlimited Canada, 5015-49 Street Camrose, Alberta T4V 1N5, (780) 672-6786, b_bishop@ducks.ca.