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Regenerative agriculture beats high input costs

Alberta farmers apply a new mindset to crop production

Shorty Fensky says it was largely a matter of farm economic survival as he forgets about the “Y” word and applies crop production practices that focus on profitability for their family run mixed-farming operation in central Alberta.

Fensky, who along with his brother Cevin produce cattle and crops at Thorsby, about half an hour southwest of Edmonton, says rising input costs, aggravated by adverse growing season conditions, in many ways forced them to make changes just to stay afloat.

“We either had to find another way of doing things or put out a Ritchie Bros. Auction sign,” says Fensky. “And I think a lot of farmers are in the same boat. Input costs are just crazy, so for us conventional crop production practices are just too expensive and, really, I don’t believe they are sustainable.”

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As they have looked at, researched and implemented some of the regenerative agriculture practices, Fensky says it all starts with the proper mindset, making a paradigm shift in thinking, being prepared to educate yourself and being prepared to take a few risks. “One of the first things I had to learn was to get rid of the ‘Y’ word — yield,” says Fensky. “It is not about pushing production to maximize yield, we need to be thinking about production methods that optimize profitability.”

A profitable move

Jumping in almost cold turkey in 2019 to produce crops without inputs, Fensky says, “It was the first profitable year we had seen in a long time. It was so nice to jump back into the black again.” It meant putting up with a few weeds and also reduced yields on grains and oilseeds, but that was countered by the fact that when they hauled a truckload of grain to the elevator, most of the proceeds went into their bank account and not that of an input supplier.

Fensky, who produces grains, pulse crops and oilseeds and also runs a cow-calf operation, first connected with the concept of regenerative agriculture about five years ago at a Western Canada Conference on Soil Health and Grazing in Edmonton.

“One of the speakers was Dr. Yamily Zavala, a soil health specialist with the Chinook Applied Research Association in Oyen, Alta.,” says Fensky. “When I heard her speak and describe the importance of a healthy soil, I was hooked. We still talk and text on a regular basis.”

Principles of regen ag

Fensky has followed that with a lot of learning and research on his own.

The key principles of regenerative agriculture he works to incorporate into his farming operation are:

  • Living roots. Keep something living and growing on cropland from spring to fall freeze-up.
  • Armour the soil. Never leave the soil bare — tillage is out.
  • Minimum disturbance. Even with a zero till seeding, use an opener that minimizes disturbance. Fensky switched from a hoe drill to an air disk drill.
  • Add plant diversity. Not just different varieties, but grow several different species when possible.
  • Integrate livestock. Cattle activity can work in harmony with annual cropping, but it doesn’t have to be just the bovine species. Pasture-raised poultry or pasture-raised hogs can fit with a cropping operation as well.
  • And context. Probably one of the most difficult principles to fit into a farming operation is a whole new mindset. “This is about changing how we do things and having to think about what we are trying to achieve,” says Fensky.

While he was a bit “hard-headed” and didn’t immediately jump into regenerative agriculture practices, the 2017 cropping year got off to an ugly start and didn’t leave the Fenskys much choice.

“In the spring of 2017, crop was still out in the field from the previous wet fall, fields were still too wet to work and, basically, we had run out of money,” says Fensky. “I had been researching regenerative agriculture practices so we decided to use a broadcast applicator to get the crop seeded and we decided to skip seed treatments and fungicide applications. That was a start.”

Cattle activity can work in harmony with annual cropping. Shorty Fensky says his next area of on-farm trials starting in 2021 involves including the livestock enterprise more into the cropping operation. That will include seeding annual cover crop forage blends on some of the annually cropped acres, winter feeding cattle on cropland to return nutrients to the soil, or perhaps even collecting and making chaff piles at harvest as an additional winter grazing feed. photo: iStock/Getty Images

He says seeding a crop with an air disk drill produces much better results than broadcast seeding, but in the spring of 2017, they didn’t have much choice. It got him started on a plan to avoid use of chemical inputs — cost is one part of it — but insecticides and fungicides also harm or kill beneficial fungi and bacteria in the soil. “And the whole idea behind regenerative agriculture is to get the soil working again,” he says. “Bring it back to life.”

Fensky says where possible, farmers need to look for non-chemical options for crop production. For example, he says he can make a biological seed treatment from steeped, compostable material “that works just as well as chemical seed treatments with a cost closer to two cents per acre as opposed to five or six dollars per acre.”

And with hybrid canola varieties only available with treated seed, he recommends searching out open-pollinated or Polish canola varieties, available with untreated seed. There are varieties with decent yield and even pod-shatter resistance.

“Again, we need to stop dwelling on yield,” he says. “Yield isn’t going to pay the bills, profitability pays the bills.”

Fensky says the fall of 2018 on into the 2019 growing season has been his best experience with regenerative agriculture. After the 2018 crop was combined in October, he seeded fall rye as a cover crop. Admittedly, it was late to get a cover crop established and growing before winter, but it did germinate and “even after the first snowfall it continued to germinate,” he says.

“We couldn’t figure out why deer were attracted to the field in winter, but they were after the new fall rye shoots,” he says.

The following spring the fall rye started growing again. Fensky says he was impressed with the allelopathy effect of the fall rye. The rye plant has been found to produce a chemical effect on the soil that suppresses other plants from growing, especially weeds.

“Even though the fall rye crop was still quite small, there was no flush of spring weeds,” he says. So rather than apply a pre-seed glyphosate treatment to kill weeds, Fensky seeded separate crops of peas and flax, followed by a pre-emergent glyphosate treatment to kill out the fall rye.

“I believe it worked better to apply the glyphosate after seeding,” he says. “We were prepared and planning for an in-crop herbicide treatment, but it appeared the allelopathy effect lingered, suppressed weeds and allowed the crop to get growing and provide competition, so we didn’t need the in-crop treatment either.”

Overall, in 2019, Fensky says they saved the cost of seed treatments, and only needed the one inexpensive glyphosate treatment, easily saving them “at least $150 per acre in input costs. Sure, our yields were down, but so were everyone else’s in the area that growing season,” he says. “It was the first profitable year we had had in a long time.”

Fensky didn’t talk about the 2020 crop year since it was a disaster from start to finish, with reports of 36 inches of rain or more over the growing season. It was literally a wash out.

Fensky says his next area of on-farm trials starting in 2021 involves including the livestock enterprise more into the cropping operation. That will include seeding annual cover crop forage blends on some of the annually cropped acres, winter feeding cattle on cropland to return nutrients to the soil, or perhaps even collecting and making chaff piles at harvest as an additional winter grazing feed source.

He’s also hoping in 2021 to do some intercrop seeding trials, that could involve seeding a combination of subterranean clover with wheat at the same time. “There are many options of things we could try, but it is important to keep plans flexible until we see what seeding conditions are like,” he says.

Fensky says his objective is to use regenerative agriculture measures to develop a cropping and livestock production system that contributes to overall soil health and increased soil productivity so most inputs are no longer needed. “If a situation arises where we need to use herbicides, for example, we will, but they become more of an optional tool, rather than as a necessity.”

He says for anyone interested in regenerative agriculture, it is important for them to do their research, become a lifelong student of the practices, and also to develop a network of producers and specialists that serve as a good sounding board for the exchange of ideas.

Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a series looking at the potential of regenerative agriculture. Watch for the final instalment in the March 2 issue of Grainews.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

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

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