Talk about an interesting contrast in messages! In one week during my summer travels I attended a first-in-Canada Soil Health School in Manning (Alberta Peace River region) and a few days later I was eating dust at a tillage demonstration at the Ag In Motion farm show at Langham, Sask.
My old brain had to quickly change gears. The soil specialists at the Soil Health School sponsored by the Northern Peace Applied Research Association (NPARA) delivered a message to about 100 farmers and ranchers over three days to stay off the soil with any tillage, feed the soil with carbon through plant diversity and give nature a chance to do what it has done well for a few million years and get ready to harvest great crops of grains and grasses with virtually no inputs (it’s not an overnight transition, but its the ultimate goal.) By sharp contrast the Ag In Motion’s 459 exhibitors amid a tent city carnival atmosphere were largely making the push to use more inputs and technology (including some fairly expensive iron) to whip that soil into shape to produce some amazing yields nature could only dream about.
So is one of those stories a bill of goods?
Attendees at the NPARA Soil Health School were a cross section of large and small farmers, ranchers and mixed farming operators — anywhere from owning a horse pasture to 10,000 acres of grains and oilseeds — who came to hear how a system can be developed to basically energize the soil microbiology with cropping practices (and cattle if you have them) to produce good- to high-yielding crops without inputs. The experts placed emphasis on going for profitability and not concentrating on yield. Yield is a four-letter word.
And the experts who led the school are no slouches. Along with book-learned education, they all farm or have a strong farming background. They are part of a fairly new service called Soil Health Consultants based in Fort Payne, Alabama.
For anyone who has been around grazing management and the notion of using multispecies in pasture mixtures over the past 10 years or more, they are probably familiar with the name of North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown. He’s given many presentations on the benefits of using multi-species of grasses and legumes in annual crops and pasture mixes to producers across Canada.
Brown is one of the consulting group founders and presenters during the Soil Health School, but he is not alone. He is joined in the three-day school by:
Dr. Ray Archuleta, a certified professional soil scientist with the Soil Science Society of America. He has over 30 year’s experience as a soil conservationist, water quality specialist, and conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Dr. Allen Williams is a champion of the grass-fed beef industry and an expert in grazing methodology and regenerative agriculture. Williams helps restore soil health for improved water retention, reduced runoff, increased land productivity, enhanced plant and wildlife biodiversity, and healthier food.
And Dr. Kris Nichols, a guest presenter at the school, is a world-renowned leader in the movement to regenerate soils “for healthy food, healthy people and a healthy planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production, sequestering carbon in soil, and providing abundant and nutritious food.”
A fifth individual, David Brandt an Ohio corn and soybean producer, is also a member of the Soil Health Academy. He crops about 1,100 acres and has been following the system, starting with zero till farming, since 1978. He was unable to be at the Manning school, so Kris Nichols filled in.
The message of the school — based on science and plenty of in-field time looking at good and poor soil conditions — is if you look after soil health it will produce excellent forage and annual crops without inputs. There is a strong emphasis on crop diversity and using forage cover crop blends (immediately after corn, soybeans and wheat are harvested) to continue to feed soil microbes and bacteria, increase soil organic matter and improve overall soil health — let plants and the billions of creatures that live in the soil do their thing. No tillage, no chemicals, a huge emphasis on crop diversity.
From school to show
Fast forward a few days and there I was at the Ag In Motion show looking at a billion dollars worth of machinery and a multitude of chemical inputs and natural crop supplements that could all help you be a better farmer and maximize yields — be more profitable.
The tillage equipment demo was just a small part of the event. But there was still plenty of interest from producers in tillage tools. In a dry growing season even a light touch with a cultivator or disk tool raised clouds of dirt making it look more severe than it was. But farmers were interested not just in tillage but the whole show. More than 30,000 showed up from across Western Canada to see what they could learn.
So that was the contrast in messages —chemical inputs and equipment versus management and grass — both promising to increase producer profitability. I know I have oversimplified the description of both, but there is a limit to space and reader attention. In all fairness to the tillage guys I don’t think any were advocating a return to a black earth policy of farming. The term I heard a few times was “strategic tillage” — use as needed to manage heavy crop residue, help open the soil when there is excessive moisture, and level out rough or rutted fields.
After hearing and seeing both messages it makes me ask which system is right, or is it possible to be somewhere down the middle. The Soil Health School approach represents a miraculous shift in farming practices. Perhaps the adoption of no- and zero-till seeding was a similar miraculous shift over the past 30 years. The message at the school made me think about a guy who hobbles up to a healing shrine, and later throws down his crutches and walks again. And in fact, the Soil Health School message did have a spiritual over tone. Plants and animals are God-given resources to harness the energy of the sun, and if managed properly they can produce all we need.
The concept is certainly something to ponder. In the meantime, I hear more Soil Health Schools are being planned, and the last time I checked I’m still expected to look after the entire tillage demonstration at Ag In Motion in 2019.