Feature Articles

Conservation built farmer's 'soil bank account'

April 9, 2007:

Manitoba producer's soil conservation efforts were built on a simple premise: if you use it, put it back

If there's a common theme in the history of soil conservation at the farm level in Canada, it's the fact that it has been largely driven by producers for producers. Over the past several decades, producers dedicated to perfecting low disturbance cropping systems have experimented at their own expense, developing new technology and championing research that has made these practices the popular options they are today.

To Jim McCutcheon, that just makes common sense. Like many of the early adopters of low disturbance practices in Canada, the Homewood, Manitoba producer first started using zero-till to solve management problems that were not being addressed by the then-standard practice of soil cultivation — soil conservation itself was not his primary motive.

At the same time, however, he was driven by a fundamental respect for the soil and the basic idea that soil is a finite resource that needs to be conserved and protected. "To me, managing the soil is like borrowing money from a bank," he says. "You 'borrow' nutrients in the soil to grow food and are then obligated to put the same amount back in."

Multiple benefits

McCutcheon first started using zero-till in 1974 on the recommendation of a professor at the University of Manitoba as a way to manage wild oats on his farm. From there, he kept finding new efficiencies as a result of the management change. "I quickly found that zero-till reduced my fuel costs and the amount of time I had to dedicate to driving the tractor," he says. "It saved me both time and money."

Also, after conducting a number of tests, McCutcheon quickly saw the potential benefits of zero-till from a soil perspective. "It became clear to me that it would be the best way to preserve topsoil, short of converting all my cropped acres back to permanent grass," he says. "Within a few years, nearly the entire farm was cropped using zero-till."

Trial and error

Not surprisingly, McCutcheon's early zero-till efforts were a matter of trial and error. His first attempt at zero-till involved the use of a double disk drill; however, he soon discovered the system would not be sustainable over the long term.

"The longer I did zero-till, the more build-up of organic material I was gathering on the surface," he says. "From an agronomic point of view, that was a good thing, but from a mechanical perspective, it was a bad thing because disk drills weren't very good at penetrating the organic matter. The added material made that problem even worse."

After a number of modifications to the disk drill system, by the mid-'80s McCutcheon had switched to a hoe drill, which he found much more effective. Around that same time, he set out to design a modified version of an opener developed in New Zealand for direct seeding into pasture. "That design worked very well," he says.

Eventually, McCutcheon would abandon his fertilizer application method of banding nitrogen with his seed drill in the fall in favour of a one-pass side-banding application. "I modified a hoe drill by installing disk openers half-way between every other seed opener so that I was banding the fertilizer in a one-shot application at seeding time."

Looking back

McCutcheon's involvement with zero-till was not limited to his farm. As interest in low disturbance practices gained steam, he found himself an ambassador for the cause, serving as the first president of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association, working with industry to lower the cost of herbicides and representing the zero tillage community on a number of inter-governmental and industry projects until his retirement in 1999.

When McCutcheon looks back on his several years on the front line of zero-till, there are two things which stand out in his mind. One is the extent to which zero-till was a farmer driven movement. "There were people in a position to make zero-till happen who either couldn't or wouldn't allocate resources to zero-till research and technology development. Ultimately, it was up to the farmers themselves. It was based on farmer interest, farmer developments and farmer innovation."

Another is how fast it took the management practice to catch on. "When you think about it, for the farming community to go from almost all tillage to very little over the space of 30 years is pretty amazing — it's quite a revolution."