Economic returns drive farming practices

Many of the new, upcoming practices concerning soil health and proper management continue to be guided by beliefs rather than strong evidence of improved economic returns, and that is slowing their adoption.

Europeans used to overwhelmingly believe the world was flat. It was heresy to say otherwise.

That’s the way it was for summerfallow in Western Canada for a long time. People used to believe the soil needed a rest. When soil scientist Don Rennie of the University of Saskatchewan proclaimed some of the evils of summerfallow back in the early 1980s, his views were controversial.

Even if you accepted the soil science on loss of organic matter and increase in salinity, summerfallow was still considered a necessary evil because you needed to store up soil moisture for a year to have a better chance of growing a decent crop once every two years.

When farmers started using more nitrogen fertilizer and growing nitrogen fixing crops such as peas and lentils and had success with continuous cropping, they were just lucky. The next drought would teach them a lesson and they’d be back to summerfallow.

Intentional summerfallow, now practiced as chem fallow, hasn’t been entirely eliminated. Some producers, particularly in west-central Saskatchewan, still cling to the practice. However, acreage has been on a downward spiral for decades.

The Holy Grail in recent times has been direct seeding and minimum tillage. Tillage has been practically taboo in the minds of many growers. Slowly that pendulum has shifted a bit.

High rainfall years, equipment ruts and heavy residue levels have pushed some growers into selective tillage. Now there are some experts who say strategic tillage isn’t such a bad thing.

The newest wave of cropping theory strives for diversity and mimicking nature. There’s growing interest in inter-cropping, in which a couple of different crops are grown at the same time.

These practices would seem to make sense from a holistic management point of view. Advocates argue that soil health must be better with a more diverse mix of plants rather than monoculture.

However, it seems to be a movement driven more by philosophy than economic data, so it’s yet to catch on in a major way.

Another practice of interest is controlled traffic farming, in which farmers follow the same tracks for seeding, spraying and harvesting. While some studies have shown little benefit under western Canadian conditions, proponents claim less soil compaction, reduced fuel consumption and higher yields.

In the end, the big driver has always been economics. That’s why intentional summerfallow has almost been eliminated. That’s the main reason direct seeding was adopted. That’s the only thing that will make cover crops, inter-cropping and controlled traffic farming mainstream.

For every producer trying to do the right thing with cover crops and intercropping, there are a hundred or maybe a thousand others growing canola in a very tight rotation to maximize returns.

Many growers do it believing it improves their bottom line.

When philosophy and economics align, as they did with direct seeding and the reduction of summerfallow, it’s a powerful force. Farming practices can evolve rapidly. On the other hand, if the economic incentive is marginal or long term, change is slow.

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