Buffer strips save soil, address field trouble spots

Strategically placed areas bring economic and environmental benefits

Buffer strip location and plant species should fit into the overall farm production system.

Buffer strips do more than prevent soil loss. When strategically placed, they can improve in-crop pest control, support pollination and help save money on otherwise troublesome parts of a field. 

Why it matters: When established in underperforming or problem areas, buffer strips can reduce input costs and insect pest pressure while acting as a positive public relations tool.

Farmtario spoke about buffer strips with Jennifer Doelman, a farmer, agronomist and beekeeper based in Renfrew County. She describes them as one of the most effective methods growers have to improve the environment and their bottom line. 

“Buffer strips are really [for] those parts on your farm that are not yet working at maximum potential. If you haven’t put a buffer strip in place to help support your natural predators, you’re missing out on some great opportunities,” says Doelman. 

From her perspective, that may include parts of the field that are difficult for equipment to access and cover, such as an odd corner or field edge where sprayers cannot easily manoeuvre, or areas where yields are generally poor. 

Scouting for areas with recurring weed pressure is another general strategy that growers and ag-service providers can employ. Doelman recommends fields be scouted at least two to three times each season to determine whether buffer strips could be a solution. 

“Any parts of our farms when I’m looking at the yield monitor or scouting fields and not seeing consistent or regular yields, it makes me wonder if maybe we should be retiring some of this and putting it into a buffer strip,” she says. 

“Then I’m not putting inputs there and I’m creating habitat for some of my most important staff, which are my beneficials. They’re great. They work on weekends, statutory holidays, and all they ask for to do their job well is some food and a place to stay.”

Scouting for buffer strip potential on owned property is straightforward. On rented land, Doelman says talking with landlords can be worthwhile and show that the tenant cares about the health of the property.

“Maybe you can even get the landlord to help pay for that,” says Doelman, adding many conservation areas and environmental programs might be available to help offset buffer strip establishment costs. 

There’s no specific buffer strip recipe. In places where the sprayer can’t reach but where some herbicides might still contact the buffer area, Doelman suggests species that can handle some chemical pressure. Hairy vetch and crimson clover can withstand some glyphosate, for example. 

Red or white flowering sweet clover offers an inexpensive but tough option, though Doelman also considers them good options because they self-seed and bloom throughout the growing season. For more high-traffic areas, lower growing plant species like red and white clover may be preferred. 

Grasses and vetches can be valuable, though additional management may be required – occasional mowing for the former and edge maintenance for the latter. Even the medley of species in mixed birdseed can be a visually striking and civic-minded option. 

“I’m always a big fan of anything that has a flower,” Doelman says. “The native pollinators are what’s keeping our system in balance…[Flowers] are feeding things which are helping your crop as well, not just the honeybees.”

Whatever the species and site, Doelman emphasizes the importance of ensuring pollinator plots fit within the farm’s working system. 

“There’s no sense spending a lot of money on a cover crop seed that the [sprayer] is going to take out.”

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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