By: Monika Benoit, PCBFA Extension Coordinator
“To be a successful farmer, one must first know the nature of the soil.” –Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 400 B.C.
When we think about what’s under our feet, what comes to mind? Dirt? Asphalt? Soil?
It has been said that the soil beneath our feet is far more than just dirt, but it supports and drives all of life on earth.
So when we think about how to manage production on our farms and ranches, our soil should be the first thing that comes to mind, a living, breathing thing!
Soil is not an industrial commodity, and if not taken care of, it can be “used up.”
Soil is an ecosystem that we can learn about and work with to have healthy and productive land with minimal inputs.
This sparks the question of what does it mean to think of our soil as dynamic and alive?
How do we take care of our soil?
How do we know if our soil is healthy?
Will our traditional soil tests tell us anything?
Then comes the dollar questions, how does soil health affect farm and ranch profitability?
Will managing our operations to improve soil health cost us money or make us more money?
We are gearing up to answer these question.
Over the past five years, soil health has been a major topic for much of PCBFA’s work, and is the most requested topic for workshops and information from PCBFA’s membership of over 200 producers.
In response to this, we are pleased to launch a series of workshops and seminars: PCBFA’s 2018 Soil Health Series.
PCBFA’s 2018 Soil Health Series is a series of workshops, seminars and field days that will address questions about soil health and shed new light on the most important resource on our farms: our soil. We will be bringing world class speakers in to share their knowledge, as well as sharing the soil health research PCBFA has been doing right at home, on Peace Country farms and ranches with local producers.
A Bit of Insight on Soil Health
Soil health can be described as the ‘continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain biological productivity, promote the quality of air and water environments, and maintain plant, animal and human health.”* Soil health focuses on looking at soil interactions and the biology in the soil, something that has often been overlooked in the past few decades when we look at our soil. We have done a great job of looking at the chemical and physical properties, but have we forgotten about the biology? To have healthy soil that is resilient, self-regulating and productive, we must consider the chemical, physical and biological components, as show in the diagram below:
*Definition & Image courtesy of Dr. Yamily Zavala, CARA, Oyen, AB
The chemical components such as nutrients and pH have long been analyzed, but there is less knowledge of the physical and biological components.
The physical components include things like compaction and water infiltration and both are limiting factors of plant growth. The biological components are the least understood, and according to Canadian soil scientist Dr. Jill Clapperton, the biological aspect of soil health is the most important. When we talk about the biological aspect, we are referring to the soil biota, which includes things such as earthworm populations, microbes, mycorrhiza fungi, nematodes, mites, protozoa, bacteria and many more things that work together to decay organic matter and take care of the cycling of macro and micro-nutrients into forms that plants can use.
Healthy soil biota stabilizes soil aggregates to build a healthier soil habitat, improve the soil structure and productivity to result in healthier, more productive land and farms (http://www.rhizo terra.com).
So what can we do to manage our land to improve our soil health, and particularly focus on the biological aspect? Some of the key techniques include some that are already practiced by Peace Country Producers. Dr. Jill Clapperton gives several tips (WCCA Conference, 2014, Winnipeg):
· Reduce or eliminate soil disturbance (tillage), as it destroys the soil habitat of the soil biota
· Increase soil organic carbon by keeping the soil covered at all times; the organic carbon in soil is feeding the soil biota which in turn feed the plants.
· Increase the diversity of species in our crop rotations and forages by seeding multiple species. Plant root diversity is very important for good soil health
· Livestock and perennials are both wonderful tools with a great potential to improve soil health and build soil when managed properly.
· Always have live roots growing in the soil (Jay Fuhrer, NRSC).
Do you have soil challenges you’d like to tackle?
Looking for ways to implement this above list on your farm or ranch?
Then you will be interested in attending PCBFA’s 2018 Soil Health Series.
Part 1 was hosted in Rycroft on Feb 1st, Tools For Building Soil Health: Cocktail Cover Crops on Feb 1st in Rycroft.
This interactive seminar included a basic overview on what soil health is and the basics of soil biology. We heard from Kevin Elmy, a Saskatchewan farmer who has been using cocktails on his farm for several years, and 4 local producers who have implemented cocktails on their operations.
If you missed it, catch up on the details by contacting one of our PCBFA offices.
We are pleased to partner with SARDA and Northern Sunrise County for Part 2, Tools for Building Soil Health: Livestock & Crop Integration, on Thursday, March 29th at the St. Isidore Cultural Centre.
We will hear from renowned soil health champion and rancher, Gabe Brown via webinar, and Daryl Chubb of Integrity Soils, as well as local producers.
Attendees will learn about the basics of soil health and ecosystem processes, how livestock are a great tool to improve soil and how neighbours can work together to achieve this.
Keep an eye out for more events in PCBFA’s 2018 Soil Health Series, coming this spring, summer and fall! Visit for event announcements and details.
The Peace Country Beef & Forage Association is a local, producer driven organization, providing local information for Peace Country producers.