As their contribution to the celebration of World Food Day on Oct. 16, the Semi-Arid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre held its first Open House in about 15 years to help people in the Swift Current region reconnect with their food sources and learn more about the vast scope of research and development conducted at the facility.
“I’m a newcomer here,” said the Centre’s Director of Operations Bruce McArthur, “and one of the things I found is that few people in Swift Current knew what we were doing, so that was the prime objective of this Open House was just to get people from Swift Current out to see some of the things we do, and sort of start to rebuild that kind of rapport. Reconnect.
“We’re trying to open up more of the Centre for people to take a look at,” said McArthur. “The reason we’re doing tours is because it gives us a way of making sure that people don’t wander about and get lost, and it does provide a little bit of security, particularly in terms of the labs.”
Morning tours were reserved for students from the region, while the afternoon and evening sessions were open to the public. Tours included several research labs, a geocaching expedition, and a close encounter with one of the Centre’s three fistulated steers.
World Food Day was established by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s Member Countries at the 20th General Conference in November of 1945. Since then, WFD has been celebrated every year on Oct. 16 by organizations concerned about global food security.
SPARC has a federal mandate to develop seed varieties and agricultural practices that are ideally suited to southwest Saskatchewan’s prairie dryland farming systems. They include drought-tolerant and disease-resistant livestock forages, grains and legumes. They also explore functional alternative crops that can be used in rotation with grains and legumes to improve soil health and nutrient availability while reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.
McArthur was very pleased with the turnout for the school tours, which included 175 Grade 7 students from the city as well as rural communities.
“We had a couple of the schools from Waldeck and Wymark, where most of the kids came from farming families, or had aunts or uncles or grandfathers, and then we had a couple of classes in from the city, and you could see the change in the connection, and the types of questions the city kids asked compared to the country kids, if I can use that terminology, so there is a big shift. People are more involved in oil and gas and things like that and they don’t have that same connection as Swift Current 20 or 30 years ago as a farming community would have had.”
SPARC cattle handling facility: Fistulated Steer
Fistulation, originally developed in 1833, uses a surgically implanted cannula (rimmed plastic hole and close-fitting plug) to facilitate the observation of internal processes. In a steer, the cannula is positioned on the left side at the top of the rumen, the first of four ‘stomachs’, and provides direct access for sampling fluids used to evaluate the digestibility of the forages developed by SPARC for grazing and forage production.
There are three fistulated steers in the SPARC program, explained Dale Sandau, and each one of them receives the best of care. “Some people might think that this hole in their side is cruel and unusual,” said Sandau, but he described it as “kind of like getting your ear pierced.”
The side benefit to serving as a research steer is longevity, Sandau said as he patted #60, a docile Shorthorn-Red Angus cross. Steers used in this type of research are kept for five or six years, whereas steers raised for food are slaughtered at two or two and a half years of age.
Rumen fluid samples are taken every Monday morning for about 10 minutes. “This part of it, with the collection of the fluid, would be to determine the feed quality of the forage, to determine the importance of harvesting feed at different times of the year. We collect the fluid out of there,” explained Sandau, pointing to the cannula that opens directly into the rumen. “In that fluid it’s got little protozoa bugs.
“In pastures we cut our quarter-metre samples and we grind each sample up and we have half-ground samples that we put in test tubes. Then we make a solution of artificial saliva and rumen fluid and water, and we mix it all up and then we put this fluid into the test tubes. It does the same thing as if you were to put the feed in the front of the steer and it would come out the back."
Using fluid from the rumen, 196 samples per week are artificially digested in the lab. "That way we can determine the quality of the feed for the animal, and which is the best feed at different times of the year, so the animal is always well looked after from a producer standpoint.”
The purpose of all this research is to continually improve carcass quality, including meat tenderness and marbling, characteristics governed by both feed products and genetics. “It’s all tied to what goes in must do its job,” said Russ Muri, a technician with the program. “We’re here to kind of perfect on that."
In addition to the fistulated steers they keep for their feed analysis program, SPARC calves out 30 cow-calf pairs each spring and purchases 150 to 180 steers in the fall for use in grazing trials.
“We winter them and then we use them in the spring and summer for different grazing trials out on our big pasture areas: North farm, pasture areas east of here, and we also have what we call a South farm, which is approximately six quarters of land,” Sandau explained.
