Biodiversity conservation is not something that always receives a prominent place when discussing sustainable agriculture from the farming perspective, but from a consumer and other stakeholder (e.g. government) perspective, it is very important. Farmers are custodians of the country’s natural resources and have a responsibility to ensure the natural environment is conserved and that natural resources are used responsibly. The reasons why farmers should care have already been addressed in a previous blog, “Should farmers concern themselves with biodiversity conservation?”. A follow up blog, “What should farmers do about biodiversity conservation then?”, explored the various practices which farmers can adopt to assist with biodiversity conservation on their farms.
In order to address the critical issue of biodiversity management, Trace & Save initiated a biodiversity checklist project. This checklist allows farmers to indicate which practices that contribute to biodiversity conservation they have adopted, or plan to adopt, on their farms. This checklist is then used to draw up a biodiversity plan for each farm, specific to their farm context. It also allows us to identify what practices a farmer could still implement that would contribute to biodiversity conservation. Now that 30 dairy farmers have completed this form, we are able to evaluate across a wider scale what practices have already been adopted, what practices are not widely adopted, and where the opportunities exist for biodiversity conservation.
I will discuss the results of examining these 30 farms biodiversity checklists below. The intention is to both show the extent to which practices have been implemented, and to see where we are lacking in terms of biodiversity management. All of the practices in the biodiversity checklist have been grouped into nine overarching categories, which are reported on in the graph below. I will discuss each of these categories, as well as some of the actual practices which fall within them.
It must be noted that the aim of this article is not to be critical of farms for not having widely adopted practices, but rather to identify opportunities. As will be seen below, there are a large number of practices that farmers have adopted. One of the challenges in South Africa is that very little, if any, support is provided to farmers to implement biodiversity management. Farmers therefore have to implement these practices at their own cost, and in their own time. I believe that the lack of adoption of practices in certain areas is not only due to an unawareness of the importance and benefits that these practices can provide, but also just a lack of time, people and finances to do anything about it.
The adoption of biodiversity management practices
Farmers are able to indicate that a practice has been fully adopted, adopted to some extent or not adopted at all on their farm, that it is not applicable in their specific context, or that it forms part of their future plans. The graph below shows a compilation of the extent to which practices have been adopted in the nine categories on the 30 farms where the biodiversity checklist has been completed. The obvious stand-out is that most farms have fully adopted practices which relate to soil management. This makes sense, as pasture-based dairy farmers place a lot of emphasis on soil management, and soil health has become a prominent topic in recent years. The category with the second most adoption of practices is with regards to limiting pollution on farms. Both of these categories predominantly contain practices which directly influence farm productivity, therefore it is not unexpected that they would be the most focussed on by farmers. One of the greatest limitations, and opportunities, with regards to biodiversity conservation is that the categories which relate to the management of natural vegetation, wetlands, rivers and dams and mammals and birds have not been widely addressed. These categories relate to the conservation of natural areas and wildlife which do not contribute directly to farm productivity, but rather support the health of the agro-ecosystem through the provision of ecosystem services. A healthy agro-ecosystem contributes both directly and indirectly to agricultural production, and more emphasis should be placed on restoring and maintaining healthy agro-ecosystems. I believe that not enough emphasis is placed on adopting management practices which ensure the provision of ecosystem services on farms, and this is confirmed through our research. Alien invasive plants are a huge problem in South Africa, especially with regards to depleting our already scarce water resources, and opportunity exists to address this issue more directly on farms.
The level of adoption of biodiversity management practices within nine management categories on 30 pasture-based dairy farms in the Eastern Cape
I will discuss each of these categories below, pointing out some of the more pertinent practices, and the extent to which they have been adopted. I will also discuss the importance of adopting these practices on farms, and identify where opportunities exist for farmers to have even greater impact regarding biodiversity conservation.
