Growing Grain with Little Impact
Posted on Tuesday, 8 June 2021 under Stories
Soil scientist, Brian McConkey, spent much of his career working with grain farmers, Agriculture and Food Canada, and currently with Viresco Solutions as Chief Scientist. McConkey originally worked in agronomy on prairie grain farms, slowly transitioning into soil health and soil carbon. He led the team that developed the methodologies that are used in Canada’s national inventory for estimating greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Since grain farming is a variation of other vegetation-based farming, improving soil health is a natural first step. McConkey notes the two important ways to do that are through increasing organic matter going into the soil to feed microbial life and planting for diversity. He says, “You want to have a healthy array of functionality in the soil so if a stressor hits, the community can respond appropriately.” It is important, he continues, “to have a resilient microbial system that will keep pests and diseases in check as well as promote substances that will keep the plant healthy above ground.” At River Bottom Family Farm, the Johnsons build soil health by adding manure and compost to bring fertility back to their grain fields. They house a variety of livestock and experiment with grazing their animals on the fields they will be planting in the following spring.
Cover cropping is a key strategy for building soil health and introducing a diverse range of crops. Cover cropping looks different than on a vegetable farm, especially in Canada where, “We don’t have much of a season after the grain is harvested,” explains McConkey. One technique that grain farmers use is called underseeding. Jed Franklin from SR Organic Farms describes underseeding as, “When you harvest your main crop off the top and under that crop is already pre-seeded with a cover crop.” Grain farmers seed their cover and grain crops at the same time to allow the cover crop mix to establish itself slowly. McConkey says, “There is an advantage to having a cover crop grow in the summer underneath the cash crop.”
It is important to consider several factors when adopting this technique. “One is to grow species that aren’t that competitive that you seed at the same time as your grain crop,” says McConkey. For example, “A lot of alfalfa and grasses aren’t as competitive so they grow underneath the grain crop and as soon as the grain crop is harvested, the cover crop is exposed and already well established. This will continue to grow so you have a much better chance of getting a good cover crop on the field if it’s seeded at the same time as the grain crop.” McConkey notes that it can be a real challenge making sure farmers pick the cover crop carefully so that it does not compete with the cash crop and impact yield.
In the spring, having a cover crop already established from the year prior can be beneficial coming out of a wet winter. McConkey notes, “You might be able to get a month of growth in the spring and help dry out that land before seeding your grain.” Another option is to plant a dedicated cover crop. Franklin adopts this technique at SR Organic Farms into his crop planning. In the spring following a harvest, he seeds a mix of sweet clover and red clover that will remain on the field until it is ready to plough into the soil.
There is huge potential for carbon sequestration on a grain farm.
There is huge potential for carbon sequestration on a grain farm. This is achievable, McConkey says, “By reducing the amount of disturbance, getting rid of summer fallow, finding food genetics, having more productive environments, and even just diversification.” McConkey says many farmers in the Peace region have already adopted carbon sequestration techniques and are seeing the benefits.
The nature of grain farming results in less tillage in general. McConkey says, “There is still some soil disturbance to help prepare soil but there are ways [farmers] get around tilling heavily. In the prairies, for example, a majority of the land for grain farming is in no-till.” Carbon is stored for longer when the soil remains undisturbed. As well, he continues, “No-till results in a huge reduction in fossil fuel emissions. Grain farmers are putting less mileage on tractors so the longevity of the tractor is extended.”
Farmers have found innovative ways to reduce their fossil fuel use. SR Organic Farm has converted their largest tractor to run entirely on recycled vegetable oil. This helps reduce their fossil fuel consumption and closes the loop on a notoriously wasted product. McConkey says, “Farmers are really good at finding efficiencies with their equipment.” River Bottom Family Farm uses their draft horses to reduce tractor mileage. They also close the loop on waste on their farm. Johnson says, “There’s a lot of grain that doesn’t make it to food quality but it’s a good feed for chickens, pigs, and cows. That then gets made into manure which is put back on our field and closes the gap.”
There are opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in grain farming through nitrogen fertilizer reduction. McConkey says, “The biggest fossil fuel emissions on a grain farm are embodied in nitrogen fertilizers.” In the prairies, for example, he notes that, “Nitrogen kind of overwhelms [emission numbers] either as nitrous oxide or an embodied fossil fuel used for fertilizer.” Some alternatives to nitrogen fertilizer are to plant green legumes, including peas and fava beans, in crop rotations. Planting cover crops also helps build soil health and maximize production. Cover crops help reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, making it an important climate initiative. When using nitrogen fertilizer, good, careful management is important on a grain farm. Using the 4R system – right source, right rate, right time, and right place – is an important guide to adding nutrients to the soil in a climate-positive way.
There are opportunities for grain farmers across BC to reduce their impact and positively affect our climate through on-farm emissions reduction. Grain farmers have unique and innovative ways of adopting strategies that help mitigate climate change while also helping maximize production and yields. BC is made up of so many unique farms across the province. McConkey says, “Just because we are small in BC, we still have to manage that landscape. Improvements can be made on all farms.” Collectively, BC farmers can demonstrate leadership in climate solutions in agriculture.