Muri added, “By tying in to World Food Day, doing this type of research, we can analyze and determine better quality feed which produces more beef and different pasture feeds.
“Actually one of things we just found out is Purple Prairie Clover, a native plant that grows here, actually reduces E. coli, sloughing off E. coli in the cattle. Actually it’s the [condensed] tannins are the component. Through these fistulated steers we’re able to find research like that, so that’s why it’s so valuable. These are very valuable animals to us, so that’s why they get the best possible care.”
Lyndsay Kohl, who works with Sandau, added, “The more nutritious our feed is, the less carbon footprint we leave, and that’s important nowadays too with greenhouse gas and global warming.”
Species at Risk
To engage tour participants in an innovative way, a four-stop geocaching tour was created as part of SPARC’s Open House. The first set of coordinates led the tour to Heather Wiebe, Species at Risk biologist.
“Swift Current truly is the epicenter for species at risk,” said Wiebe. “There’s more here in Swift Current and area than in any other part of the province. This is a highly altered landscape that has changed because of agriculture. Because there’s been more research occurring here in Swift Current, that means we know about more species, and more about the impact too. There’s some serious interest because of Grasslands National Park being here, and because it’s always been a hotbed for species at risk.”
Wiebe reflected that “a lot of times the kids will talk about Panda bears, or blue whales or things like that,” as species they know are at risk, but she is quick to remind them that this region is home to many native species that are equally at risk.
“There’s Swift Fox, there’s Burrowing Owl, there’s Sage Grouse, there’s Yellow-Bellied Racers (snakes), there’s Loggerhead Shrikes (the Butcher bird), Ferruginous Hawk. There’s so much to talk about here in Swift Current.” She added, “It’s a nice opportunity to be here and to talk to the kids to help them realize what a truly important part of Canada we are living in.”
The cattle industry’s need for native grassland pastures merges well with the protection of species at risk and their need for natural habitat, Wiebe said.
“Those native pasture lands, if they’re left idle, they really become less useful for wildlife. They need those grazers. We are fortunate to be able to say that agriculture and species at risk can co-exist, which is not always true for agriculture, but nice to be able to frame it here, especially in the southwest part of Saskatchewan.”
Significant changes are coming for species at risk because 929,000 hectares of community pastures in the Canadian Pasture Program currently owned and managed by the government through Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration are in the process of being sold to private individuals. The Community Pasture Program is the PFRA's largest and longest-running contribution to soil conservation on the prairies, created in the 1930s, and has returned more than 145,000 hectares of badly eroded prairie to grass cover.
“The pastures will be leaving, and the Species at Risk Act will start to change too. It’s a big change for us right now. You’ll find species at risk in higher numbers on community pastures than anywhere else in southern Saskatchewan because they have everything that they want there in that area. I think the best case is to preserve a bio-diverse ecosystem and let the critters choose what they want. A healthy but diverse pastureland is the best way to go. The divestiture of the pastures and everything else is in real conflict with what I’ve been doing for the past ten years” Wiebe admitted. “I’m just really proud of what PFRA’s been doing the last few years.”
Wiebe feels that familiarity with species at risk and an understanding of their habitat requirements offers the best chance for their conservation, because the preservation of the biological diversity of native prairie is crucial. She encouraged individual landowners to become involved in species-at-risk conservation efforts through provincial and federal initiatives.
“If you have species at risk on your land, there’s funding available, there’s programs, so there are benefits of knowing what you have out there, for sure.”
Invasive Plant Species
Geocaching stop #2 was devoted to foreign plant species that put cropland and native prairie at risk. Topping the list of invasive weeds was Leafy Spurge, Euphorbia esula, a toxic perennial European native with a root system measured in metres rather than inches.
Because of its formidable eight-meter long and five metre wide root system, Leafy Spurge outcompetes crops and native prairie grasses for water and its heavy foliage not only obstructs sunlight, but also secretes toxins that prevent plant growth beneath it. Control options are cultivation, chemicals or intensive grazing by sheep or goats, two of the few species that are not affected by the plant’s noxious milky juice.
Control is difficult, given the perennial’s ability to reproduce from root segments as well as through their seed pods, which explode and scatter seeds to a radius of five metres from the parent plant. The best chance for eradication is to uproot young plants before they develop a deep taproot system.
