Rethinking Success: Soil, profit and regenerative farming

Traditionally, farmers have correlated yield to success. That is to say, on a field by field basis, yield is often the primary determining factor used to judge whether a crop was successful or not. 

And for good reason. To begin with, yield is fairly easy to measure (e.g. bushels/acre) and can be calculated during harvest. This is important as other metrics for success (i.e. profit) that can only be calculated when the crop is sold which can be months after harvest. This means yield is the closest thing to real-time feedback that is available to farmers   

The limited variables used to calculate yield means that yield is also used as a general standard for comparison across fields or on the same field year-to-year. Additionally, yield is a point of pride for many, and proud farmers rightfully boast about high yielding crops. All this reinforces the general idea that yield is tied to success.  

But beyond all that, yield is also used as a rough gauge for future profit. The logic here is simple: the more you produce, the more you sell; the more you sell, the more you profit.

However, agricultural researchers (LaCanne & Lundgren 2018) out of the North-central American plains are challenging the notion that yield is a good predictor of profit. 

One key result from their study which compared the profitability of conventional versus regenerative farming demonstrated that ““regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems”.

But how can a field that has a 30% drop in yield produce 80% more profit than its conventional counterpart?

Well,  it’s all about the soil. 

Regenerative farms tend to have a higher level of organic matter (i.e. particulate organic matter or POM in science talk) in the soil which is developed over several years of careful management and is often used as a general measure of overall soil health.  

Large amounts of organic matter in the soil increase water infiltration and retention, encourages natural mineral cycles, increases nutrient exchange capacity and supports biodiversity. This is reflected in overall crop profitability as farmers are able to save money on irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides respectively which greatly reduces the farm’s overall expenses. 

Ultimately, this means that with the right soil conditions, less inputs and a smaller yielding crop can be more profitable than a higher yielding one.

This observation has led these researchers (LaCanne & Lundgren 2018), to suggest that the level of organic matter in the soil (i.e. POM) is a more accurate predictor of profit than yield.

And to support this claim they present their data the slightly confusing chart pictured below:

In this chart organic matter (i.e. POM) is represented in blue — POM has been converted into %SOM for the purposes of statistical analysis. Soil bulk density, illustrated in red, is a measure of soil compaction. Profits are calculated per hectare.

The chart above is meant to demonstrate that as POM levels rise, and soil bulk density decreases, profits increase. Based on these findings the researchers assert that, “profit was positively correlated with particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield.” 

To restate that in simple terms — soil health is strongly linked to profit.

This article briefly explores one aspect of LaCanne & Lundgren (2018) paper – the link between POM and profit. You can check out the full paper here (https://peerj.com/articles/4428/) or read our full review.

Ref.

LaCanne, C.E., Lundgren, J.G,. (2018) Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. PeerJ, DOI 10.7717/peerj.4428

The Rise of the Middle Class Farmer: The Inception of Western Canadian Agriculture

In 1946, just after WWII, Canada signed a contract to deliver 600 million bushels of wheat to a war-weary UK within 4 years. Despite the huge quantities of grain needed, Canada was able to meet the demand, largely because of the massive grain reserves the country developed during WW2 — grain that was originally produced for the war effort but had been landlocked by enemy warships. Over the next few years, the successful delivery of Canadian grain to Europe earned Canada a reputation as the ‘breadbasket of the world’.

Over 70 years later and Canada still has the reputation as one of the world’s leaders in agriculture. Although, recent years have seen the competition intensify with countries like China, India and Brazil producing more grain than ever before. 

So, how has Canada been able to establish itself as a world leader in agriculture?

Let’s face it, The Great White North is not the easiest location on the globe to farm. Our climate is moderately suited to agriculture at best: summers are short, water can be limited and frost comes early. Compare that to equatorial countries like Brazil that enjoy a year-round planting season.

And, while we have pretty good soils, they are not the world’s best. While controversial, that title probably belongs somewhere in India or the Ukraine.    

It seems pretty obvious that Canada’s competitive advantage in the agricultural industry isn’t derived from our geography (i.e.  location or climate). 

No, our advantage has always been our people; more specifically, our creation of, and investment in, the middle-class farmer.

Historically, farmers have been poor. They were peasants, serfs and bondsmen, bound to their land in servitude of the reigning feudal lords — the lowliest of classes. There was no formal education available and farmers were trained in traditional practices through legacy knowledge (i.e. skills passed from father to son/ mother to daughter).

