Outstanding young farmers focus on improving soil health

Derek and Tannis Axten from Minton are Saskatchewan’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2017.

The couple received the honour during Canada’s Farm Progress Show in Regina last week and will compete at the national level in Penticton, B.C., later this year.

The grain farmers have for the last several years focused on building soil health through companion crops, cover crops and compost extracts and teas.

“Our farming system is quite unique from the way most people farm,” Tannis said. “Our focus isn’t necessarily on the plant that’s growing above the ground but it’s on the biological processes that occur underneath. We just started looking at what’s occurring under there and what’s missing and trying to restore some balance.”

As their soil health has improved, they have been able to significantly reduce input use.

“Probably the thing we notice the most is, when we take a spade to the field and dig and look at what we see, we’re seeing better structure, we’re seeing nicer colour, we’re seeing better water infiltration, those sorts of things,” said Derek.

He said they are not likely to make the move to organic because they want access to all the tools possible.

The couple started operations at their current farm in 2002, when they moved to Derek’s family farm.

Derek has a diploma in farm and ranch management from Olds College in Olds, Alta., and Tannis, who grew up in nearby Gladmar, has a bachelor of education, majoring in biology, from the University of Regina. They are the third generation on the land and are raising daughter Kate and son Brock there.

Axten Farms was a mixed operation until about 2006 when they sold the pasture to former OYF nominees Ryan and Leanne Thompson. Now the Thompsons provide cattle for a critical part of the Axten operation.

“For this year, we actually did a fair bit of companion cropping which will graduate into a cover (crop) after harvest,” Derek explained. “After our annual crops are harvested, we’ll seed a diverse mixture of basically crops that we don’t have in our annual rotations and they’ll fill the gap in our rotation. They’ll grow from as soon as we can seed them after the combine until freeze-up and then we’ll get our livestock producer friends to supply cows to graze as many acres as we can. We do a light graze. We call it flash graze.”

He encouraged other producers who don’t want to own cattle to find a producer who needs extra grazing because it’s a good fit in a system to improve soil health.

The cattle also figure into the Axten’s composting ventures. They’re working on a large-scale compost project using the manure and putting compost extract on fields.

Sixteen different crops are under cultivation at Axten Farms this year. They use a no-till system and have been growing companion and cover crops since 2011.

Derek said they had been working on diverse rotations before that but didn’t think they were seeing the gains they wanted.

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