Feature Articles

Farmers drive soil conservation progress

January 22, 2007:

Research leads but farmer trust key to acceptance

In a flood of information, individual farmer experience, backed by research, convinces more producers to adopt improved production practices says a group of soil conservation leaders across Canada.

While ongoing research is needed to develop new technology and practices that benefit soil conservation, it is also important to keep farmers talking to farmers about what practices work and don't work, say Canadian soil conservation specialists.

It is one-on-one contact, farmers talking each other in the field, field days that allow producers from various parts of the country to see what their counterparts are doing, that really brings home the soil conservation message.

"It's just like planting seeds," says Odette Ménard, a soil and water conservation specialist with the Québec Ministry of Agriculture. "Farmers can talk to each other and show each other what they are doing – those are the actions that plant the seeds of ideas. One farmer can say, 'that idea is working here, maybe that will work on my farm too'. The plan is to plant as many of these seeds as possible and see how many grow."

Ménard says programs that provide funding to cover the cost of new equipment, machinery and other capital costs, for example, have their place, but in her experience, simple extension efforts that have farmers and soil conservation specialists sharing ideas and knowledge produce the greatest benefit.

"Under programs such as the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program for Canadian Agriculture, for example, we were able to produce a number of fact sheets," she says. "And we found that producing a two page fact sheet on an improved management practice once a month was much more efficient than producing a 20 page report once a year."

While farm-scale trials and demonstrations are an important tool for exposing producers to new practices, scientific research is needed to "validate" these techniques.

"But it is important for researchers too, to be open to new ideas and approaches," she adds. "Sometimes they may be too specific in their projects."

For example, Ménard says in a recent trip to France she saw projects where researchers were using a mixture of forages as cover crops. "The idea is if these use several different species in the cover crop mix they are bound to get something that will grow regardless of conditions," she says. "If it is too wet or too dry something will grow and if they have ideal conditions then maybe all the grasses will grow providing good ground cover, and improved weed control while making use of surplus nutrients in the soil.

"This multi-species approach is better than evaluating individual cover crops over several years."

All society benefits

Along with a strong extension program, overall soil conservation research needs to establish economic benefits, says Jean-Louis Daigle, executive director of the Eastern Canada Soil and Water Conservation Centre (ECSWCC) based in New Brunswick.

"We need to not only look at the economic benefits of best management practices at the farm level, but also the socio/economic benefits as well," he says. "Improved production practices which improve soil and water conservation are a benefit to our whole society. So we have to ask what is the value of improved practices as a whole?"

Daigle points to practices such as reduced tillage, development of grassed waterways, establishment of riparian area buffer zones, and use of diversion terraces on fields prone to water erosion that help to improve soil quality and fertility, and reduced risk of pesticides being washed or leached into streams and other water sources.

Ongoing adaptive research also has to look at developing innovative technology, he says. "We need to be looking at improved farming and tillage systems. With several crops such as potatoes we can't talk about no-till. It's a crop that doesn't lend itself to a no-till farming system. So what are the feasible or practical options?"

New tillage research

That's where research involving a new tillage tool in Prince Edward Island, for example, may prove valuable to potato growers, points out Ron DeHaan, manager of the sustainable agriculture section of the PEI Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture.

In conventional potato production, one pass hillers leave a compacted furrow between the crop rows, he explains. Every three feet across a field is a compacted strip of soil that acts like a trough that can contribute to serious soil and water erosion during rain storms.

"What we're looking at over the next couple years is a rear attachment to the hiller, that resembles a boat propeller that digs a small depression every 15 to 18 inches along this compacted furrow," saysDeHaan. "Under simulated rainfall conditions these small ponds catch and hold the water, which not only improves available moisture to the crop, but reduces the risk of water erosion. We've been able to measure a 25 times reduction in runoff under normal rainfall events."

Researchers now want to evaluate the value of this tool, manufactured by Spudnik Equipment Company, on a field scale basis and under actual rainfall conditions. "If we can use a technique like this that is effective under 99 percent of the storm situations, farmers will adopt it," he says.

PEI researchers are also working to improve nutrient management for potato crops. With standard fertilizer recommendations often leading to over-fertilization of crops, producers are supporting federal and provincial government researchers who are conducting split-field trials using different fertilizer rates to see if lower rates will produce the same yield and dollar return.

"The research is being conducted on 15 commercial fields, comparing conventional rates, with reduced rates," he says. "Measuring equipment will monitor levels of nitrate leaching. The overall objective is to fine tune nutrient requirements."

Another measure which will benefit soil and water conservation efforts, is a plan by the provincial crop insurance provider to offer a five percent reduction in insurance premiums to any producer who develops and implements a nutrient management plan. That program applies to producers of all crops including cereals, potatoes and corn.

Overall soil quality

While many Ontario producers have adopted production practices which improve soil and water conservation, the message still needs to be reinforced to growers, says Adam Hayes, a soil management specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs based in Ridgetown.

"Over the past 20 years producers have made tremendous progress, but there are still improvements to be made," he says. "And with such a wide diversity of crops including horticultural crops, seed corn and sugar beets we probably will never see 100 percent no-till or direct seeding."

Hayes says both the extension and research effort needs to look beyond erosion control measures. "We need to be looking and talking about soil quality as a whole," he says. "That includes erosion control, but it also includes proper crop rotation, the use of cover crops, and practices which help build soil organic matter. We need to always be looking for improved production practices which help to maintain and improve overall soil health and quality."

He says it is important for research to develop and refine best management practices in key areas such as nutrient management.

Farmers on same page

While specific crop, soil and growing conditions change between eastern and western Canada the objective is the same in all regions of the country, says Glen Hass, a retired Saskatchewan agrologist, extension specialist and former executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC).

"No matter where you farm in Canada, the challenge ahead for producers is to balance the requirements of best management practices with economics," says Hass. "Farmers will adopt improved crop production practices as long as they make economic sense."

Hass notes the picture has changed in all parts of the country in recent years. All farms are getting larger – even in Eastern Canada it's not uncommon to find 2,000 and 3,000 acre farms – and everyone has to deal with higher input costs.

"The whole economics have changed," he says. "Larger farms, higher fuel costs, higher crop input costs, means farmers need to be more efficient. So bad management or poor practices, which people think may save money, just don't cut it anymore. Farmers are interested in the best management practices which benefit the soil, water and improve crop yields, but at the same time they need to make economic sense."

Hass says research needs to look at the whole systems approach. Research needs to look at practices that provide a balance between crop rotation systems and nutrient management systems.

Research needs to put more tools in the cropping tool box by looking at a wider range of crops with improve drought and heat tolerance that fit a changing production environment.

Research needs to create a better balance between crop and livestock production systems so they fully complement each other. And research needs to address new market opportunities such as developing crops for bio-fuels.

"The emphasis needs to be on improved efficiency, making better use of available resources, and being prepared for new opportunities," says Hass. "As the bio-fuel industry develops, for example, we will shift away from producing high protein food crops, towards producing high carbohydrate, fuel-producing crops. Crops for food products will still be important, but farmers will also have to think about simply producing 'products'.

"And this all has to fit within the context of being environmentally sustainable, as well as economical," he says.