Even after the collapse of the feudal system, its effects lingered for years. Serfs became peasants, and while they were now free, they were still poor and often remained in de facto servitude to rich lords who maintained ownership of the majority of land. Farmers still relied on legacy knowledge which meant agricultural innovation was limited. 

However, life in Canada was different. Arriving in the young country with developing traditions, prairie pioneers found themselves free from lingering feudal traditions and deep seated cultural animosities (e.g. the persecution of Mennonites and other religious minorities). And as settlers continued to arrive from across Europe, the mixing of cultures (and agricultural knowledge) led to the inevitable mixing of ideas, and agriculture innovations began to flourish and spread as pioneers set about developing their own methods specifically suited to farming the Canadian prairies.   

This early wave of immigration was largely spurred on by the federal government who passed the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, otherwise known as the Homesteading Act, which encouraged settlement across the prairies by offering a quarter section lot (i.e. ~ 160 acres) to pioneers on the condition that the land is used for agricultural purposes.    

In continued support, the federal, provincial and municipal governments all worked to ensure that education was accessible right from the early pioneering days. One-room school houses covered the prairies, providing a basic education to children, while government sponsored programs like the Better Farming Train were designed to teach new settlers how to farm in their new environment.

It was this support for Canadian farmers in their most formative years that established the foundations for Canadian farmers to succeed. 

And succeed they did. In just a few short generations, by the end of WWII, many pioneering immigrants successfully established their own farms, many of which persist to this day. Through hard work and dedication these farmers were able to drastically increase their quality of life, propelling them firmly into the middle-class. 

The creation of a middle class of farmers brought with it the benefits of emerging wealth. Modern, life changing technology, like the telephone, became readily accessible in rural areas and new, multi-room schools were built, which further bolstered education — the children of immigrant farmers were now able to complete high-school, with some going on to complete post secondary certificates, diplomas, and degrees.   

This education in turn allowed Canadian farmers to more easily adopt new technologies and continued to drive agricultural innovation on the prairies. As the wartime industry switched from tanks and ammo to cars and fertilizer, tractors started to replace animal labour and heavy mechanical implements began to appear. 

From here, it didn’t take long for Canada, and its middle class farmers to quickly become world leaders in the industrialization of agriculture throughout the 20th century. 

The relative wealth and education earned by the pioneering farmers of western Canada gave them both the insight and the means to become world leaders in the agricultural industry; a legacy proudly continued to this day by Canada’s middle class farmers.

Soil as an Ecosystem

Healthy ecosystems produce healthy organisms. It’s really that simple.

From gardeners to agriculturalists, it’s becoming increasingly important to understand the role of the soil microbiome in relation to soil health and land rejuvenation. Traditionally, farmers tend to disassociate their target crop from land that it is grown on, focusing on production processes which produce immediate benefits but may be unknowingly detrimental to long-term soil health. 

However, recent movements within the agricultural industry are encouraging farmers to look to natural processes as a guideline on creating healthy, sustainable soil ecosystems. These natural ecosystems recycle nutrients and provide natural resistance to drought and disease.

Under this holistic perspective, the target crop is seen as an integral part of a natural system; not just the end goal.   

This approach can be unintuitive for conventional farmers who traditionally seek to control soil nutrient levels and biodiversity on monoculture crops.   

To understand the benefits of treating the soil like an ecosystem it is vital to first understand what a soil microbiome is supposed to look like.

While the exact composition varies based on land location, healthy soil (i.e. loam) is generally said to consist of 45% rock minerals, 25% air, 25% water & 5% organics. Crucially, it is the 5% organics (e.g. plant roots, dead material, fungi & microbes) which truly drives soil health. Without digging too deep, organic matter adds volume to soil, trapping air and increasing water infiltration and retention. 

Figure 1: USDA Soil Composition Diagram

Image result for soil composition diagram

A layer of organic material on the soil’s surface acts like armor for the earth, absorbing water, limiting evaporation and preventing erosion. This organic layer can be plant residue from last year’s harvest, a newly planted cover crop or, in the case of gardens, compost. Aside from protecting the soil, this organic layer will eventually be recycled into nutrients that feed microbial life. As they say, exposed soil is naked, hungry, thirsty and bereft of nutrients. 

Central to the health of any ecosystem is biodiversity. A variety of plant species with a variety of root types (e.g. fibrous grass roots, legume, tubers) help to break up hard-packed soil layers while providing food for microbes. The microbes, in return breakdown organic material and recycle soil nutrients. Increasing the volume of plant material promotes microbial development which, in turn, increases the base nutrient levels in the soil, thus increasing plant nutrient availability and uptake.

