Feature Articles

Lessons in soil conservation

February 10, 2008:

Link with South American conservation group offers fresh perspective for Canadian challenges


In many ways, the widespread use of farming practices aimed at protecting the soil is a fairly young movement in Canada, one that only began in earnest over the past several decades. Although more producers than ever are embracing soil conservation practices such as no-till, many agree there is still a lot more that can be learned to make these practices more efficient and profitable.

As key advocates for soil conservation, one step the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) has taken towards this goal is to learn from others. One way it has done this is by forming relationships with like-minded organizations in other countries. A key example has been its relationship with the Confederation of American Associations for the Sustainable Production of Agriculture (CAAPAS), an umbrella organization for soil conservation efforts throughout North and South America.

Doug McKell, a Regina, Saskatchewan area producer and SCCC executive director, recently attended the CAAPAS annual general meeting in Bella Vista, Paraguay and traveled with a farmer contact in Brazil to see how producers in those South American countries are tackling the challenge of soil degradation. What he found was a group of farmers passionate about protecting the soil from erosion, working together to develop new ways to reach this goal while remaining profitable at the same time.

"It doesn't matter where a farmer is from, the bottom line is still the bottom line," he says. "Just like Canadian farmers, producers from Paraguay look for solutions that will not only ensure the long-term sustainability of the soil but also address economics and create short-term efficiencies as well. Although there are certain climate and cultural differences which may not always make these efforts easily translatable to Canada, if we learn from some of their ideas there could really be some phenomenal potential."

Widespread no-till. Paraguay farmers have almost entirely embraced no-till practices, says McKell, with over 90 percent of cropped land under no-till systems. "This is in comparison to 50 percent for Canada."

These practices provide a notable yield advantage, he says. "And the fields that we visited had excellent residue coverage and exhibited no evidence of soil erosion, either by wind or water."

Co-operatives drive progress. One thing McKell had not expected was the extent to which Paraguay farmers use co-operatives to drive profits. "As in Canada, there are co-operatives in the country which serve primarily to collect and market grain. However, the Paraguay agricultural industry takes the co-operative concept a few steps further, with value-added processors and input supply and machinery dealerships which operate under a co-operative structure. I was told that one co-op achieved gross sales of $150 million last year."

In addition to driving profits, the co-operative system gives Paraguay producers additional buying power. "It serves well for hiring agronomists for research and development of new farming practices, for example," he says.

Cover crops prominent. The use of cover crops for residue cover, runoff protection and nitrogen fixing is extensive in Paraguay and other areas of South America, says McKell. They are currently refining this technique by researching various cover crop combinations and timing of growth ending techniques.

One particular method that stood out to McKell was a "crimping" technique used to kill cover crop plants and prepare the soil for seeding. "A roller with a knife attached to it bends the plant over, crimping the stem without actually cutting the plant. This results in a thick mulch which provides a barrier to developing weeds. I was told that this method cuts the use of herbicides substantially. It is also an excellent technique for preventing water erosion from heavy rainfall."

Tropical areas such as Paraguay enjoy a natural advantage over Canada when it comes to cover crop usage. "Because of its longer growing season, farmers from Paraguay are in a better position to get value out of cover crops, especially with respect to nitrogen fixation," he says.

"However, it may still be something we should be looking at developing in Canada, at least in the areas where we have the longest growing seasons. And in terms of research, we've barely scratched the surface of opportunities to use non-traditional crops as cover."

Watershed management. Watershed management was a hot topic during McKell's agricultural tour of the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. "Brazil has seen the same type of soil degradation we have experienced in Canada, which means there's the risk of water being affected by soil runoff. Right now, producers, landowners and municipal representatives are trying to develop ways to manage this risk at a watershed level rather than tackle it at an individual farm level."

Although government pressure and the strong presence of non-governmental environmental groups have influenced these measures, McKell says most of the farmers he visited seemed to be genuine in their willingness to manage soil runoff. "Most seem resigned to the fact that they will need to manage their land with surface water quality in mind and take the appropriate actions. They also seemed to accept the prospect of a water tax or fee levied against all watershed users."

Carbon credit curiosity. South American farmers were also interested in developments taking place in Canada, particularly on the subject of carbon credit trading. "Although they tend to overestimate both how far these efforts are coming along as well as the potential returns, they are keenly aware of efforts in Canada and the U.S. to establish a trading platform and follow whatever is developing here," says McKell.

"They are also moving along with their science in quantifying the benefits from carbon sequestration in their soils. I spoke with a director of more than 10 research centres in the Rio Grande do Sul state who told me their main research focus is on the development of this science and the protocols necessary for carbon offset trading."

Farmers will share

In South America the efforts of CAAPAS and their member soil conservation organizations provide an excellent opportunity for producers to learn from each other, says McKell. "In that sense, it's similar, albeit at a larger scale, to what the SCCC does with our regional Taking Charge Team network, which provides a link between national and provincial programs and initiatives, helping producers learn from each other at a grassroots level," he says.

For McKell's complete report, as well as general information on the SCCC, visit the SCCC Web site at www.soilcc.ca.