Management of natural vegetation
The most important starting point with regards to biodiversity management is the mapping of all the land-uses on the farm. This has been done on 57% of the farms, with 20% having some adoption and the other 23% having it as part of their future plans due to this being a service that is provided by Trace & Save. Part of this process involves mapping the natural vegetation and identifying threatened vegetation types. It is impossible to conserve something that you do not even realise is there. At this stage the natural vegetation has been identified and mapped to some extent on only 60% of the farms, with 54% of farmers having identified threatened vegetation types on their farms. This will be addressed on these farms through the process of Trace & Save compiling a biodiversity management plan for them, but this is something that should be more widely adopted on farms. There are often really critical areas of natural vegetation on farms, where if farmers are not even aware of them, there is no way that they can place any emphasis on managing and conserving them.
The other important aspect of managing natural vegetation is actually setting aside areas for conservation, which has been fully adopted on 43% of farms, with some adoption on 33% of farms, and 17% of farms planning on doing so in future. This is a very positive result, as it shows farmers are aware that they should preserve natural areas that are left on their farms. Only 36% of the farmers indicated that they have allowed areas of semi-natural vegetation – where the natural vegetation has become degraded or disturbed at some stage in the past – to transform back to natural vegetation, with 7% planning to do so in future. This is a challenge, as these areas of semi-natural vegetation can often be converted into productive agricultural land, and it is a big ask to expect farmers to not make use of these areas. The most important thing is knowing whether this semi-natural vegetation is a threatened vegetation type, and if so, it has great value as conservation land and should be allowed and supported to transform back into its natural state.
Management of soil
As has already been mentioned, soil health management is an important aspect of productive pasture-based dairy farming, and therefore it is not surprising that farmers have most widely adopted practices in this category. The most adopted practice is that farmers aim to build soil organic matter in their soils, with 87% fully adopting this approach, and the other 13% adopting it to some extent. The other practice which has been adopted by all farmers to some extent (83% fully adopted; 17% some adoption) is that vegetative cover is maintained on all areas of the farm at all times, ensuring that soil erosion does not take place. Minimum tillage practices have been adopted on 93% of the farms (77% fully adopted; 17% some adoption). The soil management practice which has been least adopted is the planting of multi-species pastures, although this has been adopted on 87% of the farms (67% fully adopted; 20% some adoption). This is where the greatest opportunity for improving soil health management still lies, especially in that a diversity of pasture species supports a diversity of soil and insect life on the farm, which is important for both agricultural production and biodiversity conservation.
Limiting pollution on farms is not only an important environmental stewardship responsibility, but also helps to ensure the health of the agro-ecosystem. This is especially true for the water on the farm. Farmers can directly benefit from limiting water pollution. There are two practices which have been widely adopted on farms which contribute to the limiting of pollution. The first is that 97% of farmers (80% fully adopted; 17% some adoption) apply fertiliser according to recommendations based on soil health testing, and the second is that 94% of farmers (87% fully adopted; 7% some adoption) limit the use of pesticides and herbicides to only when necessary. Only 64% of farmers (37% fully adopted; 27% some adoption) use biologically friendly forms of pesticides and herbicides though. Two of the greatest opportunities to further limit pollution on farms, one specific to dairy farms and the other for all types of farming, are the implementation of an effluent management strategy which ensures no pollution of water sources (50% fully adopted; 30% some adoption) and the adoption of a nutrient balancing system which limits the importing of excess nutrients that can result in water and atmospheric pollution (40% fully adopted; 33% some adoption). For both of these practices, 20% of the farmers indicated that they are part of their future plans.
Management of wetlands
Wetlands are critically important to biodiversity conservation and healthy agro-ecosystems. They ensure consistent and clean water flow in farm streams, and support large amounts of fauna and flora. Forty percent of the farmers indicated that wetland management is not applicable on their farms. The majority of these cases are because there really are no wetlands on their farms, but I am certain that some of these farmers are just not aware that there are wetlands on their farms. Only 46% of farmers (33% fully adopted; 13% some adoption) indicated that wetlands have been identified and mapped on their farms. Two of the most important practices in conserving wetlands, not separating the source and downstream portions and allowing a buffer area of undeveloped and uncultivated land around wetlands, have only been adopted on 63% of the farms (31.5% fully adopted; 31.5% some adoption) where it was applicable. Creating buffer areas, especially by fencing off wetland areas, is an important practice that should be more widely adopted on farms so as to protect these precious natural resources. Practices such as not sinking high-yielding boreholes near wetlands, or building dams or weirs in wetlands without prior authorisation have been widely adopted where applicable though.
