Summit on Canadian Soil Health
This August the Soil Conservation Council of Canada hosted a Summit on Canadian Soil Health, including a Pre-Summit Tour at sites in Wellington and Perth. After two days of site visits, and excellent speakers, Don Lobb, farmer and award-winning soil health leader, closed out the presentations with a challenge to all present. He encouraged a move to better “soil care” based on four principles: restore soil aggregation, increase soil organic matter, increase biological activity in soil, and manage water availability. It was clear from the demonstration sites and the farmers who shared stories of their soil conservation efforts on their farms that how these four principles are put into practice varies greatly from region to region, and from farm to farm.
Among the strategies that are often employed to work towards those four principles are perennial forages, diverse crop rotation, cover crops, and reduced tillage. Farmer speakers shared many different strategies, well suited to each different farm, but all working toward better soil health.
Alberta farmer Doug Wray described his beef operation where, he says, if he looks after the grass, the grass looks after the cows. In reverse from his neighours, his cows harvest the “hay” all summer and live off the natural pasture in the winter. Having the animals do the work adds fertility back into the land as well.
Quebec crop and vegetable farmer Jocelyn Michon began in the early 1980’s by transitioning away from the moldboard plow, moving to no-till and then later incorporating cover crops, which he has been using since 2003. On his farm he aims to “replace steel with roots; fuel with photosynthesis, and urea with nodules.” The nice even production in his fields is a sign of the soil health he has been able to achieve.
Ontario farmer Ken Laing is innovating with organic methods of no-till and cover crops as part of his CSA vegetable farm. He noted especially the role of glomalin in building aggregate stability as a result of the natural cooperation between fungi and roots in healthy soils. His aim is to have living covers, to reduce or eliminate tillage and to integrate livestock. He farms with horses, which made it a little more challenging to find a suitable no-till drill. His methods include using a roller crimper to terminate cover crops.
It is clear with soil health that a “one size fits all” solution is not the answer. Good soil care means working to find the best methods that suit the soil, climate, type of farm production, and resources available on each farm. Canadian farmers are innovative not only in business but also in their farm stewardship. The Summit on Canadian Soil Health offered excellent opportunities to hear the latest in soil health research, and on-farm solutions to better soil care from across the country.
Suzanne Armstrong is Director of Research and Policy for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario.The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKXFM Chatham, CKNX Wingham, and UCB Canada radio stations in Chatham, Belleville, Bancroft, Brockville and Kingston.