Of all the life in the soil, one fungus is of particular note. Mycorrhizal fungi colonize plant roots and tap directly into the root system allowing for a nutrient exchange. In this symbiotic relationship, the fungi spores send out thin filaments which form networks surrounding a root. These networks draw in nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil which the fungi then exchange for carbohydrates taken from the plant, thus returning nutrients to the soil. In addition to functioning as a nutrient re-distribution network, mycorrhizal fungi networks also excrete a sticky, glue-like substance which helps build soil structures while boosting water retention.

There are a lot of moving parts in the soil microbiome, but understanding how the elements fit together is crucial to understanding the functional benefits of a healthy soil microbiome. Crucial to a healthy soil ecosystem is a healthy nutrient cycle which depends on several disparate elements working together (i.e. organic material feeds microbiology, which returns nutrients to the soil, which feeds plants, etc,). 

By seeking to emulate these natural soil conditions on crop land, the goal is that farmers can reduce crop inputs while maintaining high yields and healthy crops. While, many people argue that nature knows best, and while this may or may not be true, we do know nature costs less. 

Refs:

DeGomez, Tom., Kolb, Peter., Klienman, Sabrina. (2015) Basic Soil Components. Retrieved from http://articles.extension.org/pages/54401/basic-soil-components

United Stated Department of Agriculture. Soil Education. Retrieved from https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/soils/edu/?cid=nrcs142p2_054330

 Bucking, Heike., Kafle, Arjun,. (2015) Role of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi in the Nitrogen Uptake of Plants: Current Knowledge and Research Gaps. Agronomy, 5, 587-612, dio:10.3390/agronomy5040587. Accessed on May 10/2018

Risk, Reward and Regenerative Farming

In business, risk is often associated with reward. The general idea being the greater the risk, the greater the return. 

In agriculture, this is generally taken to mean that by increasing your input costs (i.e. fertilizers, herbicides, irrigation, etc.,), your yields, and thus your profits, will increase correspondingly — simply put, the more you spend the more you make. Historically, success on a farm is all about yield.    

However, an agricultural movement known as regenerative farming is challenging this bit of conventional wisdom by arguing it is possible to make more money by growing lower yield crops.

The regenerative agricultural movement is focused on restoring soil health and productivity by redeveloping natural nutrient cycles that have been disrupted by years of tillage and heavy chemical use. Restoring these natural nutrient cycles is a long-term commitment that can take several years to fully achieve.   

One of the central goals of this movement is to reduce agricultural reliance on synthetic chemicals (i.e. fertilizers and pesticides) and, by doing so, greatly reducing the input costs of planting a crop. 

Now, reducing inputs, like synthetic fertilizer, during seeding will have the predictable effect of reducing the ultimate yield of that crop. 

However, it is crucial to remember that yield is not a direct measure of net profit (net = gross – expenses) and growing more grain does not necessarily translate into greater profits. This idea is reinforced by a recent study by LaCanne & Lundgren (2018) out of the University of North Dakota. 

LaCanne & Lundgren (2018) set out to compare the profitability of conventional versus regenerative farms around the north-central plains (e.g. the Dakotas). The researchers collected data from 20 farms (ten conventional, ten regenerative) and looked specifically at the net profitability of corn crops. 

Crucially, they found that, “Regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems”

This is highlight in their chart below:

In the figure above, revenue and costs were calculated per hectare (i.e. 0.405 acres). Revenue (or net profit) is illustrated by the white box while expenses (or input costs) are represented by the coloured bars and boxes. 

The additional profit gained by regenerative farmers came largely from savings on input expenses like fertilizer, herbicide and irrigation, despite a smaller overall yield when compared to conventionally farmed corn.  

This method of modeling profit is an important metric. Traditionally, most farmers contend that greater yields leads to greater profits — this appears to be a false equivalency, as maximizing a crops yield potential through ostensive use of fertilizers, pesticides and other expensive technologies may actually provide diminishing returns.    

Again, this finding is worth reiterating: on regenerative farms, yields were almost 30% less than on conventional farms but net profits were almost 80% greater  

Crucially, as regenerative farmers have smaller overall expenses, they experienced significantly less risk and would be better able to cope in the event of a devastating crop loss.

So regenerative farming — lower risk, greater reward. 

****

This article briefly explores one aspect of LaCanne & Lundgren (2018) paper – risk and profitability. You can check out the full paper here (https://peerj.com/articles/4428/)

Ref.