Management of rivers
The majority of farms indicated that they do not have rivers flowing through their farms, making the management of rivers a less important consideration for most farmers. Where rivers do flow through farms, they are an important part of the agro-ecosystem. The practices which contribute to protecting rivers and river banks have been widely adopted, where applicable. These include ensuring that the river banks and riparian zones alongside rivers are managed to support stable river banks, the minimising of erosion and the buffering of rivers from adjacent land uses (73% fully adopted; 13% some adoption). An especially important aspect of this is ensuring that the natural riparian vegetation along river banks is not disturbed (43% fully adopted; 43% some adoption).
Management of dams
Most farms have irrigation and/or stock drinking dams which play an important role in agricultural production, but can also play a role in biodiversity conservation. The practices which contribute to biodiversity conservation have not been very widely adopted on farms which have dams though. These practices include the planting of indigenous wetland plants, shrubs and trees in and around dams to improve water quality (12.5% fully adopted; 25% some adoption) and creating a buffer zone between agricultural land and dams with these same plants (26% fully adopted; 35% some adoption). This is definitely an opportunity to improve biodiversity conservation on farms, and 7% of the farmers indicated that they intend to make these practices part of their future plans.
Management of alien invasive plants
A previous blog, “Need more water, why not get rid of your aliens?”, discusses some of the issues surrounding alien invasive plants (AIPs) and why farmers should clear them on their farms. These plants are not an issue on all farms, but in areas where AIPs occur they are a huge problem. Twenty three percent of the farmers indicated that the management of AIPs is not applicable on their farms. Much like wetlands, this is probably a combination of a lack of AIPs, and a lack of awareness that AIPs are present. The first step in the management of AIPs is identifying and mapping their occurrence, which is part of the mapping of land-uses on the farm discussed above. There are only five farmers that have not cleared and controlled AIPs at all on their farms, but four of these intend to do so in future. It is imperative that the spread of AIPs is controlled and limited on farms. Part of this is ensuring that clearing is done in the correct manner, which has not been fully adopted (43% fully adopted; 39% some adoption), and that clearing actions are documented to keep track of areas which are due for follow-up clearing (16% fully adopted; 31.5% some adoption).
Management of mammals, reptiles and birds
The management of mammals, reptiles and birds is not often seen as a focus on intensively managed agricultural land, but even such agricultural land can serve as a habitat for many mammal, reptile and, especially, bird species. The most emphasis should be placed on any threatened species, which means identifying which of these species occur on the farm. This has only been done on 40% of the farms (20% fully adopted; 20% some adoption), although 23% of the farmers indicated it is part of their future plans. There are a few practices which can contribute to the conservation of mammals, reptiles and birds on farms, which have received various levels of adoption to date. These include implementing management activities which assist in the protection of threatened species (27% fully adopted; 30% some adoption), identifying the nests of large birds and avoiding them when work is carried out (40% fully adopted; 13% some adoption) and picking up and disposing of bailing twine and wire correctly (70% fully adopted; 7% some adoption).
Management of problem or damage causing animals
Predators seldom cause problems on dairy farms, and therefore no specific predator control practices are necessary on the 30 farms where these checklists have been done, but that is not the case for all types of farming. If predators are a problem, a predator control program should be developed to deal with the predators in a humane and conservation friendly manner. It is also important to contact the relevant authorities when necessary.
Farms often receive negative press about bad practices, but the evidence we have gathered suggests that farmers adopt a wide array of biodiversity conservation practices. That said, there are still many opportunities which exist for farmers to improve on. Biodiversity and natural areas often do not directly contribute to farm productivity, but they do contribute to the overall health of the agro-ecosystem. Having a healthy agro-ecosystem does contribute to agricultural production, especially on farms which are aiming for more sustainable production. It is therefore important that farmers identify practices which they can implement that will contribute to biodiversity conservation.
Craig loves travelling and tries to go on an overseas adventure to new and interesting places every opportunity he gets. He loves an engaging conversation or a good book. He is a bit of a coffee snob and foodie, so be sure to let him know about any new and interesting coffee shops or restaurants he should try out. He is also a big sports fan, most notably of the New England Patriots.
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