“In 2014, a local area grower with land adjacent to the Melfort Research Farm contacted us to look into the potential of tile drainage,” explains Stewart Brandt, research manager with the Northeast Agriculture Research Foundation (NARF). “This 40-acre parcel, affected by excess water and salinity, had the Melfort Creek running through the quarter section. With grower investment and some additional funding (supported by the Agricultural Demonstration of Practices and Technologies [ADOPT] initiative under the Canada-Saskatchewan Growing Forward 2 bi-lateral agreement), we initiated a three-year project in the fall of 2014.”
As the first step before undertaking a tile drainage project, the landowner must contact the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency for approval. One of the most important factors is having a plan of where the water discharge from the tile drainage will be released, and to confirm that there is a viable outlet or point of adequate discharge, which means the amount of water being contributed from the tile drainage is insignificant compared with the amount of water flowing in the creek. For this project, the Melfort Creek provided the point of adequate discharge.
“Tile drainage is a long-term investment and requires careful planning and consideration,” Brandt says. “Getting professional design and installation support is recommended and for this project we worked with Northern Plains Drainage Systems Ltd. from Manitoba, who provided the design, engineering and installation. In late October 2014, we held a half-day workshop followed by a half day in the field learning about tile drainage installation.”
The costs for tile drainage vary depending on soil texture, design and installation requirements. On coarse textured soils, the tiles can be placed quite far apart, reducing costs, but in clay soils, the tiles need to be placed closer together at about 40 feet apart, which requires a lot more tile drainage material. For large areas or entire fields, usually the most efficient and cost-effective design is a parallel installation. In some situations, a targeted design can be installed for smaller problem areas where other parts of the field do not require drainage.
One of the most important components of the installation is developing the initial field elevation map. “Recent advancements in GPS technology have reduced the costs of generating an elevation map substantially,” Brandt says. “Instead of having to have a survey crew out to develop the elevation map, good elevation maps are easily generated with GPS technology, which also improves the efficiency and accuracy at installation. The major cost of the project is actually for the amount of tile drainage materials required and the installation. Typically the materials have had to be imported from the U.S., but more recently, a Canadian supplier is offering the materials.”
Regular monitoring of the tile drainage installation is part of the project and began as soon as the installation was completed in the fall of 2014. The water began to flow as soon as the tiles were installed and continued until freeze-up. It then started again in the spring of 2015. Except for a brief dry spell at the end of June 2015, the tile drain continued to run through the year. A large rainfall event at the end of July 2015 was successfully drained off the field and also reduced some of the salinity impacts at the same time. The rainwater flushed the salts down and out of the drain rather than allowing the salts to be pushed up through capillary action in the soil with excess water. “We monitored electrical conductivity [ECe] levels on the water coming out of the tiles in the fall of 2014, as well as the water in the creek. The initial ECe was 8,000 at the outlet and 9,000 in the creek, meaning the creek was more saline than the tile drains, which was a bit surprising. However, most of the creek flow in the fall is due to subsoil seep into the creek.”
In 2015, half of the field was seeded to canola and the other half, which was badly affected by salinity, was left in the permanent forage stand. Although there isn't previous yield map data for comparison, the canola yields in 2015 appeared to show a good response to the tile drainage. The grower was pleased with the results and removed the remaining permanent forage in the fall of 2015. The entire 40 acres was seeded to barley in the spring of 2016.
“By the end of June 2016, a fairly decent barley crop had been established and the productivity appears to be very good,” Brandt says. “We also have a reference area with two previous years of yield data outside the tile drained project that is badly affected by both salinity and excess moisture for comparison. The grower is very pleased with the results so far and is considering tile drainage installation on another 2,000 acres of cropland as time and investment allow.”
Similar to previous findings in Manitoba, this project is showing several benefits to tile drainage, although some are difficult to quantify in terms of economics. “Removing the excess water not only improves the water use by the crop but it also creates temporary storage for water from rains and spring runoff in the field,” Brandt explains. “It doesn't decrease the total amount of water going into the stream, but it delays peak stream flow after a rain. Other benefits include more timely field operations, earlier start to seeding, less crop drowning out, less compaction and better access, timing and utilization of fertilizers and pesticides. All of these factors have a big impact in particular in areas like northeastern Saskatchewan where we tend to have a very narrow window for seeding and harvest and timeliness of operations is critical.”
