An Elie-area farm family didn’t know exactly what they were in for when they signed up for a short course on ‘nutrition farming’ a couple of years back.
But the Boerschs, who farm a 5,000-acre commercial grain farm, figured there had to be something to it. Their son, Alex, who’d recently left his grain trading career in Toronto and returned to Manitoba to start farming with them, had heard farmers he knew in Ontario claim it could be a game changer.
At the time Alex and his father enrolled, they were also converting part of their farm to organic, and looking for ways to improve soil health, reduce risk and keep up farm profitability.
They came away convinced the nutrition farming approach held real potential to hit all those targets.
“Once we took this course it kind of changed our entire outlook on how we were going to farm going forward, too, both on the conventional side and the organic side,” said Alex.
‘Nutrition farming,’ a four-day course that runs from Nov. 26 to Nov. 29, is taught around the world by internationally acclaimed soil health pioneers Graeme Sait and Joel Williams and covers a wide range of strategies for managing soil fertility, but placing particular emphasis on feeding the soil’s biological activity.
What most interested the Boerschs was its focus on achieving maximum health and resilience for their soil and crops, and the science-based techniques to do so.
Alex now talks about nutrition farming the way a dietitian would speak of healthy eating, and how human health is shortchanged by eating haphazardly or overly relying on processed foods.
“A lot of diseases in plants and also insect attacks on plants come from the fact the plant is weak, and the reason it’s weak is because it’s not getting the right nutrition,” he said.
On their farm they now conduct tissue tests to check plants’ sugar levels, to see what the mineral deficiencies are, in order to address this in the short term over the leaf, and, in the longer term, figure out what may be interfering with plants’ uptake of nutrients in the soil.
That’s a very different approach to soil health and crop management than the ordinary way of doing things, said Boersch.
“It’s looking at everything from a very different perspective,” he said.
“It’s not just about NPK. You’re looking at mineral balances in your soil. And if you can get those mineral balances right, then you’re actually going to kick-start biology in your soil, which will then exponentially increase the availability of nutrients that are already naturally in your soil.”
Using other principles learned from nutrition farming, the Boerschs have also found a more efficient way to use nitrogen. That’s involved liquifying urea in water and adding solubilized humates to avoid losses from volitization, increase uptake over the leaf and avoid leaf burn. Applying it that way proved to be four to eight times more efficient than ground application of N fertilizer, said Boersch.
“We have basically increased the efficiency of our nitrogen and also hopefully put a healthier form of protein and nitrogen into the plant,” he said.
Boersch said he likes the approaches of nutrition farming for many reasons.
“One is because we really care about our soil and we know that there’s a problem,” he said. “We have a problem with water infiltration. Our organic matter has gone up in the last 20 years but only in very small amounts and weather is becoming more extreme. We wanted to figure out a way to face those issues better.
“And on the other side, we were getting squeezed on fertilizer prices and machinery prices and we wanted to figure out a way to be more efficient, and if we could combine both of those, being better stewards of our environment, and also decreasing risk and keeping profitability high that was a win-win situation.”
This is about building organic matter in the soil which is way more beneficial for the environment. And it’s an approach less about pushing yield using expensive fertilizers and other inputs, and all about producing healthier crops — and ultimately healthier and higher-quality food — while benefiting the farm’s bottom line.
“We need to find better ways to farm and stay profitable,” he said. “What we are trying to do is cut down and be more efficient and take a different approach in how we see our plants and how we feed our soil. It takes a lot more planning and being a lot more proactive, but it’s a much more positive way of farming.
“And it’s just a more fun way of farming,” he adds.
A ‘better way’
In Saskatchewan, Joe Wecker, who owns a 10,000-acre farm at Sedley, southeast of Regina, and has more than half now under organic production, also says adopting practices of nutrition farming is changing how they farm.
That ‘better way’ was what they were looking for as well when they signed up for Sait’s course, said Wecker.
“We knew we had to change something because we were spending more money on fertilizer, chemicals and inputs every year and the yield response wasn’t there,” he said.
He admits he had doubts, at first, about whether some of the techniques would work, but his mind was changed after seeing a diseased barley crop rebound after they detected and corrected a soil mineral deficiency.
“I was kind of skeptical,” he said. “But we did a tissue test and the barley crop was low on boron. We applied boron and the next new leaf we had was completely disease free and the next leaf after that. We didn’t have to apply fungicide.”
Wecker agrees this approach of working with nature and biology is more challenging, but also a far more satisfying and engaging way to farm.
“It’s better than just trying to find that next quick fix,” he said.
Wecker has attended Sait’s course more than once and plans to go again when it’s offered in Winnipeg November 26 to 29.
“Every time we learn something new,” he said.
It’s impossible to say with certainty, but judging from the farmers and the acres they represent who have been at past courses, he said there could potentially be a million or more acres in Western Canada where some of these techniques are now deployed.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are kind of looking at this approach the same way as I am,” he said. “The course pulls people together who may not know they think the same way but they do.”