Good Farm, Bad Farm
Next on the geocaching tour was a look at the practices of a “good farm” as opposed to a “bad farm”, with Dustin Ostrander, Range Management Specialist, at stop #3.
Ostrander outlined the features of a model farm built in two halves, one for showing management techniques that benefit the environment and the other showing practices that put ground water at risk, as well as excessive tillage of fallow land that puts the topsoil at risk for erosion from wind and water runoff.
In the 'good farm' model, bodies of water and their riparian areas are left as biodiverse transitional ecosystems that are fenced and protected from grazing cattle.
“In what we call a good farm, riparian areas form the green zone of vegetation right from the water’s edge to an upland area, so all those willows and brush and tall grasses, it acts as a big filter or sponge, so any soil erosion, it will stop that and keep it from entering the water, including cattle manure.”
Other aspects of the 'good farm' included shelterbelts to trap snow in winter and reduce soil erosion from wind in summer, and the use of zero or minimum tilling and continuous cropping. Leaving stubble rather than tilling ensures there are always roots anchoring the soil, while stubble traps snow in winter.
Ostrander cited economic pressure on farmers as one of the main reasons that both shelterbelts and riparian areas may undergo cultivation, putting natural water reservoirs at risk and eliminating habitats for many at-risk prairie species.
“That’s economic pressure on farmers, and that’s where we try to educate people. It’s more than just using every acre for growing a crop on; it’s about keeping the water healthy and having a balance.”
Practices on the ‘bad farm’ included storing empty fuel or oil containers near a fresh water source; tilling the stubble and roots that help prevent soil erosion on fallow land; not planting a shelterbelt system, or worse, removing existing shelterbelts simply to accommodate today’s wider farm equipment.
Groundwater contamination simulations
Bill Bristol is a wildlife biologist with Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada, and a specialist in riparian areas. At the last geocaching checkpoint on the tour he used two groundwater models to illustrate the effects of runoff and groundwater contamination.
The first model demonstrated the effects of gravity and natural water filters such as riparian areas in maintaining a healthy groundwater supply.
“Water filters demo how things kind of work: gravity, riparian filters in place, buffers, how much it changes things. They limit the speed and volume of runoff.”
The second model was a groundwater simulator that emphasized the fragility of both deep and shallow aquifers, and how even small leaks from underground storage tanks or pollutants in creeks and rivers can contaminate a vast quantity of groundwater for generations.
“We’re injecting some pink dye," Bristol explained as he queezed food colouring from a syringe. "So this would be an underground septic tank, gasoline tank or fuel storage tank, and it starts to leak. The water moves down, and then we're showing what it was like if you were the City of Swift Current taking water out,” Bristol said as he used a larger syringe to extract water from a deep ‘well’ at the opposite end of the model. “Then you kind of watch and see what this little red plume does. It goes right towards the water you’re taking out.”
The simulation offered an alarming example of how a little carelessness or ignorance can have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.
“You think about Saskatchewan, and how many towns and farms rely on shallow water, because that’s where a lot of our really good water is, and how susceptible it is to contamination.
“We do a couple of examples and just show that this plume can move for miles this way, and stays in the ground for decades, even hundreds of years." One example was that one litre of gasoline can contaminate one million litres of groundwater, and it could remain in that groundwater for a thousand years. "It has longstanding impact on it, and it doesn’t go away.”
Many farmers and rural landowners often don’t think about the long-term consequences of leaks in underground fuel storage or septic tanks and systems, or that carelessly handled fuel or chemical containers can degrade and then leak their contents into the soil, eventually contaminating private or community wells.
“After it rains, where does that water go? It could be in the groundwater for a heck of a long time.
“The other thing we did was to inject some dye into this,” said Bristol, adding red food colouring to the area on the model labeled the ‘recharge area’, represented by a creek. “This was meant to represent a deep-water aquifer into the bedrock.”
In the model, the bedrock has been fractured to facilitate oil extraction. “[Participants] were pretty surprised at how fast it moved through this fractured rock, and then when you’ve got a deep well over here,” Bristol pointed again to the well representing Swift Current, “and you start drawing on that water, and same sort of thing: it migrates pretty quickly.” In seconds, the pink plume was rising up into the 'Swift Current' well.
Forage Crop Mixtures
Back at the main building, Mike Schellenberg, Plant Ecologist, spoke about SPARC’s forage research program aspect of the Open House.