Brandt has received a lot of calls about this project and believes it has probably generated the most interest he has ever had on a project. There is lots of interest in tile drainage projects in the area and all along the east side of the province. Planning ahead, getting necessary approvals and being able to plan for installation after harvest if conditions allow are the key.
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Well-aggregated soil is highly productive even under adverse weather conditions. It has strength that resists water and wind erosion and compaction. It allows water infiltration and internal drainage. It has high levels of organic matter that contribute to moisture retention. Space between aggregates allows air for healthy root systems that can feed from a large volume of soil.
Soil aggregates form when organic matter is bound to soil minerals by glomalin – a sticky exudate primarily from mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi are a type of microbe that thrive in native undisturbed soil. Glomalin accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the carbon found in healthy soil. These fungi form as nearly invisible threads that penetrate plant roots and extend, often several meters out into the soil where they collect nutrients, particularly phosphorus, and also some water, and bring this back to the plant in exchange for sugars and starches taken from the plant. Most of these fungi do not survive soil disturbance. As a result, tillage quickly results in lost soil structure (aggregation) that leads to increased water and wind erosion, slaking, compaction and water loss.
The cropland manager can maintain or improve soil aggregation by eliminating full-surface tillage and planting in narrow strips of disturbed soil. When this is done continuously, mycorrhizal fungi and other soil biota can survive between these strips. Soil aggregation is enhanced when we further mimic nature by adding organic matter – by keeping crop residue on the land, by using carefully managed cover crops, and by applying manure and compost. This provides food for biota, including microbes (bacteria and fungi), earthworms and other soil life that in turn break down plant residue and improve aggregation. Soil microbes are most active in the top five centimeters of soil and populations rapidly decrease at greater depths. Even shallow and intermittent full-surface tillage practices are devastating for aggregate contributors.
Many bacteria thrive when oxygen is introduced to the soil through tillage. This contributes to nutrient release from organic matter and results in increased crop growth. However, tillage-based crop production use-up organic matter and reduces water holding capacity unless large amounts of organic matter are added to the soil. Because tillage destroys mycorrhizal fungi, soil aggregates and stability are lost, regardless of organic matter levels. Thus, tillage-based crop production is not sustainable.
On all landscapes, the development and maintenance of aggregates is critical to minimize soil degradation, particularly by very large storm events. On our flat clay plains, compaction, loss of organic matter and water runoff that carries phosphorus-laden sediment can only be overcome or decreased by using practices that increase and maintain soil aggregation. On complex topography, sheet and rill erosion by water can be controlled by practices that maintain aggregation but must be combined with check dams to manage concentrated water flow. While practices like direct seeding on the Canadian Prairie have maintained crop residue for soil surface protection from wind, if a high percentage of the soil surface under the residue is disturbed, then soil aggregate destruction and tillage erosion are serious issues.
Precision crop production that uses full-surface tillage on complex topography causes eroded areas to constantly increase in size. Alternatively, soil care leaders are using precision yield and soil information to support landscape restoration – the movement of excess topsoil from depositional areas back to eroded upper slope positions. The result is less yield variability and higher average yield. The reported payback time is remarkably short – as little as two years in some cases. To keep soil in place and retain yield it is necessary to use management that maintains soil aggregation.
We can easily see the benefits of soil aggregation when:
· We see clean water flowing off well-aggregated soil into a stream or drainage ditch that carries silt-laden water from tilled cropland.
· We crop over what has been undisturbed soil, such as an old fence row. This well aggregated soil produces dramatic crop growth and yield improvement compared to adjacent tilled soil.
We do have good farmland managers who are improving and maintaining the aggregation of their soils. They are profiting from their good management and hard work.
Aggregates are the ultimate measure of a healthy soil that will produce in a reliable, sustainable and environmentally friendly way. They are our lifeline to the future.
