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Watershed Evaluation of Beneficial Management Practices

The Watershed Evaluation of Beneficial Management Practices (WEBs) program, a long-term research project initiated by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 2004, was a successful nine-year Government of Canada initiative to determine the economic and water quality impacts of selected agricultural beneficial management practices (BMPs) at nine watershed sites across Canada.

To gain a regional perspective, findings were scaled up to reflect larger watershed areas using computer software, or hydrologic models, that simulate a watershed's surface water and groundwater runoff responses to precipitation and human stresses.

WEBs findings will help researchers and agri-environmental policy and programming experts to understand how BMPs perform and interact with land and water. The valuable information WEBs provided on BMP performance on the landscape will help producers determine which BMPs are best for their operations and regions.

WEBs studies were conducted at nine watershed sites across Canada. These outdoor living laboratories brought together a wide range of experts from various government, academic, watershed and producer groups.

See the Watershed Evaluation of Beneficial Management Practices final report for more information on the program.

Key Watershed Evaluation of Beneficial Management Practices findings

Agricultural producers and policy makers need to know how well these BMPs work, how much they cost to implement and maintain, and whether the application of BMPs to address one concern can create other problems. WEBs has reported on specific scientific findings, and many useful and interesting outcomes have been observed.

Factors affecting the adoption of agricultural benefits management practices

Certain BMPs can help protect water quality by limiting leaching and runoff of nutrients, agro-chemicals and sediment into water bodies. However, while producers already employ many of these measures, the rate at which BMPs are being implemented can always be improved. In order for governments and other funding organizations to develop policies and design programs that will encourage further BMP adoption, it is necessary to gain a more complete understanding of what makes producers adopt BMPs.

In the Chaudière region of southern Quebec, economists surveyed 269 agricultural producers to determine the impact of certain variables on the probability of producers adopting BMPs meant to address water quality problems. This area was chosen because it is comparable to many intensively-farmed watersheds in Ontario and Quebec. The findings of this study could help tailor promotional efforts and incentives directed at achieving BMP adoption objectives in all parts of Canada.

The factors found to have an impact on the adoption of the BMPs in the WEBs study include: education, age, gender, farm residence, farm size, organic certification, membership in a watershed-based conservation group, and labour costs.

Education

A higher education was found to significantly increase the probability of producers adopting most of the BMPs, possibly because a higher education may result in an enhanced level of the management and decision-making skills that are needed to obtain optimal BMP results.

Age

As producers get older, they are more likely to implement crop rotation and riparian buffer strips. The probability of adoption increases by 1.3% per year of age.

Gender and farm residence

Women and producers living on the farm, 4% and 88% of survey respondents respectively, are more likely to adopt solid and liquid manure management practices. Both groups tend to have greater sensitivity to local water quality and odour issues due to concern for their family's and neighbours' health.

Farm size

Larger farms, defined in terms of the number of acres and the value of machinery and animal and crop production, are more inclined to adopt BMPs. This is likely due to economies of scale, greater financial flexibility, challenges associated with greater soil and landscape diversity, and greater public scrutiny that they may attract from their behaviour. Farms with large-scale animal production tend to implement crop rotation, riparian buffer strips, and solid and liquid manure management.

Smaller farms, on the other hand, are less likely to adopt BMPs than larger farms. Many smaller farms need off-farm income to support household expenditures and are usually less financially able to take on the added expense of implementing BMPs. As well, many of these producers may not have the time required to manage the BMPs. Yet, most small farms in Quebec and Ontario are located in regions with high-density livestock and intensive farming where water quality may be at a greater risk.

Organic certification

Having organic certification increases the likelihood of adopting solid and liquid manure management. Certified organic producers do not apply herbicides in crop production.

Membership in watershed groups

Participation in a watershed-based conservation group increases the likelihood that producers will adopt most of the surveyed BMPs, although the effect was found to vary across BMPs.

Labour costs

The price of labour does not have a significant impact on the adaptation of most BMPs, and has a varying impact on the probability of adopting crop rotation and solid manure management.

Other components studied within the Watershed Evaluation of Beneficial Management Practices program

Much has been learned about the various landscape factors (for example, soil texture) and processes (for example, freeze-thaw effects) that can affect BMP performance. For example, an improved understanding of the effect of soil type on BMPs within the Bras d'Henri Watershed in Quebec has allowed researchers to better interpret water quality results and other biophysical findings. This knowledge will benefit future BMP evaluations both within and beyond this watershed.

Two paired micro-watersheds were studied within the Bras d'Henri Watershed. These watersheds were chosen after a comparison of available hydrology, soil and land-use information. A very detailed soil survey conducted through WEBs later determined that the soils of these 'twin' watersheds were actually very different.

The dominance of podzols, or coarse-textured soils, in the BMP-altered watershed made it far more prone to nitrogen leaching than the control watershed. But as these podzols also have a high phosphorous-sorption capacity, this led to much lower phosphorous concentrations at the outlet when compared to the control watershed. Both of these factors helped to explain the unexpected performance of the BMPs.

This information has allowed researchers to better interpret water quality results and has led to new research and scientific findings on relationships between soil variability and BMP performance.

WEBs also conducted detailed studies into the financial impact of BMPs on producers. Knowing the benefits and costs of different practices can help determine whether or not producers are likely to require financial incentives, such as cost-sharing, before implementing BMPs.

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