ESSEX — One of the two Soil Champions named last month by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association wasn’t always in the soil-management business.
As a young lad on his parents farm, Essex County farmer Henry Denotter was doing what everyone else was doing at the time: tilling, spraying and mouldboard plowing. The farm experimented a bit with reducing tillage. But after attending a few info sessions, young Denotter thought it was high time the farm tried something more ambitious: no-till soybeans.
His father was averse to the idea. Denotter eventually got the go-ahead, but he had to plant his beans in a field off a back road behind a bushlot, where nobody could see. But when the no-till beans, which went in more cheaply, outyielded the conventionals, “he was pretty impressed,” Denotter said. “He said: ‘Well, maybe we should look into that more.’”
These days Denotter crops 1,500 acres with his wife and son, and they just keep pushing the envelope. Many years the farm does no tillage at all; soybeans are exclusively no-till and planted in 20-inch rows. They plant cover crops, particularly buckwheat; and all the fertilizer is planted in-furrow. The farm started experimenting with strip tillage last fall. “I hope to have that perfected next year,” he said.
This relentless experimentation isn’t just the product of a curious mind. The farm is situated on Brookston Clay. “We know if we get on it too early or pound it to death, it becomes cheap cement,” so managing it and treating it carefully is a necessity.
The other major factor is simple agronomics. Soil conservation and minimizing tillage are often discussed as environmental benefits, but for Denotter more precise management started with saving time and money. “When you can eliminate two tillage passes and a repair bill of $165 for shovels you wear out every other day, you do some bottom-line work” and you can pencil out how much you are saving, he said.
The marriage of these two factors is what drew the farmers to buckwheat. “Probably our main focus for the next year or two is to get that in line. The root is like a little crankshaft (that) draws phosphorus to the surface,” and breaks up the clay, he said. An added bonus is the continuously-flowering plant draws pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies, which swarm in their hundreds or thousands.
“15 years ago I wouldn’t have given you two cents for honeybees or monarchs,” he said. But with growing public awareness of farming, often in a negative way, he’s started to pay more attention to such things. “Public awareness is a big factor.”
The other soil champion named last month is Dr. Laura Van Eerd, a researcher and professor at the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus. Her research these days focuses on cover crops and their effect on carbon storage and soil health. A pioneer in the field, she was one of the first researchers to start publishing on the topic of soil health in Canada.