Canada’s soils still degrading, albeit more slowly

The rate of degradation of soils in Canada has slowed, but it still is happening at a significant rate and there is still a lot to learn.

There are no soil-perfect systems yet for crop production, attendees at the Summit on Canadian Soil Health held recently in Guelph heard repeatedly.

No-till farming has declined in Ontario, creating more chance for soil erosion and degradation, mostly because it is difficult to consistently and easily get similar yields from no-till compared to fields that have some tillage.

Ken Laing, an organic farmer from near St. Thomas, Ont., described the new “soil health paradigm” as including no bare soils, making sure that soil is filled in with living cover crops, along with reducing or eliminating soil disturbance through tillage. He also includes the integration of livestock as important.

Laing has planted cover crops for decades, but admitted organic farming also has problems with parts of the new soil health paradigm.

“A major challenge for organic farmers in the new paradigm is reducing tillage,” said Laing.

Organic farmers have to use tillage to control weeds, integrate manure and kill a previous year’s crop or cover crop. Weed control alone in an organic system often means numerous tillage passes in a growing season.

Laing is working with different types of organic no-till and planting into growing crops, but like conventional farmers working with no-till and planting into green crops, some years the systems work better than others.

Tillage is the biggest quandary facing maintaining soil in its place. Tillage erosion comes from almost any movement of equipment through the soil.

Dr. David Lobb of the University of Manitoba was blunt at the conference. “It’s not just the mould-board plow. If we don’t talk about soil movement we are not going to solve the problem,” he said, pointing at chisel plows and the hoe drills used in Western Canada as significant movers of soil.

“Vertical tillage: It makes me explode when people call it conservation tillage,” he said.

The end of the practice of summerfallow and the popularity of no-till in Western Canada has meant a significant improvement in the loss of soil there to wind. In Eastern Canada, Lobb said there are still issues due to greater use of tillage.

‘Decline in interest’

He’s also surprised, he said, by how much erosion continues due to water movement.

Lobb recently completed a study finding that in Canada there’s $3.1 billion worth of crop production capacity lost due to soil erosion.

He’s worried that the long-term focus on soil health is being lost.

“There’s a steady decline in interest in soil conservation. I see recently a strong and pervasive belief that we know everything we need to know about soil degradation,” he said, including a “sense of fatigue” about the topic when talking to government and policy people.

Dr. Bob Sandford, a professor with the United Nations University, a U.N.-supported think tank, said he’s encouraged by what he saw on the Soil Summit tours in Canada.

However, he added, there needs to be more focus on earth systems, including soil health.

“We forget that agriculture is the foundation of our civilization. Agriculture saved us once with green revolution, but it needs to save us again from unintended issues of the green revolution,” he said.

The next green revolution needs to integrate climate, soil and water security at a global level, at the same time as increasing agriculture productivity, he said.

The conference, convened by the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, heard from farmers making steps in that direction.

The event included a visit to Bob McIntosh’s farm in Perth County, where he uses all no-till and carefully manages water movement and erosion with drainage and berms.

Jocelyn Michon, a Quebec crop and vegetable farmer, talked about his evolution from tillage to no-till, to strip tillage, and now to planting directly into cover crops.

“Healthy soils are performing soils,” he said.

But it was Lori Phillips, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada soil microbiologist at the Harrow Research Station, who pointed out how much more there is to be learned, not just in managing the soil above the ground, but also below the ground.

We are now in the “golden age” of soil microbiology, she said, with new genetic tools helping to identify a small proportion of the microbes that live in soil and to start to understand their function.

“Soil is the foundation for our life on earth,” said Don Reicosky, a soil scientist emeritus with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, warning that farmers need to rely on nature’s plows — plants and worms — and not man’s plows, to manage soil health.

If not, he said, the current direction of soil degradation will be a global disaster.

“We have a hungry world. Our one chance boils down to conservation agriculture.”

— John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia based at Ailsa Craig, Ont. Follow him at @jgreig on Twitter.

Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) president Bill Campbell is urging Manitoba farmers to help one another to find livestock feed for the winter. “Once the combine goes and chops it (grain straw) that field is done (as a feed source),” Campbell said here at KAP’s advisory council meeting Aug. 9. “We need to have some of those conversations and neighbours need to have that conversation on how we facilitate the baling of straw. I’m not sure there’s room for speculation on a lot of grain producers’ part. “From what I can gather two weeks and we’ll be right into full-fledged wheat harvest. Once you combine it’s gone.” A dry, hot summer has reduced hay production in many parts of the province, KAP delegates told Campbell. “Straw is going to be in huge demand,” Walt Finlay of Souris said. “There are dugouts and sloughs that are drying up now that haven’t been dry since the ‘80s.” Read more: Services available for producers affected by dry conditions Neil Galbraith, who farms near Minnedosa, said hay yields in his area are down 50 per cent or more and some farmers will be feeding cattle by Sept. 1. “There’s just no regrowth after they (cattle) chew it down once,” he told the meeting. Wheat harvesting has already begun in many parts of the province. There’s more to consider than whether to drop or chop straw as it’s being combined, delegates said. For example, it’s harder to bale straw that’s gone through a rotary threshing machine. “The (wheat) varieties are shorter,” Campbell said in an interview. “They are meant for straight cutting. We’re spraying more glyphosate on the wheat for desiccation. It (straw) just disintegrates (when combined). There will be a lots of areas of this province even if you say you can have my straw there’s nothing left. “Hopefully, we can take a co-operative approach… because straw and pellets; they will work. It will be a change in how you winter your cow herds, but it can work.” Poor cell coverage Poor cellphone service and municipal and education taxes on farmland were also discussed hot topics Cell coverage isn’t just a matter of convenience, but life and death, Campbell said, alluding to the EF-4 tornado that killed Jack Furrie, 77, near Alonsa Aug. 3. Those in the affected area weren’t warned via cellphone because there was no service. KAP delegates from across the province complained about spotty service and cell dead zones. “Where I live I have absolutely no cellphone service,” said Manitoba Sheep Association executive director Kate Basford, who lives near Winnipegosis. “Since Bell took over (MTS) with their claim of making huge improvements it has actually gotten worse. I have to go 20 minutes from my home towards Dauphin to get any kind of cell service.” After several years of double-digit increases in farmland taxes, many delegates said their property tax bills are up again. Walter Finlay of Souris said taxes in the R.M. of Oakland-Wawanesa were up 49 to 60 per cent. Craig Riese, who farms near Lockport, said farmland taxes in his area are up 37 per cent, while residential property taxes are down 15 per cent — a clear sign the tax burden continues to shift to farmers. “My brother is running for council to try to get some farmer representation back,” Riese said. “That’s the attitude we’re taking. Put your money where your mouth is. You’ve got to get involved. If you complain and don’t get involved then don’t complain.” Campbell agreed. “We are pressing their (councillors’) feet to the fire on how they deal with this because this has become a financial burden on agriculture and we will not let this rest or fall to the wayside,” he said.

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