Resource project to promote biodiversity in arable land

    Is it possible to produce food in a biodiversity-friendly, resource-efficient way without reducing yield? In a resource project conducted with our partners ("resource programme FOAG“) we optimise current production methods in winter wheat and maize and examine the ecological, economic and agronomic effects.

    Aims

    Winter wheat and maize are the two most common arable crops in Switzerland. Today, these crops are managed so intensively that many typical animal and plant species no longer find suitable habitat conditions in the fields. Using biodiversity-friendly measures, we want to promote the presence of large and small organisms such as the Eurasian Skylark, brown hares, ground beetles, spiders, but also pollinators and other “beneficial” organisms on arable land.

    Reducing crop density in wheat fields allows Skylarks, hares and other animals to move, forage and reproduce more easily. The attractiveness and quality of maize as a habitat can be enhanced by undersowing with flowering plants that provide a rich structure. Such measures have the additional benefit of protecting natural resources like water, air and soil. To make sure that the measures are attractive and profitable for farmers as well, they must not lead to yield loss.

    Approach

    This approach is based on so-called conservation tillage or regenerative agriculture practices with minimal soil disturbance. In maize and winter wheat fields, optimised techniques involving ground vegetation and wide crop spacing are employed to ensure a good yield, reduce herbicide use and improve the reproduction and survival conditions for certain target species (Eurasian Skylark, beneficial organisms). Scientific studies assess the feasibility of the measures and their economic and ecological impact.

    Measures
    Winter wheat: a special pattern of crop spacing combining conventional narrow rows with wide gaps (30–50 cm) allows the Eurasian Skylark to use winter wheat as a breeding and foraging habitat throughout its breeding season. We also expect the development of various micro-habitats, which increases the diversity of arthropods (insects, spiders, etc.) in the fields.

    Maize: undersown crops provide cover and food for the ground-breeding Skylark and habitat for many beneficial organisms.

    The measures are developed and optimised in a close collaboration between the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL), the cantonal farms Bellechasse and Witzwil and the research institutes (University of Bern and Swiss Ornithological Institute). The feasibility and economic effectiveness of the measures are tested on other farms (so-called satellite farms). The University of Bern and the Swiss Ornithological Institute evaluate the ecological effectiveness, while HAFL examines feasibility and agronomic effects. The long-term goal is pesticide-free production. We expect that similar measures can be employed in other crop types.

    Implementation
    Where: Grosses Moos and surrounding area, cantons of Fribourg, Bern, Solothurn and Vaud.

    Focus farms: cantonal estates Bellechasse (FR) and Witzwil (BE), where the measures are optimised and the reproductive success of the Eurasian Skylark is monitored.

    Satellite farms: 20–25 private farms in the area implement the measures. Here, the feasibility of the measures is evaluated and the increase in functional biodiversity measured.

    Project duration
    Starts in 2019, ends in 2024

    Significance

    Scientific studies show (e.g. in the Klettgau SH) that at least five to ten percent of valuable biodiversity promotion areas are required in arable land to preserve the species diversity in that habitat. This is a target not accepted by farmers under the current agro-political conditions. To mitigate the conflict of interests between food production and the promotion of biodiversity, the harmful effects of pesticides must be reduced and the arable land itself restored to forms more compatible with biodiversity. New, innovative approaches that integrate biodiversity and food production therefore need to be pursued in highly productive locations.

    Results

    Scientific research has accompanied the project since 2019 in the context of Sina Siedler’s dissertation at the University of Bern and the Swiss Ornithological Institute. Initial results are expected in 2020.

    Project management

    Markus Jenny

    Partners

    HAFL (School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences)
    University of Bern (University of Bern: Institute of Ecology and Evolution)
    AGRIDEA (Swiss Association for the Development of Agriculture and Rural Areas)
    SWISS NO-TILL (Swiss soil conservation association)

    Financial support

    The project is conducted as a resource programme pursuant to articles 77a and 77b of the Federal Act on Agriculture. Accordingly, 50 to 80% of the costs are covered by the Federal Office for Agriculture FOAG, while 20 to 50% are met by the participating organisations.