Feature Articles

Soil conservation effort can't rest on successes

February 8, 2007:

Proven technology and ongoing research make it possible for Canadian producers to move into a new era of soil and water conservation.

From the sprawling grain farms of Western Canada to the terraced potato fields of New Brunswick's Upper Saint John Valley, Canadian farmers have made considerable progress over the past 20 years in protecting and enhancing the soil resource.

The challenge isn't over yet, say soil conservation advocates across the country, but more acres every year are being brought under crop production and soil conservation practices that reduce the risk of wind and water erosion of soil, and also help to improve soil quality and productivity, air quality and wildlife habitat.

"Farmers have done a fantastic job in adopting these improved practices," says Glen Hass, a retired Saskatchewan agrologist, extension specialist and former executive director the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC).

"We don't see the dust storms on the Prairies that we would have a few years ago. And while there are major rainfall events and flooding in various parts of the country, we're not seeing horrendous cases of water erosion. These are just some indicators of the improved production practices being used by farmers."

No till, minimum till, and direct seeding are being used widely in Western Canada as an alternative to conventional summerfallow and tillage, which was commonly practiced for decades in the first half of the last century. In Eastern Canada, direct seeding has a good fit with some crops, along with other conservation practices such as zone and strip tillage treatments, grassed waterways, terraced farming, and the use of cover crops to capture surplus nutrients and also anchor the soil.

"Each region has it own challenges," says Hass. "While direct seeding works well for most crops in Western Canada, potato production in Eastern Canada is not entirely friendly to soil conservation practices. So how do we treat that crop differently?

"British Columbia and Quebec, on the other hand, with intensive livestock operations and high rural population densities, face greater challenges in proper manure and nutrient management. There are many common issues facing producers across the country, as well as regional differences."

Leadership credit

Hass credits the national leadership of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) as a key player in effectively delivering the soil conservation message. SCCC, working with provincial associations and governments, was instrumental in establishing regional "Taking Charge Teams" which provided the connection between national and provincial programs and initiatives.

While SCCC focused on national soil conservation policies and awareness, regional programs and activities were delivered through the Taking Charge Team network.

"Because of the system in place the soil conservation message reached more producers in a relatively short period of time," says Hass.

Ontario progress

Harold Rudy is pleased with the progress that soil conservation efforts have made in Ontario, over the past 15 years.

The executive director of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) says about 50 percent of high acreage crops such as wheat and soybeans are now being produced under no till cropping systems as opposed to conventional mold board plow and other tillage treatments. Much like potatoes in Eastern Canada, however, no-till cropping is less compatible with Ontario's other major field crop – corn.

"Overall Ontario producers have certainly made tremendous progress," says Rudy. "Although we need to continue to evaluate practices which can be adapted for specific crops and soils."

In many cases no-till cropping doesn't suit corn production because without tillage it takes longer for heavier soils to warm in the spring. However, a modified practice known as strip tillage may be the answer.

Researchers and farmers are evaluating a treatment which tills or disturbs a six-inch wide strip of soil in the fall, after the previous crop harvest. The new corn crop can be "no till" seeded into this exposed six-inch wide band of soil which warms sooner in the spring.

From a crop production standpoint, this treatment is proving as effective as conventional tillage and yet 60 to 70 percent of the field remains undisturbed. This type of conservation measure requires further research as it is being adopted by producers.

Quebec momentum

Getting the soil conservation message out to producers takes time, says Odette Menard, a soil and water conservation specialist with the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture.

"A lot of progress has been made," says Menard. "More producers are becoming familiar with the practices, but we have a long ways to go yet."

Menard, who has been championing soil conservation initiatives for nearly 20 years, says she wants to see more Quebec farmland managed so it is left with at least 30 percent crop residue cover at time of planting. That is a benchmark figure used by soil conservation specialists in many jurisdictions.

"But we have to be careful about how we look at the figures," says Menard. "There are many producers who are no longer plowing their fields and are using other treatments such as a chisel plow or an offset plow. We may estimate that 35 percent of farmers are not plowing, but that doesn't necessarily mean we are achieving this 30 percent residue cover."

Menard estimates four to five percent of Quebec farmland is now being managed under no till cropping practices. "And that is very good, but we need to keep reinforcing the message to producers," she says. "More farmers now are familiar with the terminology and the concepts and as they see other farmers using these practices the momentum will build."

The value of soil conservation practices should not only be measured in tonnes per hectare of crop yield, but for greater impact also be described in terms of dollars per hectare, she adds. "These practices, which improve soil quality, do have an economic value," she says. "The soil is not only there to hold the plant but also to feed it. Soil conservation is not just a matter of machinery, but more importantly it is about the soil."

Potato success

Through Eastern Canadian provinces, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, the impact of the soil conservation message is also being felt, says Jean-Louis Daigle, executive director of the Eastern Canada Soil and Water Conservation Centre (ECSWCC).

While the region produces a wide range of crops, the success of soil conservation efforts in potato production may be the most dramatic, he says.

In New Brunswick for example, about 30 percent of the potato acres are now managed under some type of soil conservation practice. While potatoes is a crop not well suited to zero-till cropping practices, other production techniques have been introduced over the past 30 years, to minimize erosion and improve soil quality.

"Of the 121,000 acres of cropland involving potatoes being produced in rotation with other crops in New Brunswick, we now have about 36,500 acres or approximately 30 percent of cropland that is protected by measures such as diversion terraces systems, contouring in combination with the use of grass or rock waterways," says Daigle. "Rather than farming up and down the rolling landscape, farmers are now using these engineered systems which dramatically reduce the risk of water erosion to a tolerable soil loss level.

Citing an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada study from 1985, Daigle says it was estimated the annual on-farm losses to producers in Atlantic Canada due to wind and water erosion of soil, soil compaction and an overall loss in productivity was estimated at $40 million per year.

Studies showed top soil losses under conventional farming systems or up and down hill farming were as high as 15 to 20 tonnes per acre annually. "Under the conservation farming practices it is now estimated top soil losses have been reduced by 80 percent" says Daigle. "Each year we are seeing between 1,000 and 2,000 more acres being managed under these conservation farming systems."

It's a similar success story in Prince Edward Island, says Ron DeHaan , manager of the sustainable agriculture section of the PEI Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture.

In that province, with about 100,000 acres of potatoes, conservation measures such as diversion terraces, contours and grassed waterways are now used over as much as 50,000 acres of potato land.

"We have certainly made a lot of progress in this area," says DeHaan, "But we also have to continue to look at other treatments and production practices."

For example, researchers are looking at the impact of reduced tillage systems in potatoes to determine if concerns about increased crop disease levels are as serious as once thought. In another area, the potential of seeding crops such as winter wheat and fall rye on harvested potato fields is being evaluated. The cereal crops not only protect the soil, but help capture any surplus nutrients and have potential to be harvested a valuable livestock feed the next year.

"With about 500,000 acres of land in production for all crops, there's a continuing need to develop improved practices and increase producer awareness about soil conservation measures," says DeHaan.