The work, published in the March 15 issue of Nature, raises the possibility of probiotic, microbe treatments for plants to increase their efficient use of phosphate. The form of phosphate plants can use is in danger of reaching its peak – when supply fails to keep up with demand – in just 30 years, potentially decreasing the rate of crop yield as the world population continues to climb and global warming stresses crop yields, which could have damaging effects on the global food supply.
“We show precisely how a key ‘switch protein’, PHR1, controls the response to low levels of phosphate, a big stress for the plant, and also controls the plant immune system,” said Jeff Dangl, John N. Couch Distinguished Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. “When the plant is stressed for this important nutrient, it turns down its immune system so it can focus on harvesting phosphate from the soil. Essentially, the plant sets its priorities on the cellular level.”
Dangl, who worked with lead authors, postdoctoral researchers Gabriel Castrillo and Paulo José Pereira Lima Teixeira, graduate student Sur Herrera Paredes and research analyst Theresa F. Law, found evidence that soil bacteria can make use of this tradeoff between nutrient-seeking and immune defense, potentially to help establish symbiotic relationships with plants. Bacteria seem to enhance this phosphate stress response, in part simply by competing for phosphate but also by actively ‘telling’ the plant to turn on its phosphate stress response.
In recent plant biology studies, there have been hints of a relationship between plant phosphate levels and immune system activity – a relationship that some microbes can manipulate. In the new study, Dangl and colleagues delved more deeply into this relationship, using mutant versions of Arabidopsis thaliana, a weed that has long been the standard “lab rat” of plant biology research.
In one experiment, Dangl’s team found that Arabidopsis plants with mutant versions of the PHR1 gene not only had impaired phosphate stress responses, but also developed different communities of microbes in and around their roots when grown in a local native North Carolina soil. This was the case even in an environment of plentiful phosphate – where phosphate competition wouldn’t have been a factor – hinting that something else was happening in the plants to trigger the growth of different microbial communities. The researchers found similar results studying PHL1, a protein closely related to PHR1 with similar but weaker functions.
In another experiment, in lab-dish conditions, the researchers colonized roots of sterile-grown normal Arabidopsis plants with a set of 35 bacterial species isolated from roots of plants grown previously in the same native soil. In these re-colonized plants, the phosphate stress response increased when exposed to a low-phosphate condition.
Investigating further, the team showed that PHR1 – and probably to a lesser extent PHL1 – not only activates the phosphate stress response but also triggers a pattern of gene expression that reduces immune activity, and thus makes it easier for resident microbes to survive.
The findings suggest that soil-dwelling microbes have figured out how to get along with their plant hosts, at least in part by activating PHR1/PHL1 to suppress immune responses to them. Dangl’s team also thinks these microbes may even be necessary for plants to respond normally to low-phosphate conditions. It could be possible, then, to harness this relationship – via probiotic or related crop treatments – to enable plants to make do with less phosphate.
“Phosphate is a limited resource and we don’t use it very efficiently,” said Dangl, who is also an adjunct professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine. “As part of fertilizer, phosphate runs off into waterways where it can adversely affect river and marine ecosystems. It would be better if we could use phosphate in a way that’s more efficient.”
This funding will allow the company to introduce to the market laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), a technology that allows for faster and more accurate data at lower cost. The goal is to provide producers with the exact amount of fertilizer needed and thereby avoid the overuse of chemicals.
The technology was developed by Logiag in 2015, in collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the support of its Industrial Research Assistance Program. This investment from the AgriInnovation program, a $698-million initiative under the policy framework, will help Logiag create 45 jobs over five years.
Researchers at the University of Guelph are looking at the connection between soil biodiversity and soil health using new research, along with data collected from a long-term cover crop trial dating back to 2008.
“We are looking specifically at soil health,” explains research lead Kari Dunfield, an associate professor at the University of Guelph and a Canada research chair in environmental microbiology of agro-ecosystems.
Attention to soil health has increased in recent years as producers look for ways to decrease inputs and increase quality and yields.
