Good progress in soil conservation but more work ahead
Edmonton, AB. February 27, 2007:
Better farming practices have reduced the risk of wind erosion, water erosion and soil degradation. Innovative research has helped mould a smarter farming community. But short-term economic thinking has undermined solid soil conservation decisions for both farming practices and research, says Tom Goddard head of Soils and Climate Change for Alberta Agriculture and Food (AF).
Goddard, a long-time advocate for soil conservation, is also the Canadian representative for the World Association of Soil and Water Conservation. He speaks candidly about how far the industry has come in the area of soil conservation in a new feature article "Report card on soil conservation" available on the Soil Conservation Council of Canada Web site at www.soilcc.ca.
"Overall, the risk of soil erosion and degradation has decreased because of improved farming practices, but it hasn't been eliminated," says Goddard. "We still see it. It happens every year. The industry needs to target conservation practices that are economical, and practiced consistently over the long-term.
Farmers have helped soil quality rebound in recent years by implementing better conservation practices, says Goddard. Machinery developments allow the farmer to customize and refine their system or diversify their cropping opportunities and still stay within direct seeding systems. "We now have equipment that is easily adjustable and will do a good job on a number of crops with different needs. Direct seeding systems are not a hurdle anymore."
Producer knowledge is also a key, he says. "Farmers are becoming more conscious of the nutrient cycle and how the nutrients in their soil are managed, a trend that may be fueled by the high cost of fertilizer. They are also gaining an appreciation of landscapes on the farm – how fertility and nutrient requirements, risk, and crop yields can vary by landscape."
Despite the progress, some poor practices persist, says Goddard. For example, there are still farmers who burn stubble to manage excess residue. "Stubble burning might seem economical in the short term but it costs the nutrient cycling adjustments and the soil biology makeup in the long term."
Expansion of irrigation farming and increased acres in row crops, such as potatoes, can leave portions of the field at risk for erosion, especially wind erosion. "These crops don't have a lot of residue and the cultivation practice for that kind of crop is conventional tillage," says Goddard. "It's a good formula for topsoil loss."
Research is key to improving conservation practices, and there are many examples of valuable work underway, says Goddard. Globally, one of the most exciting areas of research is digital soil information, which involves automatically characterizing landscapes from elevation models. "One can pair digital topographic information with specific computer software and the farm will be split up into management zones or risk zones," says Goddard.
These management zones help farmers manage specific soil landscapes. The risk zones identify which landscapes are at most risk of soil loss or degradation. Once these areas are identified, they can be managed appropriately.
Despite progress in research, there are areas where improvement is needed, says Goddard. Most of the research done in Canada is plot research done on the best soils and not on different landscapes. "Farmers farm on whole landscapes so there is a disconnect between the research and the real world application," says Goddard.
"Also, most research is being done in a conventional tillage situation. Is a plant breeder developing a variety using a conventional tillage system inadvertently selecting for traits better expressed under conventional tillage?" asks Goddard. "Are we missing opportunities we might discover if we were using direct seeding in our research plots?"
Accepted principles and rules of agronomy developed under earlier tillage systems and crops may need to be re-examined, says Goddard. This is the case in South American countries where the adoption rate of direct seeding systems has surpassed us. They are asking the question of whether the principles we've been taught still apply as we adopt direct seeding.
"We have more to learn about how soil biology and chemistry is affected by the different cropping systems, tillage systems and landscapes," says Goddard. "We thought farming was simple but it's becoming more complex."
For the full story and more information, visit the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) Web site at www.soilcc.ca.
For further information, contact:
Soils and Climate Change
Alberta Agriculture and Food
Ph: (780) 427-3720
Doug McKell, Executive Director
Soil Conservation Council of Canada
Indian Head, Sask.
Ph.: (306) 695-4212