Ontario farmers focus on improving soil health

GLENCOE, Ont. — A group of Ontario farm organizations is encouraging soil-building practices and hopes to spread the word about the benefits.

Launched in March, the Ontario Soil Network program has 25 farmer participants. All have adopted soil-building practices and have expressed interest in developing leadership and communication soils.

“Farmers have always learned from other farmers. We’re just formalizing that,” said Mel Luymes, program co-ordinator.

“Some of those involved are working on the economics. They want to prove that they’re making more money by doing things differently.”

Dave McEachern, who farms near Glencoe in southwestern Ontario, is among the participants. He hosted a field day in April, in which he talked about a relatively new concept: bio-strips.

On July 29 last year, following the wheat harvest, McEachern planted multiple species in two different strips. One was sown with oilseed-radish alone. The other to 11 different species.

This spring, McEachern plans to seed soybeans into the oilseed-radish strip. The once large-rooted plants have almost completely broken down, leaving the soil drier than in other parts of the field.

“It’s one of the best cover crops of oilseed-radish we’ve ever had,” he said. “I plant about two to three pounds of radish seed per acre and that’s plenty.”

McEachern refers to the other bio-strip as his green strip. It includes a mix of rye, oats, annual ryegrass, four types of clover, two types of peas and sunflowers, which created an eye-catching field of yellow last fall.

The bio-strip system cost McEachern $25.30 per acre but he feels it delivers a variety of benefits.

It helps keep the soil biologically active, which promotes good soil structure and improves access to nutrients.

The sunflowers pull nutrients up from deep in the soil profile, making them available for crop growth.

The green strips are where McEachern runs his tractor and equipment tires.

“That’s one of the benefits of planting the green strips. The carrying capacity of your soil is much greater,” he said.

The oilseed-radish strip winterkills on its own. The three or four species in the green strips that made it through winter will be dealt with a herbicide treatment, either glyphosate or 2,4-D.

McEachern likes to establish his cover crop as soon as possible after the wheat harvest. With the six millimetres of rain, the seed will pop.

McEachern also establishes cover crops on corn and soybeans to reduce weed pressure. With soybeans, he has tried to inter-seed annual ryegrass into the standing crop, but has had limited success. Planting cereal rye, in twin, seven-and-a-half inch strips following the harvest is his more usual treatment.

With corn, McEachern broadcasts of a mix of annual ryegrass, crimson clover and hairy vetch into the standing crop.

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