Geese and farmers: Seeds of cooperation

Fourth-generation Delta farmer Kevin Husband is challenged by grazing snow geese on Westham Island during the winter months - BOAZ JOSEPH / THE LEADER
Fourth-generation Delta farmer Kevin Husband is challenged by grazing snow geese on Westham Island during the winter months
— image credit: BOAZ JOSEPH / THE LEADER

Kevin Husband calls it a quiet day as he looks at the empty, flooded muck, patted down by the snow geese on one of the fields of his 350-acre Westham Island farm.

He can hear part of the flock in the distance, but they won't come back for a while since there's not much for them anymore – and admittedly, the geese will soon head north to Siberia to their spawning grounds.

The field, for the time being, has been stripped of its cover crop of grass that's supposed to protect the soil in the off-season.

Every winter, clouds of the snow geese – as well as trumpeter swans, American wigeons, northern pintails, mallards, green-winged teals and Canada geese – make stopovers along the Pacific Flyway migration route, stripping bare farms of Westham Island and the Ladner area.

Last year, Husband lost 37 acres of winter grass to overgrazing by snow geese.

He calls their feeding style "systematic."

In three or four hours, he says, 15,000 birds can land and strip clean a 25-acre field.

And their numbers are growing each year.

But in a redefining of the relationship between farmers and wildlife, the birds are being accepted as part of the business.

Part of that acceptance is the financial help that farmers are getting in planting winter cover crops that specifically target birds.

It's called the Winter Cover Crop Stewardship Program, formerly called the Greenfields Project, organized by the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust (DF&WT).

It's a 20-year-old cost-sharing program that pays farmers $40-55 per acre to plant specific seeds in the off-season.

The winter cover crops helps protect the soil from erosion during heavy winter rains and increases organic matter in the soil, particularly beneficial during spring tilling.

The farms are seeded with barley, oats or wheat – "the stuff you make beer and bread with," says David Bradbeer, program coordinator at the DF&WT.

Recently, there have also been more use of clover, which the birds eagerly consume, and which brings more nitrogen into the soil than the cereals.

Other common forage grasses that are planted are timothy, fescue, orchard grass and ryegrass.

Even when some farms are stripped by the birds, there is still organic matter left over, as well as invertebrates, which attract other birds such as sandpipers and plovers.

While there are soil-quality benefits to farmers of commonly grown crops such as potatoes, beans and peas, the cover crop program also lures birds away from winter hay and grass farms (often grown for local use by livestock farmers) who find the birds a challenge to their crop-growing.

Those farms, if inundated with birds, would be forced to reseed or buy extra feed for their livestock.

The redirecting of where the birds graze during the winter also reduces their conflict with local airports.

About 30 farms in Delta are taking part in the $144,000 program, which covers about 3,000 acres with winter lure crops.

The program is funded by the Delta Agricultural Society, the BC Waterfowl Society (which runs Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary), Ducks Unlimited Canada, The Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, Vancity enviroFund and the Corporation of Delta.

Husband, who farms cabbage, rhubarb, green beans, hay grass and berries (he owns Emma Lea Farms nearby), says they program is almost a break-even deal for his four-generation farm.

He adds that without the program, he would plant winter cover crops anyway to protect the soil.

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