Soils Champions

Innovation drives soil improvement on Ontario farm

Soil champions have a tradition of being open to new ideas – Rick Schouten is no exception

From the first air seeders in the 1970s to today's focus on precision agriculture, the history of soil conservation in Canada has always depended on producers who have been willing to open their minds to new technology and practices. Today, soil champions across Canada continue to look to new innovations to drive healthier soil.

Rick Schouten is one of these farmers. Schouten Corner View Farms, a cash crop and dairy operation in Richmond, Ontario which he manages along with his brother Ed and nephew Chris, strives to continuously improve production practices while keeping one eye on the overall environmental health of the operation. In the process, he has become an early adopter of practices and technology that has improved soil quality on his family's 3,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, receiving recognition for that effort. Here are some things they have done.

Reduce tillage. Reduced tillage practices are considered by many today to be the lifeblood of modern crop production systems. Schouten makes extensive use of these tillage practices to sustain the productivity of the soil, planting all soybeans no-till into corn stalks and planting other crops using minimum tillage.

Adopt technology. Technology plays a key role on the Schouten farm. A few examples include using GPS mapping to collect yield data, installing a caddy system on his corn planter and purchasing a Salford residue till system to cut and distribute crop residue. These changes allow him to plant up to 300 acres non-stop and protect against run-off in the process.

Innovate. Schouten has never been afraid to experiment with his farming practices. He was one of the first producers in the area to bring back drum packers in a no-till system. Another example is their corn planter and air cart system, which he was able to refine after a three-year period of trial and error, an effort which attracted broad interest from farmers and the equipment industry.

Schouten is also among the first producers in eastern Ontario to adopt air drill technology, planting no-till wheat and soybeans with a Case IH SDX 30 single disc opener no-till air drill and 230 bushel air cart. Schouten likes this system because its weight and big cutting disc cuts through stalks and trash on the ground, making it ideal for no-till operations.

Schouten Corner View Farms strives to continuously improve production practices while keeping one eye on the overall environmental health of the operation.

Build on records. Farmers have been told they can't manage what they can't measure. Record keeping is a recommended practice for farmers wanting value from nutrient management plans. Schouten uses a comprehensive manual and computerized record system to calculate fertilizer needs of soil based on soil tests every three years and regular manure tests. The result is a stronger fertilizer management system.

Control erosion. In addition to removing valuable nutrients from the soil, erosion of soil from water also presents the risk of producing runoff that can be a major source of pollution in water bodies. One method Schouten uses to address this is to place field stones around outlets and gullies on his property, in the process reducing spring runoff and retaining soil nutrients on his field.

Manage water. Schouten's innovative approach to farming extends to water. They have improved water management on their crops using systematic drainage to improve productivity and help avoid crop failure. In the dairy barns he uses ozone treatment to purify water for livestock and recycles barn water by using it twice before it enters manure storage. He has also used federal and provincial funding to update wells with pitless adaptors, extend well casings and decommission seven wells on his property.

Show leadership. The leadership shown at the farm level extends to the community. Schouten has worked at both the local and regional level in 4-H. He's done the same in soil and crop improvement associations and has been involved in general organizations such as Ottawa's Clean Water Program. The operation also participates in the Federation of Agriculture and Dairy Producers committees. The latest project on the table is an anaerobic digester to supply electricity to the grid and possibly separate solids and recycle them for bedding.

Awards show support

A sign of the appreciation for the efforts Schouten has put in is that he has received several awards for soil and crop improvement, environmental stewardship and general excellence in farming. One of his most recent was the Innovative Farmer of the Year award which recognizes Ontario producers who have used innovative farming practices and demonstrated leadership in their communities and within the Ontario agriculture sector.