Despite not having cattle on his operation, Blake Vince says he is still a livestock farmer.
“Where my livestock are is below my feet and sadly we forget that. The soil is alive, it is a collection of living organisms,” Vince, a Canadian Nuffield Scholar and fifth-generation Ontario farmer, said during a presentation at the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s national conference last month in Winnipeg.
“It is not merely that four letter word, dirt. We need to stop calling soil dirt in Canada. It is a living, breathing collection of organisms.”
Located in Merlin, Ont., Vince operates a 1,300-acre farm with his family, producing corn, soybeans and winter wheat through management practices that focus on soil health.
After years of practising no-till techniques, Vince took things a step further and began experimenting with a multi-species cover crop blend to protect and enrich his soils.
“Soil was never created with a collection of monoculture. When we think about diversity at the soil level and how soil was initially created, it wasn’t created with just four or five different species,” Vince said. “This system, using a multi-species cover crop can start to mimic how soil was created, with a collection of root exudates from each individual species.”
Vince plants an 18-species cover crop mix after his winter wheat harvest, which typically comes off in the second week of July.
“I am using about six legumes, four grasses, some broadleaf plants like sunflower, all working together to try and drive that biological activity,” Vince said. “If we drive the energy from the sun into the soil via root exudates, that is how we are going to increase soil organic matter. And, when we do this it is also capturing carbon, increasing soil health, fixing nitrogen and feeding the soil with that biodiversity.”
Once winter arrives and the cover crops start to die, Vince says it provides the added benefit of capturing snow, which recharges the soil profile.
“This is another viable tool. Instead of all of that winter precipitation ending up on the roadside ditch, or along the fencerow, it is retained in the soil,” Vince said.
While focusing on building the soil, he adds there have been numerous other benefits from the cover crops.
“You can use less nitrogen, which is money in my pocket. They completely reduce the need for tillage, wind, water or solar erosion is minimized, there is increased biological activity, and we are capturing solar energy for 12 months of the year,” Vince said. “With these cover crops we are also able to increase our water infiltration, our water-carrying capacity or drought-proofing our soil, and we are increasing our financial yield.”
When it comes to determining what to include in your cover crop mix, Vince says it is best to align yourself with an educated seed seller and focus on diversity.
“When looking at what species to use, we need to draw four quadrants. We have warm-season grass, cool-season grass, and warm-season broadleaf, cool-season broadleaf,” Vince said. “And, we need to have at least one species from each one of those quadrants and then we need to look at building out our blends from there.”
By including species from each quadrant, you will spread out your risk, as it doesn’t matter what kind of weather Mother Nature throws at you, something will grow.
“Diversity spreads out and alleviates my risk for my investment dollars,” Vince said. “Every year the blend or the final product will look different but I think that is the energy that is created with the power of diversity.”
For more information on Vince and his Nuffield Scholar report entitled, Conserving Farm Land with Cover Crops and the Importance of Biodiversity, visit the Nuffield Canada website.