By Top Crop Manager
The Elora Research Farm, operated by the University of Guelph, is now home to a new soil monitoring laboratory, the first of its kind in North America. This laboratory is designed to better mimic field conditions, yet contain highly sophisticated monitoring equipment. There are 18 soil columns, half of the columns containing Elora Silt Loam and the other half containing Fox Sand, transported intact from a research farm near Cambridge. Each soil column is one meter wide by 1.5 meters deep and contains multiple sensors (for sampling soil water, nutrients and greenhouse gases at various depths). Of the 18 soil columns, groups of six are connected to three underground monitoring stations, which contain analytical equipment and data loggers.
Two cropping systems will be compared, the first as a conventional corn-soy rotation commonly seen in southern Ontario. The second (perennially enhanced rotation or PER) will include winter wheat with the corn, soy rotation in addition to cover crops and intercrops to provide green vegetation throughout as much of the year as possible after harvest and before spring planting so that the soil is never left fallow.
“This PER is being adapted by a wider group of innovative farmers and is believed to improve soil quality, reduce the escapes of nutrients including greenhouse gases and add to the soil’s overall ability to resist droughts,” says Claudia Wagner-Riddle, the scientist heading up this research. “We will measure a variety of soil ecosystem services in each cropping system over time, including: mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching, water storage and use, microbial diversity, and crop production. The sophisticated scientific infrastructure and data will enable us to trace measurable benefits of PER over time.”
“Farmers are continually looking for efficient ways to become more sustainable with resources used on their farms,” says Gord Green, president of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association. “This scientific data will verify best management practices to protect water quality, reduce greenhouse gases, and may in fact sequester carbon through atmospheric CO2 reductions,” says Green.
The hardware for the soil columns was purchased from Germany where they have been used successfully in many European countries for years. The installation of the soil columns and equipment has been provided by Hoskins Scientific and their German partners, UMS. An installation supervisor from Germany was on site in Elora for the six-week installation period.
A unique group of partners involving scientists from varied backgrounds (experts in trace gas emissions, hydrology, microbiology, soil organic matter, and cropping systems) with contributions from the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) and government departments, will add great depth to the investigation.
OSCIA is a key partner in the Knowledge Translation and Transfer (KTT) component to ensure results are communicated widely to the farm community. The KTT funding has been provided by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. A new Soil Health Centre will be established on site and invitations will be extended to the farming community for site tours and to share results.