Red River Valley growers look for solutions

Farmers in southern Manitoba develop a unique set of approaches designed for their challenging environment

ST JEAN BAPTISTE, Man. — Here on the frontier between the United States Midwest and the Canadian Prairies, it hasn’t been easy to embrace soil conservation and soil building methods.

The world-leading zero-till practices of the western Prairies don’t fit well with the heavy clays and thick residues of the Red River Valley.

Midwestern cropping practices also become complicated when they cross the border into Manitoba, where a wider range of crops and practices dominate.

And down at the bottom of the valley, the regular saturating floods add an additional element that further complicates the farmer’s job.

But in a mix of methods and machineries, farmers here are managing to build a unique set of approaches that enable them to protect and preserve their soils, while farming in a productive and challenging environment.

“They tried to make it work out here, but couldn’t,” said Brunel Sabourin of Antara Agronomy, who organized the first Red River Soil Health Summit April 1.

“To a lot of people, it’s zero-till; it’s not disturbing the soil. But here in the Red River Valley, with our heavy soils, we’ve been a lot slower to adopt things. It’s a lot more of a challenge.”

The summit found an eager audience with about 200 farmers and agronomists willing to take a day away from pre-seeding preparations to hear about novel approaches that might work.

Curtis Cavers tells farmers during the Red River Soil Health Summit how to measure soil structure in their fields. | Ed White photo

Adam Gurr of Agritruth Research explained how his western Manitoba farm uses controlled traffic farming to avoid and reverse soil compaction, which is a key problem in the valley.

Naeem Kalwar, a North Dakota State University extension agronomist, explained how adding grasses and forage crops to saline patches doesn’t just preserve those patches, but arrests the “wicking-up” of moisture from problem areas into productive farmland, plus produces value from land that usually doesn’t pay to farm.

Farmers heard about experience with strip-tillage and vertical-tillage, as well as the science of what makes soils productive.

The crowd was much younger than at many farm events, with few farmers in their 60s and most appearing to be younger than 50.

Sabourin said there’s a lot of excitement among local farmers now that technology has caught up with farmers’ interest in soil health. The methods applied elsewhere don’t always work well in the Red River Valley, but approaches specific for the region are developing.

“You don’t start widespread adopting a practice,” said Sabourin.

“There are going to be years of adjustment. There’s going to be a steep learning curve to it.”

But from the look of the crowd, that’s a learning curve many young farmers are already climbing.

About the author


Stories from our other publications