Feature Articles

Soil conservation 'a matter of conscience'

April 25, 2007:

For Bryan Noble, good soil management is a matter of tradition and stewardship

There are several obvious reasons why Bryan Noble places such a high value on farming practices which protect and conserve the soil on his farm. One is heritage; his grandfather, Charles Noble, was the inventor of the Noble Blade, the first modern low-disturbance cultivation tool, back in the 1930s.

Another is location; the nature of Southern Alberta's "dry belt" makes a necessity of conserving as much moisture in the soil as possible in order to stave off the effects of periodic drought.

However, for Noble, maintaining soil health on his 4,500 acre Southern Alberta farm runs even deeper than tradition and climate. "It's a matter of conscience," says the Barons, Alberta producer. "Soil is to farming what the cardiovascular system is to the human body; if it's not healthy, nothing else is healthy either."

And as someone who has observed firsthand the evolution of low-disturbance farming practices and technology, Noble believes the development of conservation practices is an ongoing one — one that will continue to require fresh thinking and a willingness to invest in the future.

"The fact is that the state of soil conservation rests on a very precarious balance at this point in time, and there's always a possibility that the technology we're using right now will fail us. We need to be prepared for that day."

Building progress

Soil conservation tools developed by his grandfather were a fixture on his parents' farm when he was growing up, but Noble's own minimum-till practices began when he started farming on his own in the late 1970s. By the mid-'80s, he had begun to experiment with zero-tillage on winter wheat, which he says was an natural fit for a transition crop.

"Southern Alberta was extremely dry in the 1980s — just preserving enough surface moisture to get germination could be an uphill battle," he says. "I needed a way to retain as much moisture as possible. Making the change to zero-till helped."

Like most producers who started to use zero-till in its formative years, Noble found working with the existing technology a challenge, particularly when it came to their ability to clear the heavy trash cover that goes hand-in-hand with the practice. In 1988, however, he was able to buy some inexpensive, prototype drills which tackled those clearance issues, setting it up to enable the side-banding of liquid fertilizer while seeding.

Noble used this system until 1994, when he purchased a Flexi-Coil 5000 drill, which he has been using ever since. He says he is presently looking at upgrading to new equipment which better reflects the advances made in zero-till technology over the past decade.

Further research critical

Noble's zero-tillage program has become such an integral part of his farm that he says his profitability would be at stake if he ever had to go back to using cultivation. This is one reason why he champions ongoing research into new soil conservation technology and practices, with a particular emphasis on soil quality and nitrogen efficacy.

"In the agricultural industry, we sometimes tend to think that our problems are automatically solved as soon as we find a new and effective way of doing things and we become dependent on that technology. Herbicides are a prime example," he says.

"But because today's zero-tillage depends on the efficacy of herbicides, that means the industry is only a couple of herbicide-resistant weeds away from having to go back to tillage."

This is why ongoing research is key, says Noble. "The zero-till technology I work with is the product of a robust research sector which existed 30 to 40 years ago. We need to look at what we're going to give our children and grandchildren to meet the challenges of the future, and part of that is making society aware of just how fundamentally important soil conservation research is to all of us."