Healthy soil depends on zero or minimal till

Prevention of over-grazing and the production of cover crops are also called key to improving soil health

While their methods vary, farmers and ranchers across the Prairies are improving their soils to produce more abundant crops and forages.

Farmers gathered during the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health and Grazing Dec. 5, where they shared experiences and learned from other farmers and experts in the field.

But in a couple of cases, it was what those who attended didn’t do that proved the focal point for discussion. Most of them don’t till and they don’t over graze.

As well, they grow a diverse range of crops and forages, keep the cattle out grazing as long as possible in tight groups, and create what’s known as soil armour by cover cropping or by letting the herd compress the uneaten remainder.

Brian Harper with Circle H Farms in Brandon was part of a three-member panel of ranchers and farmers who shared what they do to improve soil health.

Harper raises his breeding stock on only forages, and sells the culled animals directly to consumers.

“There isn’t a lot of work now,” he told farmers and ranchers during the conference. “We don’t have hay, and by keeping our soil healthy we’ve extended grazing by quite a bit.”

In the past three years, he’s managed to restore organic matter by nearly one percent. He considers that to be a big deal.

“It didn’t sound like much, but the fellow who worked with conservation told me it was huge,” he said. “We’re excited to see where we’re going to be three years from now.”

Other producers also saw soils improve.

“On land we’ve just taken over that was traditionally farmed, we’ve been able to go from two percent organic matter to around that six percent,” said producer Duane Thompson during the conference.

Thompson has a 10 to 14 year rotation on his 8,000-acre mixed-farm near Kellilher, Sask.

During the first half of his rotation cycle, he plants a mix of perennial forages on one side of the farm and plants annual crops on the other side. During the later half of the cycle, he rotates the forages into the crop side and vice-versa.

“By doing that, we’re able to improve the soil considerably,” he said, “That builds a nitrogen bank in the soil and then we are able to harvest that nitrogen in the incoming years of the annual cropping system.”

David Archuleta, a soil scientist with the Soil Science Society of America, told producers to reduce tilling and over-grazing as much as possible.

As well, producers should implement practices like cover cropping, and if they have to till, which is generally the case for organic farmers, he said they should do it in a way that minimally disturbs the land.

“How you set your drill is critical,” he said. “You would want to do it when it’s cold to prevent more of those microbes from releasing.”

But change is hard, Archuleta added, and producers may face naysayers.

“The social and cultural pressure is immense,” he said, noting some people may get frowned upon for going no-till.

“The key is integrity, and every time you feed your soil you’re being that person. We need more of you.”

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  • Jim Martindale

    It sounds like Ray has been a bit more conciliatory to tillers of soil in SK territory than in the past. Unfortunately, the real purpose of tillage as defined at is not being exposed to scrutiny by the Archuleta’s that are making the rounds. The issue that is addressed is the annihilation of developing structure and soil particle aggregation. This phenomenon develops from the top down. Structure expands downward as root systems are able to achieve greater depth and as soils function aerobically. To the degree that these two key elements are missing the advancement of soil health will fail to advance. The hi-speed discers (vertical tillage?) are giving relief from pathogenic fungi because all of the fungi die. The bacteria become more dominant. However the fundamental problem of soil gas exchange and root system development remains unaddressed.

    The increases in SOM can be deceptive if the measurement is using Loss on Ignition for the measurement technique. If you increase SOM by any measurement and it is only happening in the top 3 inches and stops there, (that is what happens with no-till) you have achieved something but in SK you will still be adding to the sloughs, pathogen loading and sodium migration issues because the behavior of water has not been improved.

    Don’t jump on the ripper now like many do at this point. The problem is not at 9 to 12 inches in depth. The structural issue is at 3 to 6 inches from the surface. You don’t need to destroy the house you have built to solve the real problem that has stopped (or will) the further advancement of soil health. So leave the chisel and deep disc and moldboard in the shed. We are proving it in SK right now since 2016; Leaving structure and aggregation intact, root systems in place and non-invasively targeting the problem barrier with CurseBuster. SOIL Water management is the result with root system development you haven’t experienced since the third or fourth year of no-tilling.

  • Marie Saqueton

    Thanks for you intelligent posts Jim. We appreciate your knowledge.


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