Basic principles can help farmers rebuild soil health

A SaskOrganics farm tour near Bangor, Sask., Aug. 4 was meant to promote rotational grazing, but the takeaway for many was how grazing can help replenish soil nutrients and organic matter.

Garry Richards and Keith Buckingham led the tour to multiple fields to show progress toward improving soil on their farms and how they use rotational grazing.

Richards showed how he turned around a field damaged by the previous owners.

“We grazed (sow thistle) with yearlings and actually when we took all of our expenses into account, we probably made 150 bucks an acre on sow thistle just in the weight gain of the yearlings.

“So not bad, but our end goal was to improve the soil and make this healthy and productive,” said Richards. “So now we went from sow thistle, to wheat clover, alfalfa, rye grass, there’s some winter triticale. So again, if we just keep managing for what we want, using the proper principles, eventually we will get something good coming out of it.”

By “proper principles” Richards is referring to a set of practices he uses to build soil health that revolve around the concept of mimicking nature. Introducing livestock to graze on the fields is just one way he does it.

Rotational grazing allows the animals to feed and spread manure evenly around the field and then move on before they pack down the soil too much. Also, the plants that aren’t eaten will be knocked down and used as a cover that provides thermal regulation for the soil and protection from erosion.

“This system, the Great Plains in North America, worked perfectly before we got here. It was designed and created to work great without us,” said Richards. “It’s kind of sad that when my grandfather showed up 117 years ago, organic matter in most of the grain land around here was 10 to 12 percent and now it’s at three to four percent.”

Some of Richards’ other nature-mimicking practices include minimum tillage and the use of cover crop rotations until the soil is healthy enough to be used to harvest again.

Richards said that leaving crops on the field to photosynthesize as long as possible protects the ground from wind and water erosion. As well, it adds nutrients back into the soil in the form of root exudates that feed microbial life. Restrictions on tillage further protect the ground from erosion.

“Our rotation was, last year we seeded a cover crop, this year this just came because of what we included in the cover crop and then this fall you can do whatever winter cereal, and next year we will be able to combine it and we haven’t tilled in three years,” he said.

Richards’ other principle is to avoid using synthetic chemicals. One of his favourite quotes is, “as long as you spray for weeds, you will have weeds.” He uses the quote as an example of how to address the root of the problem, not the symptom.

“We are very good in agriculture of addressing the symptoms, not the problem. So the root cause of the problem with weeds is often the lack of diversity, soil health, lack of soil cover and on and on. So we need to look beyond what we see and determine what is really causing the problem,” he said. “We’ve never sprayed our winter triticale and hairy vetch and we have never had anything close to a weed problem.”

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