Improving soil is a long process involving lots of trial and error

Soil health principles are well known but putting them into practice takes time and patience

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Everyone is in favour of improving soil health and there are a lot of recommended practices for doing that.

But it’s when the rubber meets the road that things get complicated — and change takes time and patience.

That was a major theme of Alberta producer Andy Kirschenman’s virtual presentation at the recent Farm Forum Event.

The Hilda-area farmer spoke of the “soil health journey” that Harvest Moon Farm has been on for decades, and will continue to be on for a long time to come.

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“As we learn more and more, we realize both how much we already knew, and how much we might never know all at the same time,” Kirschenman wrote for the description for his presentation.

Until the 1980s, summerfallow was a normal practice on the farm, located near the Saskatchewan border northeast of Medicine Hat in the heart of the semi-arid region known as the Palliser Triangle. In the ’90s, the family switched to chem fallow, stopping in 2012.

“In the early 2000s, we started with peas, flax and canola,” said Kirschenman. “We’ve gone to as many as seven or eight crops in a year. We’ve tried corn, soybeans, fababeans, peas and lentils, millet and lots of cool-season cereals.”

Crop diversity is, of course, one of the tenets of improving soil health — but there’s a catch when it comes to putting it into practice.

“We can’t do everything and we can’t find a time to do some things,” said Kirschenman, a father of two who farms with his parents and wife. “Harvesting corn or sunflowers on New Year’s Eve is not something I’m all that thrilled about, so we’ve backed off a little on that.”

Improving soil health is a journey that requires constant learning, says Hilda-area producer Andy Kirschenman. photo: Supplied

Bringing cattle into the mix is another highly recommended practice for improving soil health, and Kirschenman has done that, too. A neighbour’s cattle graze some land, a classic way to improve soil through the addition of their manure and leaving some of the crop residue.

But again, it gets complicated.

“You have to figure out how to integrate cattle onto cropland,” he said. “It is a lot of work, and when you run the numbers, it is really hard to make it pay what an annual crop would pay in this area without intensive management.

“And even with intensive management, I think we still have to run the numbers hard.”

Disaster strikes

And then there are setbacks that come out of the blue.

In the fall of 2017, a devastating fire swept through the area, a tragedy that claimed the life of Walsh rancher and volunteer firefighter James Hargrave. It also resulted in the death of hundreds of cattle on both sides of the provincial border, and burned buildings, fencing, and more than 40,000 acres of pasture and cropland — including 2,200 acres of the 4,500 acres the Kirschenmans rent or own. (His parents’ home, a shed, and a combine and other equipment were also consumed by the flames.)

“We lost all of our residue and everything immediately after the fire because of wind gusts,” said Kirschenman. “The ground started blowing, so there were no nutrients left in the soil because the ash was somewhere to the northwest of here. We lost a lot of soil.”

Soil drifted into ditches and a shelterbelt of now dead trees.

“We had a real reset on what we’ve been able to do,” he said. “We are in a starter position with about half of our acres from a soil health perspective.”

Kirschenman called it an “interesting” challenge.

“We’re OK with it, because what else can we do? It gives us some opportunity to learn.”

Some of the worst land affected by the fire has been seeded to winter triticale, winter peas, hairy vetch, sweet clover and two types of brassicas.

“That is hopefully going to allow us to build that back,” he said. “That will just be cover crop for next year, possibly with some early-spring grazing.”

Lessons learned

Unless it’s a winter cereal that can be grazed in early spring with the land being reseeded right afterwards, planting a cover crop for grazing is not really an option on his more productive land, said Kirschenman.

But bale grazing is a different story. About three years ago, he put bales on a hilltop with less productive soil and has seen a difference, with crops showing better colour and growth.

“I think this is a good option for us going forward,” said Kirschenman. “I think bale grazing is a very good possibility.”

Sloughs are another problem area as they typically can’t be seeded in a timely manner. So he is baling those areas early and seeding them so they can be baled again, and then putting those bales on hilltops.

“We’ve begun to find that it is quite a bit easier to bring the yields back on our hilltops where they are poor, rather than try to push the yields in the low areas to bring our averages up,” he said.

Keeping residue on top of the soil is also key on his farm, which is in the brown soil zone.

“If we can’t do that, none of the other processes work,” said Kirschenman. “We can’t grow diverse crops if we don’t keep the moisture in the ground. We can’t integrate cattle if the cattle eat all of our residue and we are left with bare fields.

“Building soil armour and reducing tillage are the most important parts of soil health on our farm right now.”

And as the ‘journey’ continues, your techniques get “better and better.”

“Disk drills and stripper heads are utilized as much as possible,” he said. “Our natural plant types here would have been 80 to 90 per cent mixed grasses in the native prairie, and we have tried to imitate that. Cereals are the best way to build up that residue and allow us to do that. Then we’ll have other crops in rotation as we move on from there.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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