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University of Manitoba Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences Department of Plant Science

Redesigning Canadian
prairie cropping systems

Review: Redesigning Canadian prairie cropping systems for profitability, sustainability, and resilience

By Joanne Thiessen Martens, Martin Entz and Mark Wonneck

Read the paper (PDF).

Redesign of agricultural systems according to ecological principles has been proposed for the development of sustainable systems. In this paper, we review a wide variety of ecologically based crop production practices, including:

  • crop varieties and genetic diversity
  • crop selection and rotation
  • cover crops
  • annual polyculture
  • perennial forages
  • perennial grains
  • agroforestry systems
  • reducing tillage
  • use of animal manures and green manures
  • soil biological fertility
  • organic production systems
  • integrated croplivestock systems
  • purposeful design of farm landscapes (farmscaping)

We discuss the potential role of these practices in enhancing the profitability, environmental sustainability, and resilience of Canadian prairie cropping systems.

Farming systems that most closely mimic natural systems through appropriate integration of diverse components, within a context of supportive social and economic structures, appear to offer the greatest potential benefits, while creating a framework in which to place all other farming practices.

Farmscaping, crop-livestock integration, agroforestry, perennial forages, and perennial grains, complemented with endogenous input systems (those based on recycling nutrients within farms) and minimal soil disturbance, have the potential to make large contributions to sustainability and resilience. When such systems are designed to comply with organic production standards, market premiums further enhance their profitability. Perennial forages in particular have a large and well-documented positive impact on environmental sustainability and resilience and are also technically feasible. While perennial grain systems appear promising, implementation of such systems is impossible until varieties become commercially available. Applied research on integrated crop-livestock systems, alley cropping, and farmscaping (including shelterbelts and ecobuffers) is needed to optimize and support implementation of these practices in the prairie region. Local farmer knowledge of crop-livestock systems and farmscaping practices may be more developed than local research in these areas, as ecologically minded farmers make observations and experiment with practices on their own farms.

This review demonstrates that agricultural systems designed according to ecological principles and local ecologies contribute to better outcomes for the agricultural systems of the Canadian prairies. We have argued that these systems require systemic change if profitability, sustainability, and resilience are to be optimized. Just as the key ecological pillars of diversity and integration lend stability and integrity to ecosystems, integrating diverse components in ecologically compatible complementary relationships within supportive economic and social structures promotes the overall health of the system, including environmental sustainability, long-term profitability, and resilience to shocks and stresses. Thus, system change requires purposeful and proactive redesign of agricultural systems at all levels, from individual farms to regional and even global scales, with particular attention to functional integration of diverse components.

The challenge to align Canadian prairie agricultural systems with ecological principles is immense, especially in the current context of agricultural development where short-term productivity and economic efficiency are emphasized. However, the more holistic goals encompassed in ecologically based systems are fundamental to the long-term success of any sector or society and are worthy of serious pursuit. Past government and university scientists in the prairies have also called for system redesign with a shift to ‘‘permanent agriculture’’ based on diversified crop rotations and effective crop-livestock integration. Had our agricultural policy makers, educational institutions, and businesses embraced this advice, we would be much further ahead than we are today. We believe that locally adapted ecological prairie farming systems are still achievable but will require a major shift in research, education, and policy. A proactive move in this direction would provide a solid foundation for the development of environmentally sustainable, profitable, and resilient agricultural systems in prairie Canada.

Thiessen Martens, J. R., Entz, M. H. and Wonneck, M. D. 2015. Review: Redesigning Canadian prairie cropping systems for profitability, sustainability, and resilience. Can. J. Plant Sci. 95: 10491072.

Read the paper (PDF).

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This page created September 2016.