LaCanne, C.E., Lundgren, J.G,. (2018) Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. PeerJ, DOI 10.7717/peerj.4428

In the Wake of the Better Farming Train

Probably forty per cent of settlers who go on our pioneer farms have no knowledge of agriculture in any country, let alone prairie agriculture, and many make distressing and expensive mistakes largely for want of some person to confer with and advise them.     – W.R. Motherwell in 1913 

Way back, in 1914, when twenty horse power meant twenty horses, the Better Farming Train could be seen rolling across the Saskatchewan prairies. This traveling road show quickly became an educational tour de force with a small town carnival atmosphere. 

Federally funded (Farm Instruction Act, 1913), provincially managed and staffed by the University of Saskatchewan, the Better Farming Train was a one-of-a-kind mobile educational institute that had a simple mission: to tour small towns and provide lectures, demonstrations and activities which promote new technologies and techniques specifically beneficial to agriculture on the prairies.

And tour it did. The train traveled thousands of kilometers, stopped at dozens of communities, and is estimated to have been visited by nearly a quarter of the provinces’ population during its eight year run. 

The train was divided into themed sections, (livestock, poultry, field husbandry, farm mechanics, household science and boys’ and girls) with each section consisting of a lecture car and one or two display cars carrying various demonstrations and experiments. Lessons were simple but efficacious; designed to help newly landed immigrants and experienced pioneers alike by focusing on topics that rural citizens found directly applicable.

The success of the Better Farming Train had a significant impact on rural life in Saskatchewan. Not only did the train provide new skills and techniques to help our early pioneers establish successful farms, it was also the first taste of formal education many immigrant farmers received.

Since those early days, education has become a cornerstone of Canadian agriculture. 

During the era of the Better Farming Train, one-room schools dotted the countryside and provided basic educational skills to elementary school children. By the 1940s, new legislation made way for larger, better equipped rural schools and the one-room schoolhouses slowly began to consolidate as modern facilities were built in town centers around the prairies.

As the decades rolled on, and technology began to dominate agriculture, farmers began to rely more and more on education to cope with the growing intellectual demands of an increasingly complex industry. 

By the 1990s, Canadian farm operators had already invested heavily in education. And with good reason. As farm operations continued to grow and modernize, the business side of farming also evolved with new skill sets like resource/inventory management and basic computer literacy (i.e. typing) becoming as valuable as traditional ones, like farm mechanics, animal husbandry and basic botany.    

Come 1996, and 56% of Canadian farmers had a highschool diploma or better; 36% had attained some level of post-secondary education. The trades were the most popular (26%), not just because the skills they offer a natural fit with agricultural life (e.g. heavy machinery mechanics), but many farmers gained valuable insight into business operations and management that were directly applicable to their farm operations.

The trend continued and come 2016 nearly 81% of Canadian farmers claimed at least a high-school diploma, with 53% having attended either trade school (35%) or university (17.9%). 

And this investment in education pays off, at least according to StatsCanada. Most notable is the correlation between a farm operator’s level of education and their willingness to adopt new technology; the higher the level of education, the more comfortable individuals tend to be learning and trying new technologies. 

This willingness to engage with new technologies will be crucial as a new wave of technology is knocking at our door. Various sensors collect reams of valuable data, automation technologies (e.g. autosteer, variable rate control seeders) are already here, and the wide-spread use of drone technology is just around the corner.   

And to cope, farmers are already developing new skill sets. Data analysis, computer coding and machine programming are proving useful in farm operations, while an understanding of international grain markets, advertising, and data management help with the ever evolving business side of agriculture. 

Understandably, these skills may seem as alien to some of todays’ farmers as computer literacy did to the farmers of yesteryear but they are the skills of the future. As technology continues to advance, and farming becomes more and more complex, education is set to remain a central pillar supporting Canadian farms.

In 1922, the Better Farming Train returned to the U of S for the last time. After eight years and thousands of kilometers, the train was being retired in lieu of more cost effective and less labour intensive means of education. Rural farm meeting groups were established, mail-order correspondence classes were offered and various provincial programs sent qualified agricultural advisors to rural districts to help guide new pioneers.     

Almost a hundred years later, and while the means of education may have changed drastically, Canadian farmers are still following the wake of the Better Farming Train. 

Refs. 

