By Tom Collins
OIL SPRINGS — Lambton County cash crop farmer Mike Belan remembers as a kid the horror stories of how the tough financial times of the 1980s led to his family having to sell much of their farm machinery and some of their 3,000-acre farm in the early 1990s.
“Anything that involved tillage, got sold,” he told Farmers Forum. After the sell-off, the family was left with a combine, a sprayer, a few small implements and a John Deere 750 no-till drill that was purchased in 1991. The selling of equipment forced the farm to immediately switch from heavy tillage to no-till.
Belan, who runs the farm with his father, Mike, and uncle Tony, now farms no-till on 1,500 acres at Oil Springs in Lambton County.
Now the family sees the switch as a blessing in disguise and keeping that no-till drill turned out to be a lifesaver. While it is still being used to plant soybeans, wheat and cover crops today, for a time it was also converted to plant corn.
Belan, 40, and a full-time firefighter, said that switching to no-till reduces fuel costs, tractor wear and tear and less money is needed to purchase new equipment. While he couldn’t put a dollar figure on how much he saves each year by going no-till versus tilled, he estimated that every tillage pass costs $10 an acre.
“When you see guys doing three passes, you’re looking at $30 an acre at getting the soil fit to plant, whereas we just go in to plant,” he said.
He touted the benefits of no-till, saying it reduces compaction and is better for soil biology.
In 2012, Belan started looking more into soil health and began integrating cover crops to do so. Since then, cover crops have helped reduce soil erosion, increased water filtration and reduced compaction on his farm.
That’s also when Belan started to focus more on profit and yield consistency rather than always trying for the highest yield. “That’s the mentality change that has to happen,” he said. “You’ve got 60-bushel beans or 50-bushels beans. That’s the wrong comparison, when you want to get down to the nuts and bolts of farming.”
Earlier this month, Belan was chosen as the 2020 Innovative Farmer of the Year by the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario. The award is given to someone who is committed to soil health, environmental stewardship, and progressive thinking.
He encouraged farmers to give no-till a chance, but recommended a much slower conversion than his family was forced into. Instead, farmers should convert 20 to 30 acres at a time and allow five years to see the results.
“In the first couple of years switching to no-till, there’s probably going to be yield drag, no doubt about that,” he said. “Even if there’s five bushels yield drag from doing no-till versus conventional, I think you can afford to do that.”
Innovative farmer of the year says growers need to focus on return, not yield
By Tom Collins