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Don’t underestimate the power of soil bugs

Save money, increase profits by getting billions of little creatures working for you

There’s that message again — learning to farm without inputs. It is a pretty compelling concept: being able to grow a crop without $200 or $300 per acre invested in added fertilizer and crop protection products. Is it a myth? Does it work? What are these guys trying to sell me?

Kevin Elmy says it works. He says he is going into his 11th year on his Saltcoats, Sask., FriendlyNAcres Farm, northeast of Regina, just south of Yorkton, without using any added nitrogen. He’s expecting this year he won’t need the added PKS components of the standard NPKS fertilizer blend. He says his farm is profitable.

So how does it work? Elmy is a proponent of using cover crops in rotation. He talks about no tillage and always keeping something growing on his fields with the aim of getting as much carbon (through plant roots) into the soil as possible. If you keep the soil microbes, bacteria and fungi well fed with carbon, those billions of little creatures will look after your crop.

Putting on 150 to 200 pounds of fertilizer per acre, along with in-crop herbicide and fungicide treatments seems to afford a producer a great deal of direct control in producing a crop. Can you really trust billions of little organisms you can’t see to do the job? Elmy is among the growing ranks of agronomists and soil specialists who say “yes”.

Elmy recently delivered his message about using cover crops in rotation in a presentation to about 75 farmers attending a morning seminar hosted by Stamp Seed Farm at Ag Expo in Lethbridge. When he’s not in the field producing seed crops on Friendly Acre Farms. Elmy is often on the road giving presentations to producer groups on the value and role of cover crops in rotation. He’s even the ringleader of a separate program and website called Cover Crops Canada, and an occasional contributor to Grainews.

Farming with cover crops, regenerative agriculture, holistic farming, soil health practices — there are several different terms all describing a pretty similar concept — get or keep the soil healthy, get the soil fauna and flora well fed and the soil will produce a healthy and productive crop without the need for added fertilizer and hopefully many other crop protection products.

I have probably mentioned before, probably 20-some years ago, soil scientist Jill Clapperton, who was then with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge, talking to producers about the importance of earthworms. Really, earthworms? In my world as a kid, the real value of earthworms was flipping over a half-dried cow pie on pasture, collecting the little beggars before they slithered away, and later going fishing with my dad at the St. Lawrence River.

But from a much more scientific point of view, as Clapperton has long talked about and Elmy mentioned in his presentation, earthworms are indicator of soil health. (Clapperton is still delivering the message as principal scientist and co-founder of Rhizoterra Inc. in Washington state.)

Switching from what might be described as conventional farming practices — a monoculture crop produced with fairly high rates of chemical fertilizer further supported by crop protection products, to a system that relies primarily on seeding a very diverse species mix and keeping the ground covered with grasses, legumes and broadleaf crops requires a considerable shift in thinking and management.

As Elmy pointed out in his presentation, “The toughest area of compaction farmers may need to deal with is between their ears — in their heads.” Farming with cover crops requires a different way of thinking, but Elmy says the starting point is to at least be open to idea. Learn the principles, learn about the science behind the concept, and just be willing to try it.

Converting dead soil that relies almost entirely on added inputs to produce a crop, to one that relies on soil microbes and fungi to produce nutrients doesn’t happen over night and it involves a major shift in thinking and management. It probably varies with soil types, but if your soil now is grey, dry, sometimes compacted, looking lifeless you’re shooting for something that looks like black cottage cheese — and Elmy says the microbes and fungi can do that for you.

While it is a big subject area to cover, here are few of the principles or concepts Elmy talked about:

  • First, deal with the compaction in your head.
  • Think in terms of profit per acre. Forget about maximizing yield.
  • No tillage — even a “light” tillage can wreck the environment for soil microbes and fungi to flourish.
  • Always keep the ground covered with something growing.
  • Think biodiversity — wheat followed the next year by canola is not biodiveristy. At any given time, you want a combination of grasses, broadleaf plants and legumes growing on your field. That can be accomplished in several different ways. Canola interseeded with peas followed by winter wheat or annual barley seeded after harvest is a very simple example of covering that base.
  • Cattle are a good thing. If you don’t have cattle make friends with a neighbouring beef producer. If you can get cattle peeing and pooping on your fields that is golden, next best is manure. You don’t need to own cattle, but perhaps you can make an arrangement with a neighbour who does that benefits you both.
  • Look into the highly biodiverse cover crop seed blends. They can factor into your rotation as well.
  • Develop a management plan.
  • Keep good records and notes.

And once you get all that done and working, maybe you can find time to dig a few earthworms and go fishing with your kids. Have you seen what a bait shop is charging for a dozen worms these days? Growing your own is another huge cost savings.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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