Hayes, P. (1996) The Better Farming Train. University of Saskatchewan Campus Newsletter. https://library.usask.ca/archives/campus-history/ocn/ocn_15nov1996-train.php

Tran, K., Shumsky, M. (2019) The Educational Advancement of Canadian Farm Operators. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/96-325-x/2019001/article/00002-eng.pdf?st=2TNjgO-B

On Cold-Pressed Canola Oil

Cold-pressed canola oil is to regular canola oil as extra virgin olive oil is to regular olive oil. Except, it’s healthier, tastier, more sustainable and just all around better.

Okay, there is a clear bias here. But that seems only right and fair as we are a Canadian blog and most farms in our country produce canola; not olives. And who doesn’t want to support their local industry, right? 

The thing is, there is a perfectly good alternative to extra virgin olive oil that is grown and processed right here in Canada. And in a world that is ever concerned with issues of sustainability and ethical food production, a healthy and locally made fine cooking oil is worth learning just a little more about. 

So what makes cold-pressed canola oil so special? Well, it’s all about process. 

While regular canola is cooked before being pressed, cold-pressed canola oil is generally crafted using traditional mechanical methods. Crucially the seeds are pressed slowly to limit the heat generated by friction. By keeping the temperature in the press under 60 degrees C the natural colours, flavours and nutrients are preserved in the finished oil.  

Additionally, cold-pressed oils contain large quantities of antioxidants (aka – the good guys) which help fight cancer-causing free radicals (aka – the bad guys).  

This follows that simple notion that less is more. That is to say, less processing  (i.e. heat) means more nutritional value. It’s the same reason raw veg retains more nutrients than cooked veg. 

And the same holds true with flavour. Think about a raw carrot versus a boiled carrot. 

Commercially processed canola oil is solvent extracted and often has antioxidants, phytonutrients and phospholipids removed to create a more shelf stable product.

However, this is a double edged sword as these molecules are what give oils their unique characteristics to the oil.  

Alternatively, cold pressed canola oil is often minimally processed under low heat and maintains the integrity of these molecules and flavour compounds in the finished oil. This means that not only does this method of processing canola produce a more flavourful oil, it also keeps all those beneficial antioxidants in good working order.  

While regular canola is renowned for a near tasteless flavour, cold-pressed canola oil adds notes of green tomato, asparagus and pine nuts to your dishes. It is particularly good in pesto, salads, marinades, or just to fry your morning eggs.

As far as sustainability goes, that’s a bit more controversial — as are most claims to sustainability. But hear us out, our argument is pretty simple. 

Here it is: cold-pressed canola oil is grown and produced locally in Canada. Olive oil is not. The overseas transportation of olive oil means that it will have an increased environmental cost for Canadian consumers. 

Combine this with the simple fact that Canadian farmers are world leaders in sustainable agricultural and regenerative farming and the argument that cold-pressed canola oil is one of the most sustainable choices for Canadian consumers is a strong one. 

Of course, this argument isn’t exclusive to cold-press canola oil; it’s an argument to support your local agricultural industry more generally. Closer is better as sustainability is relative; the farther food travels to get to you the less sustainable it becomes. 

Cold-pressed canola isn’t new. It’s actually the old way of making oil but it’s beginning to see a new life. As consumers continue to push the food industry to become more environmentally conscientious, local products crafted using traditional means are beginning to make a resurgence in the grocery store.

This is a trend that can only benefit Canadian producers. 

Five Principles for Soil Restoration: Revitalizing the Carbon Cycle

Just a few generations ago, when the prairies were first broken, pioneering farmers were able to produce good yielding, high protein crops without the addition of synthetic fertilizers. However, years of conventional farming practices (e.g. monocropping, heavy tillage, etc.) have interrupted natural regenerative processes (e.g. carbon, nitrogen and water cycles) which restores soil fertility. 

As a result, farmers and gardeners alike, have had to increasingly rely on synthetic applicants and invasive farming techniques which focus on control—control of nutrient levels in the soil (i.e. synthetic fertilizer & soil sampling), control of biodiversity (i.e. tillage, herbicides, pesticides & fungicides), control of water (i.e. irrigation). But nature is fickle, and attempting to micromanage soil health through modern technology is becoming increasingly expensive and financially risky—particularly, if mother nature decides not to play fair.         

In an effort to promote land rejuvenation and increase soil health, many researchers are now suggesting a more symbiotic approach to land management. 

Enter the carbon cycle. In it simplest form the carbon cycle, as it relates to agriculture, begins with plants drawing carbon from the atmosphere, processing it into organic compounds and depositing (i.e. sequestering) organic carbon in the soil. This organ carbon provides a number of functions necessary for the structural, physical, and biological health of soil. 

