Studies show benefits of improving soil

Things like no-till, cover cropping and grazing are a start, but more can be done, says agro-ecologist

Agriculture ecologists continue to make the case for rebuilding and improving soils, pointing to studies that show promising results for producers’ pocket books.

For more farmers to come on board, however, they’re going to have be OK with being guinea pigs and trying regenerative practices to see what works, said Nicole Masters, the director of Integrity Soils, a consulting company.

“In some farming communities, the idea of this has been ostracized,” Masters, who has a background in soil science and ecology, said during her presentation at the Alberta Land Use conference in Edmonton May 30.

“But there are very exciting opportunities in Alberta. There isn’t this history of, ‘Oh, that guy is a crackpot’ for trying that.”

Work on rebuilding soils has already taken shape across the globe, including in Western Canada, with farmers turning to no-till, cover cropping, or adding animals and doing tighter grazing rotations.

While herbicides have still been used in such systems, Masters said use of them in high amounts over the years, including insecticides and other chemicals, has led to problems. For instance, insect counts are generally higher and soils can’t hold as much water as they once did.

To support her claims, she pointed to a study that looked at 40 regenerative corn fields and 40 conventional fields in regions around South Dakota to Nebraska. The regenerative fields used herbicides, but didn’t use insecticides. The conventional cropping farms used both.

What the study found, she said, was that the conventional farms had 10 times more insects than the regenerative ones. As well, the regenerative farms, on average, were 78 percent more profitable because even though they yielded lower, they required much fewer inputs.

“They were spending a third of the amount on fertilizer and half the amount on irrigation because the soil was holding water,” she said.

In a study in Australia, she said one farm that carried out regenerative practices increased soil carbon by 42 percent and grow water capacity by 13 percent.

She’s also worked with some farmers there and in Montana to start using what’s called vermicast, which is basically worm poop. She said the substance is mixed into soils and works like a great fertilizer.

“What comes out of a worm’s butt is the elixir of life,” she said.

The substance could work well in Western Canada, she said, noting that work is already underway in Alberta to develop similar products.

“There are massive opportunities here in Canada,” she said. “While genetic engineering, new machinery and precision agriculture can all be valuable tools, we should look at things with deeper ecological context to find these solutions.”

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