Since an unexpected disaster in 2017, in many respects, Alberta farmer Andy Kirschenman has had to start over. In October of that year, a massive fire ripped through Harvest Moon Farm. The Kirschenmans lost their house, a shed, a combine, quite a bit of equipment and most of the trees in the shelterbelt.
But the destruction didn’t stop there. Of the 4,500 acres the family farms (both rented and owned), about 2,200 were affected by the fire. Heavy winds took the ash, which would have provided nutrients, and much of the soil. In some places there were four-foot-deep drifts of soil in the trees. It even filled the ditches.
Since then, soil health has been an important focus for Kirschenman.
“We are in a starting over position on half of our acres from a soil health standpoint,” said Kirschenman during a presentation he made at 2020’s Farm Forum Event last November.
Soil health improvement ongoing
Historically speaking, Harvest Moon Farm, first purchased in the 1950s, didn’t always put soil first. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the farm followed a fallow system that left plowed and tilled land unplanted following harvest for one growing season. This left the land subject to soil erosion, said Kirschenman. In some places, the erosion was so bad fence posts sat just six inches above the soil. The hilly landscape left the soil prone to water erosion as well.
Improving soil health has been ongoing on the farm. In the 1990s, the Kirschenmans began chem fallowing, and continued to do so up until 2012. In the early 2000s, they further diversified crops by adding peas, flax and canola to the rotation, producing as many as eight crops per year. They tried adding corn, sunflowers, soybeans, fava beans, peas and lentils as well, but have since backed off some of those options as they’re too challenging to manage.
Kirschenman has tried integrating cattle onto his land as well. He likes that the residue and manure stay on the ground, but says it’s difficult to make it work.
“It is really hard to make it pay anywhere near what an annual crop would pay in this area without intensive management,” he said. “Even with intensive management, we’d still have to run the numbers hard.”
After the fire, Kirschenman tackled the soil health challenge head on. He combined a variety of soil health management tools on the farm. He incorporated multispecies cover crops, diversified his rotation and preserved crop residue to protect the soil from further erosion. As much as possible, he uses disc drills and stripper heads.
Cereals are also an important part of the rotation, as they’re a more natural fit in mixed grass prairie, he added. “We have to try to mimic that,” he said. “Annual cereals, and especially winter cereals, are the best way for us to build up that residue.”
However, incorporating soil armour and reducing tillage are the most important soil health principles on the farm right now.
“If we don’t do that none of the other processes work,” said Kirschenman. “We can’t grow diverse crops if we don’t keep the moisture for them. We can’t integrate cattle if the cattle eat all of our residue and we’re left with bare fields.”
Building soil health for future generations is the main goal on Tim Nerbas’ farm in Waseca, Sask., as well. Nerbas also shared his strategies for improving soil health at the conference, which include constant cover, crop diversity and zero tillage.
Nerbas took the first steps toward improving soil health on NRG Farms more than 20 years ago when he made the decision to eliminate tillage entirely. Some of the farmland had not been tilled for more than 30 years, so no-till was not new to Nerbas. From there, he focused on crop variety and diversity, which he sees as crucial to soil health. In a given year, Nerbas grows wheat, barley, oats, canola, peas, fava beans and flax. Some years, he intercrops canola and peas.
Nerbas says he uses nature as his guide. “In nature, we see lots of diversity and the ground is always covered,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to replicate.”
However, more crop diversity means more complex weed management, said Nerbas. “Sustainable ag is not something that is simple, but simple ag is not sustainable,” he said.
Often overlooked is the soil microbial community. There’s still so much to learn about these communities, but we do know they need to be fed, said Nerbas.
Ultimately, Nerbas aims to ensure economic profitability while feeding the soil to keep it healthy and minimizing erosion. He believes looking after the soil better prepares him for the variable weather conditions that seem to be the new norm.