Improvement to soil quality through use of cocktail cover crops and minimum tillage are among research thrusts
MANNING, Alta. — Soils in Alberta’s Peace River region “are particularly difficult to manage,” reads an Alberta Agriculture fact sheet.
Nora Paulovich, manager of the North Peace Applied Research Association, knows all about that but various projects on the association’s site near Manning, Alta., are aimed at improving soil quality.
Progress is being made, said Paulovich during the June 20 “solstice” plot tour. Cover crops are showing particular promise, she said, as she walked across a plot in its fourth year of cover cropping.
Next year, the crew will start a long-term crop rotation trial on the plot using wheat, barley, canola and peas.
“There’s not enough being done on soil health, not enough funded research and we have the perfect scenario here,” she said.
“We’ve got a start on it, we’ve got a plan and we want to see where we can go with reduced inputs by using the cover crops.”
NPARA’s applications this year for funding from the major commodity groups were not approved, with the exception of the Alberta Wheat Commission, which provided some money.
Paulovich can’t explain why more funds aren’t provided for research in the dark grey and grey-wooded soils of the region.
“If we can reduce our inputs, it’s just in everybody’s best interests,” she said. “Hopefully, the commodity groups will come on board. They take a lot of money out of here. When you look at the check-off dollars, there’s a lot of money comes out of here and not that much comes back.”
She said a lot of the available soil information originates from the United States and is not applicable to the Peace region.
“We need local research done. We’re very fortunate in this province to have ARAs (applied research associations.) We just need more reliable funding.”
Peter Bigler, chair of the North Peace Applied Research Association and manager Nora Paulovich centre, show tour participants the nodules on a fababean plant. | Barb Glen photo
Soil health is a main thrust for NPARA. It also conducts crop and agronomic trials.
It has been testing various cocktail cover crop mixes since 2013 and is also testing sainfoin varieties and sainfoin-alfalfa mixes to gauge their yield, nutrient levels and in the case of sainfoin particularly, its longevity.
A 10 acre pasture plot has been established to see the effect of grazing on the varieties, as well as sainfoin’s ability to mitigate cattle bloat.
Local interest in fababean potential prompted NPARA to start trials in that crop as well.
“We think that it definitely could be another pulse that people could include in their crop rotation. It has to go in early because it is a long-season crop,” said Paulovich. Some farmers in the area have grown it for sale as hog feed.
Weather challenges last year saw some fababeans harvested this spring and she was surprised at how well it stood up.
“It does fix the most nitrogen. It’s awesome when later in the season we can dig them up and look at the nodules. They’ve got huge, fat nodules on them, so they’re really pumping out the nitrogen.”
Chickpeas, lentils and soybeans, along with quinoa, fall rye and numerous varieties of wheat, oats and barley are all on test.
“Our variety trials are very important to our producers and to our board,” said Paulovich.
“We like to do variety trials of all the specialty crops that guys might think of trying. We can make the costly mistakes instead of them.”
NPARA also has a display of an eco-buffer along two of its borders, consisting of various species of trees and shrubs.
“They call it an eco-buffer because it can be a pathway for wildlife to go from a grain area to a riparian area. It has minimal maintenance on it because they are planted very close together and include a multitude of species.
“I think we have 25 different species in there, lots of suckering species, lots of berry-producing ones, so it’s good for pollinators. It looks beautiful. It more mimics nature than our monoculture shelter belts.”