Thanks to this researcher, prairie soil now stays put

It was a dry, hot, windy day in the spring of 2012. Snow had long since disappeared from the Prairies and weather stations everywhere reported high gusts.

“Just looking out the window here. Nothing but blue sky everywhere. Twenty-five years ago, this would’ve been black,” said the voice on the phone.

It was Agriculture Canada researcher Guy Lafond from Indian Head, Sask., calling a colleague in Winnipeg to see if Manitoba was experiencing the same combination of wind and blue sky with no soil in the air.

At the receiving end of the phone line was University of Manitoba soil scientist Don Flaten, who reported that Manitoba fields were dry, the wind was “just a howling,” but the sky was also blue.

Flaten said conditions that day stand as proof that Lafond had achieved what he had set out to achieve.

Lafond, who died last week, was best known for his pioneering and ongoing work in zero tillage, continuous cropping, intensified cropping systems, soil and water conservation and direct seeding into stubble.

Flaten said he had a penchant for applying science to farming, figuring out how to make things work in a way that’s agronomically and environmentally sound.

“More than three decades ago, Guy saw huge opportunities for conservation tillage. He thought about systems with extended and intensified cropping systems, new crops, continuous cropping by seeding into stubble,” Flaten said.

“A visionary in my opinion. He saw things happening far off in the future that nobody else even imagined.”

He said it’s no stretch to argue that many farmers in business today survived and continue to thrive because of Lafond’s research.

“Twenty-eight years ago when I worked for Saskatchewan Agriculture, Guy and I worked together testing mid-row banding. He wanted to find out if this was a quick and convenient and efficient method for farmers to apply all their fertilizer at seeding time.”

This is not to say things flowed smoothly once he began his zero till work in 1985. It was about the same time that Saskatchewan stopped joint funding federal research projects.

“That provincial funding moratorium put a halt to a bunch of new zero till research we were just starting at Indian Head,” said Flaten.

That was when Flaten found out that LaFond’s vocabulary had “no word for the concept that you can’t do that.”

Hoechst had products that fit well with direct seeding and the extended crop rotations that Flaten and Lafond wanted to pursue. Provincial research money found its way into Hoechst research, and that data fed Lafond’s reduced tillage work.

Flaten said the Hoechst manoeuvre is typical of the way Lafond maximized research investments. The Hoechst arrangement was just the first of the many of such partnerships that Lafond used.

In 1990, producers near Indian Head became concerned that conservation tillage research might stop if the federal government closed the nearby research centre. Lafond helped them form the Indian Head Agricultural Research Foundation (IHARF) to support regional agricultural science.

IHARF ran its trials on plots of land scattered around the research centre that Agriculture Canada didn’t need in a particular year. It wasn’t ideal.

Jerry Willerth was one of three IHARF members involved in the foundation’s first land purchase in the mid-1990s. They bought 312 acres near the centre, with the Royal Bank paying the interest on the mortgage.

Willerth said the purchase was significant because it finally gave Lafond the ability to establish long-term rotations and seeding trials. More land has been added over time.

IHARF bought another half section last year from Bayer Crop Science. It is a short distance from the Agriculture Canada centre and the original IHARF land.

The land includes a well, electricity, natural gas, storage buildings and a laboratory that Bayer’s researchers had used.

Willerth said the expanded land base and lab are among the many Lafond partnerships that have compounding benefits for prairie agriculture.

“Western Canada would not have the zero till systems and crop rotations we have today had it not been for Guy Lafond,” he said.

IHARF researcher Chris Holzapfel, who has worked with Lafond for 13 years, said much of the success of the research station and the growth of zero till are based on the way Lafond orchestrated partnerships with groups as diverse as Ducks Unlimited and the chemical companies.

Unlike some researchers, Guy never shied away from industry partnerships, or saw “industry as the bad guy,” Holzapfel said.

“He (worked) well with inventors, industry, entrepreneurs, other government agencies, other researchers, anyone … just as long as everyone is working toward a common goal. Guy could pull them together and find matching funds and matching partners.”

The IHARF research farm turns a profit and is able to leverage it into matching funding and further growth. Partners credit Lafond for this success.

IHARF president Chad Skinner said Lafond treated his plots and field demonstrations like they were his own farm.

“Day and night … definitely not a nine to five researcher who’s just here for the paycheque, a producer at heart.”

Skinner said Lafond’s credibility with farmers is based largely on his honesty and willingness to make his research available for public scrutiny, even when it goes against conventional thinking.

“He (hasn’t been) afraid to stand behind his research if it contradicts the norm.”

Skinner said Lafond didn’t avoid science that challenges the industry, even after a machinery company lawsuit over fertilizer placement technology.

He said Lafond was well known for doing the right things and he has the proof to back it. “He’s telling them to bring it on and challenge him. That’s why farmers trust what Guy Lafond says.”

Skinner said it has been a common sight in the Indian Head district to see Lafond standing in a field talking to a producer or making rounds with one in the combine.

“Farmers are out here (farming) everyday. Our lives revolve around the information we get from people like Guy Lafond,” he said.

“We need that long term research they (Ag Canada) would have trashed if IHARF hadn’t been formed.”

Holzapfel said one of the first things he realized when starting to work with Lafond is the need for long-term research. Lafond showed him that a handful of years doesn’t provide a good perspective.

“For example, we have these long-term rotations here on the farm dating back to the 1960s. That work continued until just recently. And there’s the straw removal study looking at the impact of annual straw removal over a period of time. It started before (biomasss) ethanol was even discussed.”

Holzapfel said long rotations and straw removal studies typify the way Lafond often looked 20 years into the future while designing the research he would start the next year.

Some of the earliest IHARF projects dealt with precision farming concepts that weren’t widely recognized until later. They include delineation, nitrogen response and management zones defined by soil properties or elevations.

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