5 Key Points from the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health and Grazing

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Western Canada Conference on Soil Health and Grazing on behalf of Ward Laboratories, Inc.  If you missed out, the video recordings of the conference will be posted here.  The event was packed full of knowledgeable speakers and eager to learn producers.  Here are the key messages from presenters at the conference:

1. #RootsNotShoots

Joel Williams, Twitter: @IntegratedSoils

Joel Williams presented information on the three food sources from plants that soil microbes can feed on:  roots, shoots, and exudates.  The microbes will take whatever food source they can get, but research has found that the roots are the microbes’ favorite and are probably the most efficient food source for building soil organic matter (SOM).  Some research has also found that root exudates have the potential to build soil carbon 2-13 times more efficiently than plant residues.  It’s not uncommon for producers to be hesitant to plant cover crops because the growing season may not be long enough for substantial above ground growth for certain species.  But if the goal is to build SOM, the producer should actually be privy to selecting a cover crop species that can develop an expansive root system in the growing season window.

2. Take the E out of ET

Dr. Dwayne Beck

Evapotranspiration, or ET, is the sum of water loss due to evaporation and transpiration.  Transpiration is considered “good” water loss as it is the water that the plant uses during photosynthesis.  Evaporation, however, is water that a plant is not able to use before it enters back into the water cycle.  As Dr. Dwayne Beck put it, “We don’t make any money on evaporation.”  He encourages using management practices that increase water holding capacity to ensure maximum use of the water we are given through rain or irrigation.

3. $oil Health

Brendon Rockey

Profitability in agriculture can be simplified into this equation:

When using this equation, the natural response is to want to increase yield in order to increase profit.

However, increases in yield tend to come with an added expense from additional or more expensive inputs, thus changing the appearance of our equation.

We’re all well aware of the instability in commodity prices from a variety of factors.  So now our equation might even look like this:

Rather than rely on unstable commodity prices and ever-increasing commercial inputs, Brendon found ways to turn his commodity potato crop into a specialized seed potato business.  His new production practices focus on soil health and building a habitat for soil biology to thrive. This has allowed him to reduce commercial input expenses from fertilizers, nematicides, fungicides, and herbicides, thus changing his equation.

After the first few initial years and some trial and error, he has also incorporated some companion crops that bring in pollinator species, help to control weeds, improve soil quality and structure, and support the potato cash crop, thus leading to the most desirable equation:

It can be an exciting challenge to focus on growing more yield and having more of a commodity to sell to increase profitability.  This idea is fine if you’re the only producer doing this.  But when other producers are also growing more, more, more there becomes a surplus (not to mention the additional impacts politics have on trade and international markets).  I challenge you to look at your operation and find areas where you can decrease expenses, even if it means a slight decrease in yield at first, that will still result in increased profitability while also improving soil quality.

4. Biology Stimulates Biology

Dr. Allen Williams

Arguably the most important aspect of soil health is managing your land in a manner that allows soil biology to thrive.  When improving soil conditions for soil biology, the biology will in turn improve the soil.  Dr. Allen Williams presented the idea that biology stimulates biology.  Whether it’s a grazing animal stomping down some above ground biomass, dropping a deposit of manure, or leaving saliva on a plant as they graze, the animal is creating situations where its own biology is interacting with soil biology.  These interactions cannot be replicated with mechanical equipment or chemistry.  Dr. Williams suggests that microbes can even communicate with each other through a concept called quorum sensing.  To learn more about rumen microbiology, check out the blog Feeding the Bugs Part 1 and Part 2 written by our Animal Scientist, Rebecca Kern.

5. Check Strips are Key

Gabe Brown

When trying any new management practice to improve soil health on your operation, it is always beneficial to use a check strip.  You can’t truly know that what you’re doing is a success or failure if you’re unable to compare it to an untreated or “normal” area.  University of Nebraska Extension provides a resource for designing on farm research.

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