The road to better soil health comes from a change in attitude

Spend lots of time digging holes and looking at soil in your fields, says Quebec researcher

Improve your soil health and increased yields and other benefits will follow. But first you need to change your priorities.

Odette Menard

Odette Menard
photo: Alexis Kienlen

“How much time do you spend in a year taking care of your tractor?” agricultural engineer Odette Menard asked attendees at last month’s Western Canada Conference on Soil Health.

“We spend more time taking care of machinery than we spend in our field looking at our soil, digging holes, and smelling the soil.”

Those things are key, said Menard, who works for Quebec’s Agriculture Ministry.

“The biggest challenge we have in agriculture is to understand the interactions between all things,” she said. “If you want your no till or your cover crops to work, you have to make sure all your decisions work with cover crops or no till.”

When the plow was first introduced 150 years ago, it was used to manage water, control weeds and boost fertility. It’s no longer needed to do those things, yet people keep right on plowing, said Menard.

“We have replaced the horses with big machines that weigh too much. We need to go back to the basics of agriculture and figure out what is important on our farms, and make the system work.”

For example, current soil analysis is based on a formula that tells which inputs, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, should be added.

“There are very few analyses that bring us to fertility questions,” she said. “Fertilization is what I have in the soil. Fertility is our capacity to give food to the plant. Looking at our soil from the point of view of fertility will bring us to action.”

Menard recommends digging holes and looking at the soil. If you can’t dig deep into the soil, there’s a good chance plant roots can’t penetrate the compaction, either. There needs to be space for them to reach the water table.

  • Read more: Humble earthworms are a benefit to your soil

Producers should also learn about soil profiles and the colour of the soil, which reveal the aeration in the soil.

“You want about 50 per cent of your soil to be mineral and about 50 per cent of it to be water and air,” said Menard.

Get that balance right, and your fertilizer bill will go down.

“For every unit of nitrogen a plant needs, if you add it, you have to put in two units. The global efficiency of nitrogen in a soil is about 50 per cent. In a very healthy soil, it can go up to about 80 per cent. The biology will make it all work.”

Menard’s research on the impact of nitrogen inputs on wheat yields shows a big advantage from the no-till system. A plowed field in her study yielded 2.9 tonnes per hectare of wheat with full nitrogen inputs, while a field that hadn’t been tilled for 12 years yielded 4.2 tonnes per hectare without any inputs.

“This is something that’s telling you it’s worth getting to a healthy soil,” she said.

But that’s challenging for many farmers because they are using short rotations. Optimal soil health requires longer rotations, complete with cover crops.

“When I talk about a short rotation, I’m talking about at least three crops,” she said. “Two crops is not a rotation, it’s just alternating back and forth.”

Getting into fields too early can also be damaging.

“We’re always getting into fields way too soon when the soil is way too wet, and getting out too late, when the soil is also wet,” she said.

Odette Menard’s simple rules for improving soil health

  1. Cover and feed the soil at all times.
  2. Keep organic layer on top for macrofauna to feed on.
  3. Keep roots in the soil.
  4. Rethink and redesign rotations.
  5. Reduce or eliminate tillage.
  6. Plan a strategy.
  7. Understand your system and know the impact of what you are doing to the soil.
  8. Get into cover crops.
  9. Remember that brown is bad, gold is good, and green is great.
  10. Look at things differently and don’t be afraid to have crazy ideas.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.


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