Alberta research group focuses on soil health

North Peace Applied Research Association manager Nora Paulovich and research co-ordinator Tom Fromme inspect crops on the research site.  |  Jeremy Simes photo

The North Peace Applied Research Association encourages producers to look at regenerative agricultural practices

MANNING, Alta. — A northern Alberta research group is on the front lines of soil health, showing producers alternative methods to improve the land.

Nora Paulovich and Tom Fromme of the North Peace Applied Research Association (NPARA) dedicate much of their site for testing soil health, encouraging producers to look into regenerative practices.

“This is some of the poorer soil in the area, but if we can improve it, anyone else can do it,” said Paulovich, manager of the organization, following a workshop in early June near Manning on the NPARA research plots.

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“We have the longest running soil health projects here and we’ve since been able to improve the land. I think it’s something to be very proud of.”

NPARA was recently given funding from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership program to test intercropping, as well as cover-cropping with an annual poly-species.

There are still three years left to complete the project, but Paulovich said preliminary results show intercropping could return more income than a monoculture because of increased yield.

As for cover-cropping with annual poly-species, she said more data is required before the organization can share results.

“It takes more than one year to make an impact on soil health,” she said.

However, other trials on the research farm do show that NPARA has made gains.

On one site, where they did a six-year crop rotation of brome and cover crops, the total living microbial biomass doubled. It began with 2,728 phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) ng/g, increasing to 5,479 PLFA ng/g.

On a separate site, which had a six-year rotation of pulses, a timothy brome mix, corn, cover crops and a corn inter-seed, total living microbial biomass grew by 372 percent. It began with 576.13 PLFA ng/g, increasing to 2,722.12 ng/g.

Better soil can improve crop resilience during drought, as well as require fewer inputs, potentially increasing profitability.

“People come here to look at a variety of our trials, including conventional crops, but (they are also) interested in intercropping,” said Fromme, the association’s research co-ordinator.

“It’s intriguing. There are two crops together and bees are buzzing. There is a diversity out there, including all the flowering plants. It’s so green and lush.”

Peter Bigler, a farmer who is the chair of NPARA, said he would like to see more producers try practices that improve soil, like cover-cropping, but he feels efforts might have hit a roadblock.

“It’s not that I want to change their mind, but I would like to open their mind to something new,” he said. “That’s the frustrating thing, sometimes. It’s simple to do the wheat and canola rotation.”

He said there is likely more risk in implementing soil health practices, but farmers might have to get on board eventually if conventional methods don’t produce better results in the future.

“Right now, we keep our farms operating by going to town and buying a remedy. I think eventually that won’t be good enough anymore,” he said.

“Nature is always a step ahead and I think we have to make our farms and operations resilient.”

Going forward, NPARA will continue to offer soil health workshops and do research on the topic.

“I think we have to quit treating the soil as a medium to hold roots,” Paulovich said. “It is a living organism and many aren’t treating it that way.”

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