We’re talking about soil health a lot in agriculture, and farmers often ask me ‘Is my soil healthy?’ ‘What can I do to keep my soil healthy?’ ” Dunfield says. “However, it’s hard to measure that so what we need to do is measure indicators. If there’s less erosion or more fertility, can we say that’s a healthy soil?”
And, while the researchers know soil microbes are important, they don’t know if greater soil diversity is actually healthier.
“Healthy soil does better under certain conditions like drought and disease pressures, but the science linking soil health to soil microbes is not there,” Dunfield says. “We don’t know if a more diverse soil is a healthier soil.”
So, the researchers are looking at that in conjunction with research Laura van Eerd, an associate professor at the University of Guelph who specializes in nitrogen fertility and cover crops, is doing in Ridgetown involving the impact cover crops have on soil health.
“In Ontario, we are not entirely clear what cover crops are actually doing for the system,” Dunfield says. “They might help with erosion but we don’t see a huge spike in microorganisms. We’re adding on to Laura’s research and looking at the bacterial and fungal community of those systems.”
Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the project began in 2015 and involves planting rotation vegetable crops at Ridgetown during the growing season. “The cash crop this year is tomatoes,” Dunfield says. “At the end of the year, we’ll put in five cover crops.”
Then, five or six times throughout the year, the researchers take soil from the system and graduate student John Drummelsmith extracts the DNA to look at the soil bacterial and fungal communities and quantify them. This data, Dunfield says, will tell them if fungal and bacterial communities are going up or down depending on the cover crop.
“Some people suggest in healthy bacterial-fungal ratios, fungi should be higher,” she says. “We’re going to look at that using DNA, next generation sequencing. This tells us what bacteria and fungi are there.”
Or, in other words, what the diversity of the system is. Because of van Eerd’s project, Dunfield and Drummelsmith have yield and soil measurements as well, so they will be able to see if the communities are shifting and if there is indeed a link to the soil.
“So we can say yes, more soil diversity is related to cropping systems that produce higher yields,” Dunfield says.
Dunfield and her team began sampling in October 2015. This year, they took samples in May, June and August and plan to take a couple more this fall. Early findings show there is indeed some difference in microbial communities under different cover crops.
“We saw an increase in bacterial population with the radish and rye combination cover crop,” Dunfield says. She adds that a couple – oat cover crop and radish and rye cover crop – increased fungal populations. “That’s compared to a no cover crop situation.”
She points out the cash crop had already been harvested for the October 2015 sampling event. More recent sampling should answer the question, “Do we see the same changes when the cash crop is there or is it transient with crop gone?”
More research to come
The researchers recently received additional funding from the Grain Farmers of Ontario to expand the project to more than one site.
“We started in one soil system and this will allow us to expand into other systems to see if we find the same results,” Dunfield says. “We are planning, in next field season, to expand to multiple field sites to expand the analysis.”
Research into soil biodiversity and health is vital as the agriculture sector works to create agriculture systems that are sustainable by maintaining yields with the least inputs and that also help the environment. The ever-increasing demand on Ontario’s agricultural sector to provide plant biomass in the form of crops for food, animal grain and even biofuels makes this challenging, but producers are interested in trying cover crops and changing microbial communities in soil.
The researchers believe information on soil biodiversity will show the importance of selected management options such as cover crops, reduced tillage and crop rotations in improving soil health and in sustaining crop productivity.
“We understand this is a farm and people need to maintain their yield,”
Dunfield says. “We’re looking for the most sustainable, environmentally ultimate good to achieve that.
“But, right now, there is no tool to measure biological indicators,” she adds. “No one knows what part of biology is important. We need a good way to measure biology in soil and determine what we need there to have healthy soil. We need the research and data to show if a farmer grows this cover crop, this is what it does to the soil.”
Dr. Amanda Diochon, a professor in the Department of Geology at Lakehead University, is part of a multi-partner research study that aims to develop an improved soil health test for Ontario.
The project focuses on how different management practices impact soil health from four Ontario sites – in Ottawa, Delhi, Elora and Ridgetown. For Diochon’s part, she’s tracking how components of organic matter change over time.