As many conventionally farmed soils produce a net loss of carbon—that is to say, more carbon is taken off the land in the form of seed, straw or silage than monocrops are able to sequester back into the soil—establishing a healthy carbon cycle is central to this approach. According to Dr. Christine Jones, soil ecologist and founder of amazingcarbon.com, “the solution lies in the adoption of management practices that increase levels of stable carbon in the soil… When levels of soil carbon increase, so too does organic nitrogen”.

Dr. Jones offers five basic principles for carbon sequestration in soil restoration:    

  1. Green is good – and year-long green is even better

As noted by Jones “every green plant is a solar-powered carbon pump”. Plants draw in CO2 from the atmosphere (i.e. carbon fixation) and process it with water and sunlight (i.e. photosynthesis) to produce organic compounds (i.e. organic carbons) which eventually make their way into the soil where the organic carbon provides a variety of services for a healthy microbial community. The more green foliage on the cropland, the more organic carbon being deposited into the soil.  

On the flip side, bare soil leaches stored organic carbons back into the atmosphere. Jones warns, “If you can see the soil it is losing carbon – and nitrogen!”. 

  1. Microbes matter:

There is an entire complex ecosystem thriving in the soil. Just under the surface, hundreds of species of microbes are at work, building soil aggregates, transporting nutrients and protecting their host from various pests.   

One microbe in particular, mycorrhizal fungi, is the star of the show. This fungus establishes nutrient networks which it uses to tap into soil-locked nutrients (e.g. organic nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, calcium, copper, zinc, etc) which the network then exchanges for organic carbon, thus moving carbon collected in the atmosphere into the soil.  

  1. Diversity is not dispensable:

As each plant produces its own blend of organic compounds (e.g. sugars, enzymes, amino acids, etc.), diversity above ground quite literally feeds diversity below ground. Multiple root types, break up hard packed soil and host different types of microbes. These microbes, in turn improve soil structure and protect the plant from pests and disease.    

Jones goes on to argue that, “the belief that monocultures and intensively managed systems are more profitable than diverse biologically-based systems does not hold up in practice. Monocultures need to be supported by high and often increasing levels of fertilizer, fungicide, insecticide and other chemicals that inhibit soil biological activity”. 

  1. Limit chemical use:

A healthy mineral cycle is part of a healthy soil ecosystem. Jones claims that an established mycorrhizal network can supply up to 90% of the N and P that plants require. While it may feel counterintuitive, too much synthetic fertilizer can actually inhibit soil rejuvenation. 

For example, the presence of synthetic fertilizer reduces the liquid carbon deposited in the soil as the plant has easy access to N and P and no longer needs to rely on nutrient exchanges with microbial communities. In other words, spoon feeding the plant, starves the microbes.  

As synthetic fertilizers are becoming increasingly expensive, farmers are looking to reduce input costs while maintaining productivity. Learning to exploit natural mineral cycles is a good option.  

  1. Animal Integration:

The integration of animal gazing to cropland has numerous benefits for both the animals and the soil. Beyond the obvious benefits of free fertilizer and additional pasture land, controlled animal grazing also increases the amount of organic carbon transferred to the soil. 

Jones notes that as long as 50% of the green leaf is maintained, the photosynthetic capacity of the plant is sufficient to allow “the rapid restoration of biomass to pre-grazed levels”—this principle is visible on your front lawn; grass grows the fastest just after it is cut. As rapid plant growth requires nutrients, the quicker the growth the more frequently the plant exchanges nutrients with microbes, the more frequent the exchange, the more organic carbon is deposited in the soil.

Ultimately, as Jones notes, “the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles are intrinsically linked. It is not possible to change one with changing all three”. This means taking steps to improve the efficacy of any one cycle should have positive repercussions on the other two. For example, selecting broad leaf cover crops with deep root systems will help break up hardpan soil and increase water infiltration while the addition of a green leaf sequesters organic carbon into the soil which in turn feeds the microbial community. 

As more and more “cost saving” technology enters the market, learning to exploit the symbiotic nature of the soil ecosystem, may be the best way for farmers to reduce input costs while maintaining productivity.     

By Dustin Hilderman  

Ref.

Jones, Christine (2018) Light Farming: Restoring carbon, nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils. Conference Proceedings: No-till on the Plains 2018

Note:

This article was originally published by Industry West Magazine in 2019.  

Cover Crop Cocktails

As cover-cropping is becoming more and more popular, the idea of a cover crop cocktail has been attracting more and more attention on both farms and gardens. While many cocktails are custom mixes – designed by growers to perform a specific function(s) – the practice refers to any seed mix that contains three or more different plant species which are all planted at the same time. 

