Historians have dutifully chronicled the 1885 Battle of Batoche in Saskatchewan for its role quashing the Métis uprising led by Louis Riel.
But less well known is how it caused the newly arrived agrarian settlers to take a wrong turn in soil management – one that would prove devastating to future generations and take more than a century to right.
According to historical accounts, the armed forces sent to put down the rebellion obtained their horses from the newly arrived settlers farming in the Fort Qu’Appelle area, Fred Fulton, a former instructor with the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Agriculture told a recent conference on conservation tillage.
As horses were the main source of power, many of the fields in that region lay fallow for a year.
FIXATED ON MOISTURE
The next year happened to be a dry one. While farmers who had been continuously cropping saw yields of two to three bushels per acre, the farmers whose land had lain fallow harvested 25 bushels per acre.
Word spread faster than a Prairie fire, prompting farm adviser Angus Mackay, soon to become the superintendent of the federal experimental farm at Indian Head, to take a closer look at a practice called “summer fallow” used by farmers in the American Midwest.
He concluded it was a good way to conserve moisture on the drought-prone western Prairies. It also became the main form of weed control. Farmers would sow their crops on half of their land and then start plowing their fallow fields to kill the weeds and create what was known as a “dust mulch” cover, believed to prevent moisture from escaping.
“Coupled with the summerfallow was harvesting with the binder and thresher, which removed most of the plant residue from the field, and piled it in large straw stacks that were burned before spring,” Fulton said.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Summer fallow combined with tillage set the stage for an astonishingly rapid decline in the organic matter that gave the soil its natural fertility. The winds whipped up dust storms that gave the Dirty Thirties their name.
Farmers, agronomists and farm equipment manufacturers struggled over the next several decades to find tillage strategies that didn’t leave soil exposed to the wind and water.
One of the early inventions was the Noble Blade by Charles Noble of Nobleford, Alta. in 1935. It consisted of a heavy subsurface blade that cut off the weeds without burying the trash cover on the soil surface. The one-way disc plow came out of Kansas and became the replacement of choice for the mouldboard plow because it only partly buried the residue.
Then came the one-way disc harrow, a 1940s-era Saskatchewan innovation. Cultivators came next, an Oklahoma invention designed to combat soil drifting by ripping deep into the soil and bringing lumps to the surface. These were later combined with seeding technology to create the forerunners of modern seeding equipment.
The advent of herbicides offered farmers the option of chemical fallow, which combined the advantage of moisture storage with less tillage.
Through the 1970s and 1980s soil scientists such as Saskatchewan’s Don Rennie and politicians such as Senator Herb Sparrow, who authored the 1984 report Soil at Risk, led the fight against soil erosion by advocating for continuous cropping and less tillage.
It was about this time that the concept of no tillage started to emerge.
Farmers in Manitoba and North Dakota were starting to dabble with the concept and they were able to draw on federal research in the 1960s. It concluded it was possible, albeit not economical, due to the high cost of herbicides.
When glyphosate dropped in price in the late 1980s, conservation tillage took off. Now three decades later, it is considered the conventional way to farm. Equipment manufacturers, at first reluctant to rethink their technologies, have since risen to the challenge of developing single-pass seeding systems that allow farmers to place nutrients and seeds in the ground with little by way of soil disturbance.
Although less sellable to consumers because of its reliance on herbicides, the environmental benefits of this approach are widely acknowledged and seen as a global solution to soil erosion. There is improved moisture management (reducing the attractiveness of summerfallow), healthier soil in the form of improved organic matter, soil tilth and microbiology – not to mention a vast reduction in wind and water erosion.
It is estimated some form of conservation tillage is used on up to 70 per cent of the land cropped on the Prairies. Worldwide, the adoption rates are much lower, however – only about seven per cent of the cultivated land. [email protected]