Soils Champions

Moats farm scores big with soil conservation

Farm longevity and productivity has long been the goal for Lee Moats and family. Their success in achieving it has benefited from a huge assist  from soil conservation practices.

Number 99 is a symbol of excellence for any hockey fan.

In the case of the Moats family farm near Riceton, Sask, that number is also a symbol of excellence for soil conservation.

The Moats farm, LLAMM Acres Ltd., is a successful, third generation, family farm, now in its 99th year of operation.

That productivity and longevity is the result of not only hard work and good management, but also of a tradition of dedication to soil conservation and other sustainable practices.

For Lee Moats - who, along with his wife Laurie and their daughter Morgan and son Joshua, took on the farm following his father and grandfather - soil conservation is a critical part of good farming. It's also an issue he has long championed through a variety of leadership roles, including as a provincial agricultural representative, a provincial agrologist for Ducks Unlimited Canada, a founding director and commissioner of several winter cereals organizations and as past director of the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association.

Keys to managing heavy clay soils

The Moats farm has evolved from a mixed farm that included hogs, dairy and, at one time, horses and mules.

Today, the farm is a 2,660 acre straight grain operation, where Lee and family produce a range of crops with a main focus on, winter wheat, canola and lentil, but also including malt barley, canary seed, flax, and durum wheat when required.

The farm sits in the middle of the Regina Plains that have mainly heavy clay soil. This soil is characterized by a very heavy texture and very good water holding capacity.

"This type of soil can be both a blessing and a curse," says Lee Moats. "Good water holding capacity allows crops to withstand hot and dry summers. However, wet spring soils can be a challenge to seed and require special attention. In addition, when tilled, heavy clay soil is very susceptible to wind erosion."

Moats has adopted a number of measures to meet these challenges:

Extended rotations, continuous cropping. Wind erosion is the primary soil conservation issue on the Moats farm. To combat wind erosion the Moats farm has practiced extended rotations since the 1970s and continuous cropping on all acres since 1984. The typical practice of burning crop residue was eliminated on the farm with the exception of flax by the current generation taking over.

Zero tillage. Zero tillage seeding was introduced with winter wheat in 1985 and the home farm has not been tilled since 1990. New land additions are immediately converted to zero tillage.

The Moats family tested a number of zero tillage drills in the 1990s to determine what would work best for them. "None were particularly good but a Noble drill was the best and that was what we used until 1994," says Moats. "In 1995 we purchased a Conserva Pak that came with a money back guarantee that its new pneumatic packers would work in the heavy clay, and they did."

To make zero tillage work effectively, cropping systems have evolved to include canola, followed by winter wheat followed by lentil.

Careful monitoring of herbicides. In addition, herbicides are carefully monitored to allow for:

  • Reduced use of glyphosate by eliminating it during the winter wheat year
  • Reduced use of group one wild oat herbicide by using a Liberty Link canola and by eliminating wild oat herbicide in the cereal year

"With the advent of Clearfield lentil it may be possible to nearly eliminate group one wild oat herbicides altogether," says Moats. "Our system allows for substitution of flax for canola, barley, canary seed or durum for winter wheat and peas for lentils."

Stranglehold on wind erosion

These practices have allowed the Moats farm to virtually eliminate wind erosion. "That's the largest immediate benefit from reduced and then zero tillage," says Moats.

Additional benefits have included improved moisture conservation and zero loss due to soil blasting of emerging seedlings. Longer-term benefits have also included markedly improved soil tilth and related reduction in draft requirements. "Our soil nitrogen mineralization also appears to be improving over the years, resulting in significant improvements in crop yield," says Moats.

Soil conservation and use of winter cereals has also boosted efficiency and results from an overall systems point of view, he says. "We have much improved time management, better utilization of equipment capitalization and a system that is better hedged against climate extremes - particularly wet springs and dry summers."

Ongoing challenges

While the success of conservation practices are self evident the more consistently they are applied, Moats sees several key ongoing challenges to soil conservation progress:

The nitrogen dilemma. Chief among these is the continuing battle in managing nitrogen. "High nitrogen prices may drive producers to attempt to mineralize nitrogen using tillage once again," he observes. "That would be very negative to conservation efforts."

New technology may be part of the solution, he says, by improving the ability of farmers to apply variable nitrogen rates based on more sophisticated analysis of crop needs. The Moats are looking at introducing Green Seeker technology in 2009, which will match nitrogen application to crop needs on a real time basis in the growing crop.

Herbicide resistance. Another major challenge is the heavy reliance of conservation tillage on a relatively narrow spectrum of herbicides, says Moats. "Glyphosate resistance in common weed populations has the potential to make zero tillage very difficult and perhaps very expensive. A strong focus on including cultural weed control measures and on resistance management are essential ingredients to meet the herbicide resistance challenge."

Feeling 'the war has been won.' Perhaps most threatening though is the danger of taking soil conservation for granted, says Moats.

"We have to guard against the attitude that the war has been won. A sharply reduced focus on conservation could very well allow old problems to reappear and new ones to emerge to seriously challenge the conservation effort."

"We have to guard against the attitude that the war has been won," says Moats. "A sharply reduced focus on conservation could very well allow old problems to reappear and new ones to emerge to seriously challenge the conservation effort."

It is essential that producers influence public policy makers at all levels to maintain and improve the focus on conservation, he advises. "Soil conservation advocates are very important in ensuring that soil conservation become a higher profile issue."