Gary Richards from Bangor, Sask. plants a mixture of cool and warm season grasses as well as a range of broadleaf species and legumes. His cocktail seed mixes may include as many as a dozen species. A typical mix may include (in pounds/acre): 1.0 radish, 1.0 turnip, 2.0 buckwheat, 2.0 sunflower, 5.0 millet, 25.0 peas, 2.0 annual ryegrass, 25.0 oats, 25.0 winter triticale, 2.0 hairy vetch, 0.5 red clover.  

Farmers who plant cover crop cocktails may do so for a number of reasons. Cocktails make excellent forage for livestock, providing a healthy range of minerals and nutrients to the animals and may be available for grazing late in the season when traditional pastures are exhausted. 

When added to a regular crop rotation, cocktails can do wonders for rejuvenating soil. They can provide many of the same functions as a regular cover crop but with additional benefits. For example, these crops have been known to:

  • Improve soil biology, structure and overall health
  • reduce soil erosion
  • preserve soil moisture
  • outcompete weeds and reduce pests
  • reduce reliance on fertilizer inputs

The general advice given to anyone planning a cocktail seed mix is that the greater the diversity in roots and leaves the better the mix. 

This is not a new idea, and it’s not overly complex – science tells us that different plant species provide different functions for the soil, so, it makes sense that a variety of species provide a variety of functions in terms of re-establishing soil health. 

As Richards told the Western Producer, “Each species has its own little job to do”. Canola is known to have a good tap root, produce plenty of biomass and a canopy to protect soil moisture. Legumes are well known for their ability to fixate nitrogen. Tubers, like radish, have a deep tap root and are great for breaking up hardpan soil and increasing water infiltration. And species like flax and oats, which have a fibrous root system, feed the microbiology and help develop soil structures. 

As such, these benefits are most visible when specialty designed cocktails are seeded in specific areas with a specific goal in mind (i.e. increasing water infiltration in lowlands).

While the general goal is often to improve soil health and decrease input cost, Richards claims that even though these crops do wonders in terms of soil rejuvenation and weed suppression they still won’t completely replace the use of chemical fertilizers or herbicides. He notes that synthetics are still a tool in the tool box but the goal is to use less.  

Creating the right cocktail to match the soil requirements in a particular region can be a challenge and often comes down to a matter of trial and error. For example, Dan Forgey of central South Dakota, has been planting cover crops since 2006 and notes that in recent years he has decreased the amount of brassicas in his mix as he found they depleted crop residue too quickly, opting instead for more grasses to increase the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in the soil. 

For many farmers considering cover crops, cocktails are seen as a good long-term strategy in terms of sustainability in the broadest sense – for both their business and their soil.

While the process of developing the ideal cocktail mix can have some growing pains, Forgey claims the effort really comes down to an investment in soil health. 

Refs.

Brooker, Robin. (2016). A cover crop cocktail that builds soil. The Western Producer. Retrieved from: https://www.producer.com/2016/01/a-cover-crop-cocktail-that-builds-soil/ 

Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Program, US Department of Agriculture. (2012). Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education; Managing Cover Crops Profitably, Third Edition. Retrieved from: https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition

Morrison, Liz. (2011). MixMaster: South Dakota Grower Blends ‘Cover Crop Cocktail’ for Multiple Benefits. Corn & Soybean Digest. Retrieved from: https://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/conservation/mix-master-south-dakota-grower-blends-cover-crop-cocktails-multiple-benefits

On Micronutrients: Liebig’s Law


It’s called Liebig’s barrel.

Liebig's Barrel

The contents of the barrel represent a crop’s yield potential, while each wooden slat represent a different nutrient required by the plant. The barrel is meant as a visual representation of Liebig’s Law of the minimum – a crucial concept when calculating the nutrient needs and yield potential of any field or garden.

Discovered by Carl Spengrel in 1828, and refined by Justus von Liebig, Liebig’s Law states that plant growth is ultimately determined, not by the total availability of resources, but rather by the most limiting factor.

In other words, the yield potential of all crops will be determined by the least available nutrient, as represented by the shortest slat in Liebig’s barrel. Even if high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (i.e. NPK, the major nutrients) are present in the soil, the plant’s potential will still be capped by the least available nutrient. 

Liebig’s barrel is particularly relevant to the lesser attended nutrients in the soil. While, NPK levels are carefully monitored by farmers and gardeners, the lesser known micronutrients are sometimes forgotten.  