“It’s possible for a farmer to optimize fertilizer levels and optimize yield, but that doesn’t necessarily mean soil will be healthy,” Diochon says. “And sometimes yields may be consistent across seasons or crop locations, but soil health in different fields can be variable.”
So if it’s possible to produce a high-yielding crop with less-than ideal soil, why does soil health matter? Diochon says the answer is simple: insurance. Healthy soil will be more productive when conditions are less than ideal.
Healthy soil is more resilient and can deal with stressors brought on by a changing climate. For example, soil with healthy levels of good quality organic matter will hold on to more moisture when climate is dry. And soil with a more diverse and productive microbial community is better able to buffer change.
Diochon is evaluating the effects of crop rotation and tillage on the different properties of organic matter. The key, she says, is in finding indicators in organic matter that are sensitive to change.
“We know what soil health is, but can we measure it? Nobody has that nugget yet,” Diochon says.
Her research team has zoned in on seven key indicators that she says will respond over time. Together, the indicators allow her to measure the physical, biological and chemical properties in soil.
“It’s hard to detect change by measuring organic matter or organic carbon,” Diochon says. “But by looking at certain attributes in organic matter, such as light fraction or sand fraction, we see they are sensitive to change.”
By examining soil samples from four sites in Ontario, Diochon says researchers will have a more comprehensive understanding of how organic matter responds across location and soil type.
“The hope is this research will identify best management practices to maintain or enhance soil health,” Diochon says. “We want to make it as profitable as possible for farmers while minimizing the impact on the environment – and ultimately enhance the resiliency of the entire system.”
This research is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Grain Farmers of Ontario.
The first step is the discussion paper called “Sustaining Ontario’s Agricultural Soils: Towards a Shared Vision” now available for comment.
The strategy takes aim at the apparent increasing risk of soil degradation in Ontario and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association is encouraging farmers to mark Ontario Agriculture Week (Oct. 3-9) in a positive way by contributing commentary on behalf of the farming community. Gord Green, OSCIA president and dairy farmer, says now is the time to voice the perspective of primary producers, not after new policies emerge. But before they do, Green urges farmers to also consider what philosophies they want to see in practice.
“This strategy will lay the basic ground work as to what we should be doing, it’s taking a stand that we can build on in a practical sense,” he explains. “Anyone can and will state good things about the benefits of soil health, but we have to go at it with the right philosophy to truly promote positive change.”
Evidence suggests change in some farming practices may be necessary and Green believes all farmers should consider what might pertain to them. As an example, he offers agri-environmental indicators developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada which estimates 82 per cent of Ontario’s cropland is losing soil organic carbon and 54 per cent now has a high risk of soil erosion above the annual rate of regeneration. Farmers intent on protecting soil health on higher risk sandy and loam soils may need to question their current logic for selecting only annual crops, limited rotations, or varying degrees of tillage.
Paul Smith, senior policy advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, emphasizes the need for farmers, farm organizations, governments and other partners to work in collaboration on developing the soil strategy. The discussion paper proposes a draft vision and draft goals and objectives for our agricultural soils and invites comment and asks eight questions for people to respond to. All aspects of soil health and conservation are explored in the paper. How farmers manage soils benefits from having good soil information and mapping for decision making. Having the best advice on soil management for farmers means we need universities and colleges to offer the right types of courses and do research on the right topics. Educational tools like the Environmental Farm Plan and incentives for best management practice adoption also play an important role.
Preliminary discussions have already identified significant challenges for improving soil health in the province. Some Ontario soil resource inventory maps still have not been digitized and digital elevation data and Geographic Information System (GIS) coverage of agricultural land remains limited. Thousands of soil test results, both private and publicly funded, offer a wealth of data for monitoring soil health but a central system for collecting this information has never been developed. Demand continues to grow for a validated on-farm soil health test. Surveys also show a significant decline in soil science program enrollment in both Canada and the United States as emphasis on soil science at universities worldwide continues to decrease. If supported by the industry, possible actions resulting from the development of this strategy could include contemporary updates to information resources, the production of a farm-scale soil health test, and renewal for soil science programs at colleges and universities across the province.
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