What do you want to change about your cropping operation? That’s the first question farmers need to think about as they look into the relatively new world of regenerative agriculture (regen ag).
It’s a big subject area, with plenty of variables, layers and “twists,” say agronomy consultants who work with producers on implementing regen ag practices. There is no one system that fits all farms and adopting regen ag practices can be simple or complex, depending on the farm goals.
It can be as simple as figuring out a system to better control problematic weeds, or as complex as implementing a complete overhaul of production practices that could lead to the elimination of all added chemical inputs including fertilizer and crop protection products. But if you’re cropping 4,000, 8,000 or 10,000 acres or more of grains, oilseeds and pulses in Western Canada, is farming without inputs a reasonable goal? And if it is possible, where do you start?
Three Prairie consultants who work with farmers to implement varying degrees of regenerative agriculture practices say it all starts with determining the goals of the farm.
“Some of the first questions are what do you want to do, what are your short- and long-term goals, what is it about the system you have now that you are not happy with?” says Kevin Elmy, part of the third-generation Friendly Acres Seed Farm and founder of Cover Crops Canada. He’s based at Saltcoats, in east-central Saskatchewan, not far from the Manitoba border. His website can be found at covercrops.ca.
Similarly, Daryl Chubb, owner of DeNovo Ag consulting services, also wants farmers to think about their goals, “What do you want to change and what are you prepared to change?” says Chubb. He’s based out of Irricana, Alta., north of Calgary. He says producers approaching him about regen ag are looking for ways to improve soil organic matter as well as increase soil carbon, to improve soil structure and water infiltration, to see how cover crops can be used in rotation, and to improve the health of soil biology. Visit his website at denovoag.com.
Farming practices that encourage the growth of diverse populations of soil bacteria and fungi can work in many ways to enhance soil health and crop production.
And in southern Alberta, Scott Gillespie, owner of Plants Dig Soil consulting services based in Taber, says as farmers rediscover the lost art of using biological-based systems to control pests and build soil fertility, goals will vary depending on whether producers are looking at irrigation or dryland cropping operations. Visit his website at plantsdigsoil.com.
While all three consultants use slightly different words to define regenerative agriculture, in the end they all have the same meaning. Elmy says he simply defines it as “improving the soil,” Chubb describes it as “regenerating or restarting the natural soil systems and not just maintaining it,” and Gillespie defines it, “ideally as applying practices that improve the soil, and at the very least don’t degrade it.”
The key issue is conventional farming practices — even direct seeding and zero-till systems — can have a negative effect on the health of soil microbiology, particularly as chemical fertilizers and crop protection products are applied. And if farmers can apply practices that encourage the health of soil microbiology, soil health will improve and, ultimately, the reliance on chemical inputs might decrease.
While estimates vary, it is believed there are one billion or more microbes in just one teaspoon of soil. That microbiology includes soil bacteria and soil fungi, which are the start of what’s described as the soil food web that supports other soil organisms and the functions of healthy soil. And if your farming practices encourage the growth of diverse populations of soil bacteria and fungi, they can work in many ways to enhance soil health and crop production, often without chemical inputs.
Keep it green and growing
These soil bacteria and fungi feed on soil carbon, so farming practices that increase carbon storage in the soil is beneficial to the well-being of soil microbes. And one of the key measures to improve soil carbon is to keep some type of crop green growing and vegetative from early spring right through until freeze-up in fall. If plants are kept in the vegetative state, as much as 80 per cent of the carbon collected is stored in the soil.
And that’s where techniques such as growing cover crops, intercropping (growing two or more crops at the same time) and relay cropping may have a fit in different cropping operations.
Gillespie says he has several clients who are experimenting with relay cropping, for example. That involves seeding your main cash crop first and then coming back once it is established and growing and seeding a second crop, which will keep growing once the cash crop is harvested.
“With our shorter season here, it is often too late to plan on seeding a second crop once the cash crop is harvested in September or October,” says Gillespie.
He has some clients experimenting with seeding a cereal crop, for example, have it up and growing and treated with herbicide as required, and then come back perhaps in late June or July and seed a second crop between the rows — something slow growing, such as a clover, or hairy vetch or even fababeans.
The cereal carries on to mature and be harvested in September, then allowing the second crop to release and keep growing until freeze-up. Some producers have even modified seeding equipment to seed the second crop between the cereal crop rows.
Elmy says he has tried relay cropping on his own farm some years. One year with spring triticale seeded and growing, he came along in midsummer and used aerial seeding to “blow on turnip and radish seed,” hoping they would catch.
“It worked quite well,” says Elmy. “I chose those crops for aerial application because they are both small seeds, even a tenth of an inch of moisture can help them germinate and they were also both frost tolerant, so they kept growing right to freeze-up.”
Chubb says he also encourages clients to look at intercropping and relay cropping opportunities and he also recommends soil additives, such as humates, that are beneficial to improving soil carbon and may help farmers cut back on added chemical fertilizer.
Symptoms versus root causes
Raw humates, or prehistoric plant matter, added to the soil will produce natural acids, which promote the growth of beneficial fungi (including mycorrhizal fungi) — often the missing link in many soils. This helps to stabilize nitrogen and improves nitrogen efficiency and uptake by crops.
“There are so many tools that can be used as part of a regenerative agriculture system,” says Chubb. “As farmers have a look at regen agriculture, probably the most important thing is to have the proper mindset and be looking for ways to improve the soil health.”
Elmy says in working with producers to develop goals, it is important they understand the difference between symptoms and the actual problem.
“The producer may have a problem with a certain weed and they’re looking for ways to reduce herbicide costs,” says Elmy. “They see the weed as the problem, but in reality, there is a chemical imbalance in the soil — the soil is high in salinity, low in calcium, low in phosphate, and high in nitrates, all conditions which favour a particular weed.
“As well, the proper ratio between soil bacteria and fungi could be out of whack. It is those imbalances in the soil that are causing the weed problem, so if we can get soil health back on track, the weed problem will disappear.”
With some 20 years of experience of studying soil health and principles of regenerative agriculture, Elmy published a book last year to help introduce farmers to regenerative agriculture.
The book, titled Cover Cropping in Western Canada, will help producers incorporate cover cropping into their production systems, says Elmy.
“Producers will understand how to set goals, pick appropriate species to meet those goals, and create a management plan to effectively integrate cover crops into their rotations,” he says. “It is an excellent reference source for producers who want to increase soil health and to help control greenhouse gas emissions.”