Feature Articles

Technology helped drive new generation of soil conservation

April 9, 2007:

Dissatisfied with existing zero-till methods, Jim Halford created technology that would help drive a whole new approach to cropping on the Prairies and around the world

At some point in the late '70s, Jim Halford knew he needed a new approach to managing the soil on his Indian Head, Saskatchewan farm. What he wanted was a way to reclaim the most precious resource on his farm, the soil, and to build back the nutrients that had been lost over the centuries to the eroding effects of wind, water and cultivation.

It was around this time that Halford discovered the then-controversial concept of low disturbance cropping, in which conventional tilling practices are avoided. It was the beginning of a journey that would eventually see him develop technology that would not only help him reclaim the soil on his own farm, but drive a whole new generation of soil conservation around the world.

Modest beginnings

The zero-till system Halford would eventually develop and form a business around was the product of several years of trial and error which started with two objectives Halford set in the late '70s. First, he wanted to plant winter wheat, which requires leaving crop stubble undisturbed in order to collect snow. Second, he wanted to tackle the serious water and wind erosion problems that were taking a toll on his soil.

So, in 1979 — a year when disco could still be heard on the radio, Pierre Trudeau was still Prime Minister and tillage followed by summerfallow was conventional wisdom for most farmers — Halford began his zero-till efforts by opening up the soil with a disk machine in the spring and broadcasting fertilizer in a separate operation in the fall or spring.

"The first year did not show a lot of results — in fact, it cost us an extra $15 per acre," he says. "However, in the second year we started to see the potential of zero-till. We discovered that the real key to minimizing water erosion was leaving the previous crop's roots anchored in the soil."

New technology

By the early Eighties, however, Halford discovered he had taken the possibilities of existing zero-till equipment technology as far as they could go.

For one thing, he found the disk/broadcast system carried a number of drawbacks. Disks did not always adequately penetrate the soil, fertilizer efficiency left something to be desired, and — to Halford's thinking — the system still involved one operation too many. Making matters worse was the high price of herbicides and box drills which made the idea of large farms under zero-tillage almost unthinkable.

To Halford, it was clear that this new approach to cropping was never going to realize its full potential without new equipment technology. What he wanted was something that could plant seed and band fertilizer in a single pass with enough precision that the soil could get as much value from the fertilizer's nutrients as possible.

By 1983, Halford had developed a system which placed seed using a knife-type opener controlled by a packer wheel while applying fertilizer in a separate band to the side and three to four inches deep, quickly improving his fertilizer efficiency by 30 to 40 percent. Air delivery further improved seeding efficiency. This, combined with an overall drop in the price of herbicide, planted the seed for widespread use of low disturbance farming practices.

The time was right and the world was ready; in 1989, Halford introduced his Conserva Pak system to the world and by the mid-'90s zero-till, further aided by the introduction of adjustable openers for controlling seeding and fertilizing position, had become a common and accepted practice. "A lot of people quickly went from doing three to four operations to only one," he says.

Halford recently sold Conserva Pak to agriculture equipment giant John Deere. He says that John Deere will be able to capitalize on their extensive dealer network to take his company's designs and products to a growing number of conservation-minded farmers, benefiting the environment and farmers' bottom lines.

The soil factor

Although zero-till technology has added several options for producers looking for greater efficiencies, for Halford the bottom line is that it has helped him reach his primary objective: to preserve and revitalize his soil.

"I started doing this on soil which, in parts, had lost about a third of its organic material," he says. "Twenty years later, that same soil contained a little over 90 percent of its original content of organic material. I think zero-till, done properly, can build soil back up to the point where the organic levels in the soil are at the same levels they were when the grassland was first turned over."