Micronutrients – as their name implies – are still needed by the plant. However, they are required in much smaller quantities than NPK. The eight most important micronutrients include: Boron, Chloride, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, & Zinc. These nutrients play a supporting but vital role in plant growth; some nutrients like copper and manganese are directly involved in photosynthesis while others, like boron and nickel, are integral to chemical processes within the plant that produce various enzymes or break down compounds. 

Because they are needed in such minute amounts they maintain the lowest bar on Liebig’s Law, it is still possible to produce modest yields with micronutrient deficiencies as highlighted by Liebig’s Barrel.

While these micronutrients are often naturally available in soils, successive years of farming can deplete the natural levels of these nutrients which means they too must be replenished. While organic nutrients like carbon and nitrogen can be supplied via natural process (e.g. legumes fix nitrogen from air), most micronutrients are metals (e.g. iron, copper, nickel) which means there is no natural way to replenish these nutrients. If the soil needs more copper, somebody has to put it there, mother nature won’t do it.

Most micronutrients bond with clay particles in a process known as cation exchange, which holds the nutrients in the soil and makes them available for plant uptake. As a result, micronutrient deficiencies are most common in slightly sandy soil where they leach into the environment.  

In terms of plant health, micronutrients play a supporting role in plant development. However, adequate quantities of these nutrients positively affect the plant in a number of ways. Boron plays a key role in plant pollination, extending the flowering period, which directly boosts yield potential.   

When applying Liebig’s Law to crop yield potential, the major nutrients (i.e. NPK) are rarely limiting factors. In fact, according to Liebig’s law, high levels NPK fertilizer may be wasted if plant growth is inhibited by a dearth of micronutrients.  

By assuring that plants have access to all the micronutrients they need, farmers and gardeners alike will be able to increase the quality and quantity of their crops. For growers who are looking maximize their yield potential, micronutrients may hold the key.   

Refs.

Steenland, Ann., Zeigler, Margaret. (2018) “Global Agricultural Productivity Report” (PDF). Global Harvest Initiative. Washington, D.C.

Soil Formation on the Prairies

Across the great American plains, where the seasons are stark and natural grasslands still dot the prairie, the land is mostly covered in the rich dark loam known as chernozemic soil which have developed since the glaciers receded a few millennia ago.   

There are five key factors that determine the type of soil that is formed; parent material, climate, time, relief (i.e. topography), & organisms.

Some 10,000 years ago, glaciers slowly crept across central North America. As temperatures rose, the ice melted and left behind an unsorted mixture of sand, gravel and other collected materials known as glacial till. As it settled, this slurry of sediment became the foundation (i.e. parent material) of the soils found there today. 

The harsh climate of the american plains continued to further break down the glacial deposits. Erosion, from both wind and water, as well as the severe temperature fluctuations cause larger materials to break apart. Boulders break down into gravel, which break down into sand which eventually, breaks down into clay. The resulting mixture of particle size in the soil creates the classification ‘loam’. 

Over time, the mixture of sediment began to settle into soil horizons. The process is ongoing and can take hundreds of years. Young soils may closely resemble their parent materials but as they age, environmental forces (e.g. organisms & climate) reshape soil characteristics. Water and gravity move smaller particles downwards while wind and water runoff translocate materials from high to low ground.  Eventually, over thousands of years, soil particles will ‘settle’ into soil horizons. 

Image result for soil horizons

Topography, also called ‘relief’ by soil scientists, can also affect soil development on a much more local scale. The shape and slope of the land alone can cause soil variation despite all other factors being equal. Soil horizons may be thicker or thinner depending on whether they are on the top of a hill or in a depression. In north america, south facing slopes receive more sun, making them warmer and drier than north-facing slopes. While the temperature differential between north and south slopes may not be great, only a degree or two, it is enough to cause variation over time.

Life is the final factor. Organisms both big and small call the soil their home, and they all have an effect on the soil’s physical and chemical development. Larger creatures (i.e. insects and small mammals), mix up the soil horizons, translocating material both up and down. Plants draw material from the soil, processing minerals and redepositing them back in the ground in altered forms. And micro-organisms break down decaying matter, recycle minerals and produce various compounds and excretions (e.g. fulvic and humic acid) that affect both chemical weather and the ph levels of the soil.

Ultimately, soil formation is the result of thousands of years of exposure to natural environmental processes. Soil is a non-renewable resource, a precious commodity developed over time that deserves to be respected – it’s so much more than just dirt.