New Alta. lab focuses on building soil health

OYEN, Alta. — Healthy soil is the foundation of agriculture.

Restoring that health is the goal of Yamily Zavada, who is heading the new soil laboratory at the Chinook Applied Research Association at Oyen.

The soil health laboratory is open to producers to provide them with biological and physical soil assessments to help them better understand what is affecting their fields’ soil health and make management improvements.

For soil scientist Zavada, who has a PhD from Cornell University in New York, what lies beneath is critical.

“The biology is the most important component of the soil properties that allow us to have a healthy soil,” she said during a recent field day held at the CARA site.

She has been experimenting with different crop mixes to assess their impacts on the area soil.

“Aggregation is one of the conditions in the physical properties of the soil that we need to look at.”

Soil bacteria, fungi and micro-organisms are found in the aggregates that cling to plant roots.

Her cocktail mix included grasses, cereals, oilseeds, broad-leafed plants and tap roots like radishes.

This kind of system enhances the biology of the soil because the plants grow better together and leave valuable material behind as they decompose.

“The more biodiversity you have, the more food for different microbials you have in the soil.”

A crop like this could be grazed or silaged, which would add hoof action and manure excretions to the soil.

Originally from Venezuela, she has worked in the Andes overseeing coffee, cocoa and tropical crops.

“This part of the world is different but at the same time the principles are going to be the same,” she said.

Throughout Alberta, compaction, poor aggregation and infiltration are common problems that could be improved with careful management.

“I have seen those problems everywhere in the province,” she said. “Most of the soil has no aggregation so there is not enough pore space in there and there are no areas for the water to infiltrate.”

At the laboratory, she wants a variety of samples to measure what is happening in the soil and what might happen under different crop regimes.

Farmers have to realize that soil rebuilding will take time because the land has been under cultivation for more than 100 years.

Switching to no-till farming was a good practice, but farmers should have transitioned from cultivation with a cocktail crop and then no disturbance, she said.

“With no-till for 40 years, I haven’t seen much difference in the soil.”

Parts of Alberta’s designated Special Areas are native grasslands. Zavada wants to compare and test those soils with land that has been plowed.

The laboratory will be used to create a benchmark to assess soil health throughout the province. Results may provide useful management recommendations to rebuild and stabilize soil.

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