Soils Champions

20 plus years of soil conservation farming

This Alberta farm's soil management plan protects its anchor asset long-term

Pat Staden and partners adopted conservation tillage more than 20 years ago.
Pat Staden and partners adopted conservation tillage more than 20 years ago.

Ask Pat Staden about soil conservation on his farming operation near Mannville, in northeastern Alberta. and he'll likely stop and think for a minute before replying. It's not that he isn't an active participant; it's just that soil conservation management has been a critical part of the family farming business for so long that it's now just part of accepted thinking.

The farming operation is part of what many in agriculture would call a family farm model built to weather today's aggressive agricultural business climate. It involves more than one family. It's multi-enterprise and entrepreneurial. It uses crop and livestock operations in a complementary way. It's concerned about its environmental impact especially soil health and conservation. And the people in it have been actively involved in organizations trying to lay the groundwork for a sustainable future.

Today the operation Staden and his wife farm in partnership with his brother and sister-in-law includes a crop enterprise, a cow-calf beef enterprise, a cow-calf bison enterprise and a bison feeder enterprise. The farmland covers a range of soil types from very sandy to clay-loam.

Conservation tillage key

By far the most dramatic change they have made in soil conservation has been to adopt conservation tillage more than 20 years ago, a system that provides minimal soil disturbance. "We use a no-till drill and that disc opener allows us to seed canola, wheat, peas, barley and forages with very little disturbance," says Staden. "One of the biggest benefits of this seeding system is that it conserves moisture and moisture is often our most limiting crop production factor."

The farm had some issues with wind erosion on lighter land in the early years, but that is no longer a concern with conservation tillage. Water erosion on sloped land was addressed that by seeding waterways to grass.

"Grassed waterways take a bit of effort to farm around, he acknowledges, and today with the soil quality and crop cover of no-till systems, I suspect much of that land wouldn't be a problem if it was in crop," he says. "However, we take some hay off, or let the cattle graze them, and it's not much effort to work around them with cropping equipment."

The operation is built around using livestock and crops in a complementary way. Forages are rotated through cropland. Rotational grazing is used extensively. Gazing smaller pastures more frequently improves forage production and keeps weeds under control Bison feeders graze in paddocks built for an elk operation in previous years.

Chaff is harvested from selected grain crops and cattle move to the chaff piles as winter feed, which means manure is spread in the field. A relatively new effort is to plant corn for use as pre-calving winter grazing. That increases number of days cows can graze which cuts down on feed hauling. That corn acreage is rotated through cropland

Broad industry change

The success in this operation in soil management terms is something that Staden believes is generally happening in agriculture. The growth of conservation tillage has been substantial, he says, noting improvements in the area over the past 20 years. He believes people are just continually doing a better job, getting better yields, farming more efficiently and generally thinking of the environment. There is just less soil erosion as a result.

"On a personal basis, we believe we are stewards of the land," says Staden, "and that we have a responsibility to care for the land and its related resources, air, water and the biodiversity it supports. And we have a major responsibility in maintaining these natural resources for generations to come.

"Soil conservation practices are critical for maintaining long-term health and productivity of our soils, and that's what produces the food and non-food products we sell. Soils are absolutely a base ingredient for that effort and without healthy and productive soil, our farm would not be sustainable.

Staden is the first to admit that farmers probably don't get this message across to consumers the way they should. "Many farmers and I know many of our neighbors practice conservation farming and we take our role as stewards of the land seriously. Our livelihood depends on it."

One of the simplest measures of that is land value, he says. "From what I've seen, well managed land is worth more when it sells. If soil is capable of producing more I know I would pay more for it."

Economic challenge

One of the challenges is that best management practices that address soil and resource sustainability and enhancement need to make economic sense in the long run.

"Producers will carry on business as usual and they will implement the small changes that have a small incremental cost," he says. "But in today's economic environment producers need a way to recoup the additional costs associated with new technology, equipment and inputs related to best management practices."