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A long game plan starts to pay off

Just west of Enchant, AB, there is a thriving example of how crop farming and mature wildlife habitat can coexist and complement each other. Stamp Farms farm two sections of leased land under seven  pivots. Today, the land has mature wildlife habitat development that started from traditional prairie grass. The project is a partnership with landowners the Haggins family.

“Our goal then, and still today,  is to maximize our production acres under the pivots and to maintain the health of the habitat areas. They co-exist,” says Nathan Stamp of Stamp Farms, Operations and Crop Production Manager.  The project started between the Scott Haggin’s family and Nathan’s father Richard Stamp, at the start of the 2000’s.

In the beginning

“I got to be a part of it and learn what we were doing,” Nathan says. He remembers they had to carefully choose what to plant at the start, so that it would all work together. Then they had to manage the fields to ensure the weeds didn’t choke out the little trees.

“The trees were so small. Now that they’re bigger and established, it’s much more manageable,” he says. He adds that it was high management in the early years, but now the habitats are self-sustaining with minimal maintenance each year.

The habitat area consists of approximately  100 kms of trees in rows, caragana, choke cherries and rose hedges that are home to deer, pheasants, ducks, geese, and songbirds. With the increased wildlife comes increased animal traffic in the crops. While the wildlife in the fields is likely not ideal, he says they seem to prefer the habitat areas over the fields as it is a magnet for them.

A hedge row along the edge of the field.

“It’s not a big impact, but noticeable over other areas that don’t have nearby habitat,” Nathan says. “I don’t see any real damage in the field from wildlife.”

With the addition of  the Alberta Conservation Association’s expertise and now with some full-time staff hired by the landowner, the management aspect has become much easier for Stamp Farms. Nathan says it’s just maintaining it and making annual plans. For example, corn planted around the shelterbelts offers cover and food to the native birds. The wildlife also glean the fields in the fall and go into winter well fed.

“Any of the animals living in the habitat have a food source in the fall. However, you would never notice a yield loss. It’s not like you have a herd of cattle out there,” Nathan assures.

In the pivot corners, they planted three or four rows of trees that benefit from the tip of the end gun water. Nathan says that it means a little less cropland, but he doesn’t find it difficult to work around.

“You lose a little bit of ground, but you create a new boundary for your GPS and that’s your new boundary.” There are trees all around some fields; some fields have a row of trees down the center, and some are pie shaped planting areas.

“It’s not perfect  for farming, but it’s manageable and it has its benefits as well.” He explains that this is not a typical shelterbelt situation or plan. The landowner wanted wildlife habitat, but also wanted  a major part of land left for farming.

Extensive drainage work was done to allow years with excess water run off to flow into wetland areas outside the farmed fields. Some areas just drained naturally. Th wetland’s with trees and hedge rows keep the land well drained during wet years.

Benefits showing up

“We really have the capacity to get the water off the fields in the spring and there is somewhere that the water can go, allowing us to farm those acres without leaving low spots that we just can’t farm because it’s a wet year.”  At the same time and most importantly, this excessive water is not dumped into a road ditch or our irrigation system. We strive to keep all excessive moisture on site, so not to cause issues for neighboring fields and the Municipal District road ditches.

Nathan gradually noticed over recent years that his insecticide rates on these fields dropped.

“In the past five years, I’ve had to spray insecticides once or maybe twice,” he says. Even in years when specific crops in the region have a specific insect problem, he hasn’t seen that in these fields.

“We find the pest, but not in high enough numbers to actually spray. There’s a ton of spiders, other beneficial insects and birds in the trees that feed on these pests, he says. As of yet, no one has studied whether the presence of predators or some other factor keeps the agriculture pests at bay, such as shelterbelts providing a barrier to insect migration by wind.

The pivot end gun waters corn for wildlife feed.

Nathan says at this point he’s working with an ecosystem with all its working parts – predators, a working food chain and other pieces that sustain it.

“That’s definitely what we’re starting to see,” he says. Perhaps because of that, he’s also noticed an increase in native pollinators in these fields. “There’s a lot of pollinators flying around.”

He explains that part of the project also encouraged Stamp Farms to leave taller stubble in these fields most years as it allows for better cover for wildlife.

Nathan explains that the trees are a double-edged sword. During the winter and early spring,  they capture and retain snow, which can mean that the field edges remain frozen or wet longer than the center of the fields. By the same token, during growing season, those same trees protect the fields from winds and reduce challenges of spraying. They keep the wind down and capturing drift should it occur while they’re working.

“If a wind did come up, the trees act as a filter,” he says. He points out that this is because they are now large established trees and shrubs but, while they can take some drift, you still must keep it to a minimum.

Nathan knows that this is a legacy project. It took 20+ years, a lot of effort and investment to get to where these fields are today. The Project was not designed as a carbon offset, However, he says “if the government continues taxing  carbon and requiring farmers to reduce emissions through one avenue or another, this could be a way to use marginal lands to offset carbon while creating an ecosystem that’s beneficial in many ways to crop production.”