“What we’re doing is diverse stands of both perennials and annuals. It’s part of the program, that’s why we have a brochure, a quiz, identification skills [as part of the tour]. It’s an introduction to the number of species that we deal with, how we’re trying to get them on the landscape, what we’re looking for, such as the Purple Prairie clover.
“The reason we’re looking at that is that some of the antimicrobials, we found it works in decreasing some of the E. coli in the animals. We’ve got some condensed tannins that could have some potential for anti-bloat.”
Schellenberg is also currently researching a new way of planting forage mixtures that will not only provide consistent nutrition throughout the grazing season, but will also extend the grazing season and improve the soil with no need for chemical fertilizers.
“There’s been quite a bit of interest in these multiple-species annual crops, using 12 species. What we have here is an example of what those 12 species actually did look like," he said, pointing to a lush sampling of the forage mixture. "We have three of the legumes: field pea, forage pea and hairy vetch.”
Legumes, he explained, create nodules on their roots that help fix nitrogen in the soil so it is bioavailable for other plants, reducing the need for fertilizer.
“Then we have root crops, which explore the soil, break the hard pan: the tillage radish, the purple top turnip, and we also have kale in there, which is a typical forage crop. Then we also have the warm season grasses, where we have corn, sorghum and millet.”
The forage blend is not harvested, Schellenberg noted. It is intended for cattle grazing purposes. Planted as a group, the combined forages extend the grazing season, meaning cattle can derive sustainable nutrition over a longer period of time than if the forage was simply comprised of warm season grasses.
“They all have, as plants when mature, the different phases where they have higher nutritional quality.”
“They all came up about the same time, but the legumes are the ones that mature fastest. We’re not really worried about the legumes from a productivity basis, we’re interested in that nitrogen-fixing capability. Putting nitrogen back into the soil also means that you don’t have to add fertilizer to the stand.
“The root crops, turnips and radish, they have a root that goes down deep and pulls minerals and things up. Again, we’re not harvesting the root material. The root material stays in the ground and dies and rots over winter. So we have all those minerals that were at a lower level up near the surface, so subsequent crops can take advantage of it. It’s something that is being promoted as having a major effect.”
SPARC’s research is consumer and processor driven
“It’s an amazing place,” acknowledged Russ Muri as he reflected on the SPARC facility, “and most of the people in Swift Current don’t even know it exists. Fifty per cent of the durum varieties that are used for pasta are developed here in Swift Current.
“You can go anywhere in the world and eat pasta [made from durum] that was developed right here in Swift Current. And I think 95 per cent of farmers in Canada grow durum that was developed here. So we have a huge impact on the industry here.
“As you as consumers are demanding [a certain pasta colour], the processors are recognizing that, so they’re telling us – the farmers and researchers – this is what we need. And that's what makes Swift Current such a valuable part of this pasta production.”
The Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre is one of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s national network of 19 research centres. SPARC employs 22 scientists and a staff of 135 and has a research land base of 930 hectares in the Swift Current area. Forage researchers use about 575 hectares for forage and pasture, of which 140 hectares are native grasslands.
Main areas of research include new products, users and markets; improving production and management practices; protecting the environment and stimulating biodiversity; and sector support and competitiveness through research.
The Centre also maintains a research land base of 535 hectares in Indian Head and 53 hectares in Regina; has facilities for analytical chemistry, biotechnology, plant pathology, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, soil chemistry, soil physics and salinity research; operates a state of the art greenhouse and growth facilities; staffs design and maintenance shops; operates a field services laboratory; and maintains animal husbandry facilities.
Future SPARC open houses
At the end of the tour, McArthur sketched out his vision for ongoing public events. "I don’t think it will be annual. It’s an awful a lot of work. We’re seriously trying to look at setting up something with the schools every year. This year it was the Gr. 7 class. If that’s the right fit, maybe having the Gr. 7s come in every year.
"In terms of open houses, what we want to do is have an open house like this one, and then the next one would be out in the field," McArthur said, like a public field tour similar to the ones SPARC already schedules for producers, "and then alternate them. Probably the public field tour might not be until 2014. There’s only a certain window that’s weather dependent, but if it’s too early in the season you’re not going to see anything, and if it’s too late in the season you’re too close to harvest and everyone gets busy. That one’s much more difficult. It’s also got to work amongst all the other [producer] field tours.
"That’s our hope, to alternate the Open Houses on some sort of regular frequency."