SPOTLIGHT – The Fieldman’s Files – Stop treating your soil like dirt

Normand Boulet, CCA, Ag Fieldman, M.D. of Smoky River No. 130

I had the great fortune to attend the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health in December.

It was the first ever conference on soil health in western Canada, organized by Applied Research Associations from around Alberta, spearheaded primarily by the North Peace ARA based in Manning. The conference was sold out and it was gratifying to connect with four Smoky River area producers who were also interested in learning about soil health. There were perhaps more than four others from the M.D. but if they were in attendance I didn’t see them and they didn’t see me in the crowd of almost 400 attendees.

The soil health conference had a great mix of researchers, academics and producers giving presentations. I thought it was a very effective mix of “these are the organisms in soil, this is how soil develops, this is how you keep your soil healthy and these are things I do on my farm which improve soil.”

In a nutshell, everything we do as farmers affect our soil health, its resilience and our ability to grow crops, hay, pasture, etc. The living soil is composed of billions upon billions of living organisms, some are microscopic (bacteria, protozoa), some can be seen (some fungi, nematodes, arthropods – which includes insects, spiders, etc.). All of these organisms play a role in the soil, some are beneficial to what we are trying to achieve, some are negative and some are so important that without them our ability to grow crops would cease. All of these micro and macro-organisms co-exist, some are food for the others, some create symbiotic relationships i.e. the rhizobia which infect the roots of legumes and allow the plant to use nitrogen out of the atmosphere, instead of from the soil. There are microbes which feed on and therefore breakdown other compounds.

One example which comes to mind are microbes that feed on 2,4-D (yes the herbicide), microbial action is the most important means of breaking down 2,4-D into its parent compounds, which in turn are fed on and changed by other microbes and fungi. By applying any pesticides, fertilizer, manure, soil amendments we impact the type and populations of the life in our soil. Using 2,4-D increases the number of microbes that feed on it, actually reducing the time it takes to breakdown future applications of that pesticide. Using insecticides would obviously impact not only the pest we are targeting, but also kills species that are important for the breakdown of plant materials into smaller pieces that can be fed upon by microbes, bacteria and fungi.

Using a broad spectrum fungicide will likewise not only affect the crop disease (i.e. sclerotinia or blackleg) that we are trying to control, it will also reduce the beneficial fungus population in the soil. This is one of the main reasons that using economic thresholds to decide if a pesticide is needed is so important. Using any product unnecessarily is not good for the soil, for the environment or for your pocketbook.

Tillage and soil compaction are other farm related “activities” which can negatively impact our soil. Tillage may initially bury the residue and increase the soil organisms ability to act on it, breaking it down and releasing the captured nutrients back into the soil, but it also opens the soil to wind and water erosion. Years upon years of soil building activity can be lost in a windy afternoon or a spring runoff event.

The take-home message

I think the main take-home from the soil health conference was that soil is alive, and the organisms that give it life require other life to live, especially plant life. Yes direct seeding has improved our soils and soil building ability by reducing erosion. However our lack of crop rotation and the lack of species we are offering to the soil organisms is not. One speaker point I noted was, “two crops is not a rotation, it’s just alternating, three-plus crops = rotation.”

In addition, by pushing the monoculture mentality i.e. canola fields or wheat fields with no other plant life in them except canola or wheat, we are severely limiting the organisms which are able to live in our soil. Jay Fuhrer a Conservationist working in Bismarck ND said “The more you simplify the landscape, the more difficult time it has to operate.” By having a nearly sterile environment for a good part of the growing season we are reducing the life within our soil, its ability to build, breakdown contaminants and increase fiber and therefore organic matter.
Think about it this way. Wheat and Argentine canola are approximately 110 days from seed to harvest. For the sake of an argument, if you consider that our soils are biologically active starting about April 15th and ending Sept. 30th, that’s 167 days. Some years it’s less, 2015 was probably more like 200 days.

The point is what are those soil organisms living on and co-existing with while they wait for our crops to germinate? And when those crops die and we harvest them, what living organisms are there to continue the cycle of life. Certainly we want those insects and earthworms there to feed on the big pieces, turning them into food for the microbes and fungi. But the other organisms that exist only in conjunction with the living plants, what are they existing on?

I know last year in my canola they had plenty of food until about mid-November, but most years and last year in the peas and wheat stubble, there wasn’t much alive.

On one hand, as the Agricultural Fieldman and “weed police” I’m thrilled to see clean, mostly weed free crops out there. But what if rather than giving the weeds an empty vacuum to fill we had desirable species, cover crops which would offer life to the soil before and after our main crops were grown? Some of the farmer presenters had developed pretty unique solutions, including a high clearance sprayer with herd spin spreaders on the boom every 30 or so feet.
The cover crop was spread on at the same time as the in-crop herbicide. The weeds were controlled and when the rains came it germinated the cover crop seeds. We know from excellent research by Ag Canada that late growing weeds rarely reduce yields, so why would cover crops establishing as the crop finishes up? After harvest the cover crop grows, protects the soil, keeps the weed seeds from germinating while breaking up the hardpan and effects from soil compaction, adds fiber and depending on the species and time it has to grow, may be fixing nitrogen.

Some of the photos shown by the producer speakers were mind-boggling, spring seeding into two-foot tall cover crops that had protected the soil all fall and spring. The cover crops were sprayed out after seeding so the newly seeded crop could emerge and establish as the cover crop died away, yet it still offered shade and reduced moisture loss.

One producer speaker, Gabe Brown from North Dakota answered a question from the floor regarding whether he considered certifying organic and if tillage could be incorporated successfully into his cover crop rotation. Gabe answered that in his mind “Organic is marketing tool… I won’t write a cheque to certify organic.” Gabe said he would use an herbicide over tillage indicating that to him tilling the soil is the most detrimental practice that can be used.

To summarize, the more life and the more diverse life we grow on our soil, the healthier it will become, the more protected it will be from the elements and the more resilient it will become. Green growing plants increase fiber, organic matter and improve the moisture holding capacity of the soil.

I definitely recognize that adapting some of these ideas into our cropping system is a radical departure from our current practices for most of us. But the success and soil health improvements being seen by the grower speakers at the soil heath conference were truly amazing. Maybe we can turn food for thought into food for our soil? If you have any questions, please contact me at (780) 837-0043, or email

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