Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 International Year Of The Soil

January and February are conference months in the world of Ontario crop production  From the SW Ag in Ridgetown, to CCA in London, to FarmSmart in Guelph to IFAO in London, there are many opportunities for learning from farmers, agronomists and researchers alike at very reasonable costs.
The main theme running through these events this year is soil health. 2015 has been deemed to be "The Year of the Soil".  New soil terms such as "snirt" and "goobers" have been coined to describe a distinct lack of good soil management displayed by farmers.
Soil health is the bedrock of our production agricultural system.  Do we really need to be swatted across the head to remember this fact?  Apparently, yes.
The following link is an interview with Anne Verhallen, Soil Management Specialist with OMAF.

Check Your Fence Bottom

The first time I heard the fence bottom analogy was in 1979 while standing in a steaming hot machinery shed near Coon Rapids, Iowa.  The fence bottom analogy, as well as the hot shed, has been lodged in my brain ever since.  It inherently made sense to me.  Every time I watched a row crop planted into a virgin pasture field, the fence bottom analogy would come back.  The soil life and nutrient availability to the corn or bean crop in the first and second year after the pasture is a joy to witness.  Then the benefits gradually go away.
The question is how do you replicate the fence bottom?  We can't replicate it exactly, but there are things we can do to mimic the fence bottom and we are certainly smart enough to know things that destroy the fence bottom.  The number one enemy of the fence bottom is steel, aka the plough. Driving around the country side this fall proves we as farmers love our ploughs and deep rippers.
Dr David R Montgomery has written a book entitled "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations".  I was fortunate to hear Dr Montgomery speak at a CCA conference several years ago which registered as one more experience that stayed lodged in my brain along with the Iowa shed.  Dr Montgomery is also speaking this year at the IFAO in February.
This book deserves to be in the library of every farmer and agronomist.  The basic premise of the book is that the over use of steel on agriculture soils lead to the demise of many early societies. Ancient Greece being just one example.  Ancient Greece produced more than enough food to feed the people in the early days of her existence.  However as time passed her soils became less productive, due to excessive erosion and Greece was forced to rely on foreign imports of food.  Sending an army into battle on empty stomachs is not sound military strategy. His research into this topic is impressive.
Why is heavy tillage a problem?  As noted already, farmers are voting overwhelmingly in favour of the positives of the plough.  The perceived positives are many, including rut repair, reducing surface compaction, trash burial, faster warm up in spring, along with the psychological benefit provided by burying the struggles of 2014 behind the big Red, Green, Yellow, or Blue tractor of choice. It also drives the spring stone picking economy that is a natural right of passage for rural youngsters.  Two main negatives of steel are leaving the soil more prone to erosion and causing a major disruption to the natural balance of soil life as exemplified by the fence bottom.
Cover crops are being touted as a solution to the problems associated with steel.  #rootsnoiron is a popular twitter feed. In addition to anchoring the soil in place, cover crops provide the proper environment for the soil creatures that we cannot see to flourish.  It has been claimed that there is enough bacteria, fungi and microbes in a acre of soil to be the equivalent in weight of a mature Holstein cow, or at least maybe a Jersey.  Cover crops provide the food sources for that productive and happy Jersey.  Earthworm populations explode as tillage is reduced and we all know that the earthworm is nature's plough.
I plead guilty to the charge of putting short term goals ahead of the big picture by quickly adding up the costs of cover crop seed, fertilizer, planting etc, and coming to the conclusion that cover cropping can get expensive.  However, if we as farmers are truly dedicated to protecting the foundation of our business and if we are truly dedicated to leaving the farm in a better condition for generations to come then we need to re-think our obsession with steel.

Many of the presentations made at SWAC in Ridgetown, including some good ones on both steel and soil heath are available on line and definitely worth a look.

SWAC Proceedings

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