To till or no-till, that is the question …

Canadian Farm NewsUncategorized

By: Randall Van Wagner

Now that the leaves have fallen off and the crops are in, we move into the season of erosion. It’s inevitable when soil is left bare and exposed.

The main elements that cause the erosion are snow, ice, wind and, perhaps the most damaging, water.

Water will take that precious topsoil out to the drains, creeks, the Thames River and eventually end up at the bottom of Lake Erie. This is evident by the giant brownish plumes seen on Lake St Clair and Lake Erie from Google Earth images.

So what’s the big deal? I’ve heard some guys say, “My soil blows over to my neighbour’s property, and then years later it blows back over here.”

It is a big deal, as our soils are precious. They were made more than 10,000 years ago, when the glaciers retreated north. Once you lose that organic top layer, you don’t get it back. Instead, one would have to add in nutrients artificially through the use of fertilizers. This becomes an expense that is just part of the operation.

Not only will there be added costs to the landowner, but society loses as well. Aquatic ecosystems downstream are severely degraded. Many of our native freshwater fish and mussels are at risk or have been endangered for years, or even extirpated (they won’t be coming back). This is mainly from siltation of the waterways.

Then there is also the P word: Phosphorus. It’s attached to the soil and ends up again downstream into poor old Erie.

Let’s keep it positive and think about an alternative situation. Did you know some cultures don’t believe in leaving soils exposed? They believe the land should be continuously covered in vegetation or at least quickly re-vegetated after a harvest.

The agricultural academics at neighbouring Ridgetown College recommended years ago to use no-till practices, leaving debris such as corn stalks or soybean stubble on the land, with no need to mechanically till at all, as it not only improves soil structure and replenishes the organics but reduces soil erosion.

Another option is cover crops – such as clover – that are planted after a harvest or in between cash-crop rotations, again proven by the academics and scientists as quite a cheap method that protects and improves soil condition.

Our farmer friend in Merlin, Blake Vince, has professionally spoken about the huge benefits to multi-species cover crops that additionally help our pollinators and reduce the need for mechanical tilling while keeping the soil on the land.

Check out Blake’s work on twitter – @blake_vince. Bob Kerr is another local soil hero in C-K that understands the importance of cover crops and no-till practices.

Producers may say, “Certain land needs to be worked up.” Sure, I understand site prep, compaction, etc. can be rectified or improved by tilling.

A compromise would be to leave some narrow strips of land called “buffer strips” around our watercourses. These permanently vegetated buffers will help keep the soil out of our waterways.

The Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority has partnered with ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) Canada to help fund the costs and compensate landowners for taking land out of production. Preventing soil in the drains in the first place could save us the costly cleanouts down the road. Perhaps the money saved there could fund the ALUS program further. Boy, that sounds like a good pilot project. If you don’t believe me, watch the Netflix documentary, Kiss the Ground. It’s a great overview of the big picture here.

So science has proven these practices work, we have the know-how, and we could even make a name for ourselves and promote more agri tourism, which, by the way, is a huge new market that we barely tap into. This has become big business in the province. Ontario Farm Fresh’s latest research indicates that up to 1,700 farms in the province now offer markets of some kind, attracting six-million tourists and pumping more than $1.2 billion into the economy each year.

Everyone’s best interest would be met, even the next generation of farmers, who need productive, fertile lands and clean water for the grandkids to drink and fish out of. And hey, who knows, maybe some spin-off industries?

The Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority will have multiple programs during 2021 that will offer financial incentives for farmers to reduce erosion and improve soil health. These programs will offer funds to plant cover crops or to conduct grid or zone soil sampling. To learn more about these programs contact the conservation authority’s agricultural program co-ordinator, or follow our social media channels for upcoming announcements.