June 19th, 2024

Farming Smarter keynote speaker talks about diversification and management strategies

By Delon Shurtz - Lethbridge Herald on February 16, 2023.

Herald photo by Al Beeber Keynote speaker Blake Vince opens the two-day Farming Smarter conference and trade show Wednesday morning at the Sandman Signature Lethbridge Lodge.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDdshurtz@lethbridgeherald.com

Ontario farmer Blake Vince made a lot of sense Wednesday when, as keynote speaker at the 2023 Farming Smarter Conference in Lethbridge, he spoke about no-tillage farming.

Vince, a fifth generation farmer, also spoke about diversifying cover crops and re-introducing ruminant animals to the farm, as well as other management strategies which have positively impacted the soil and freshwater resources of his farming operation.

His was a common sense, professional and highly enlightening talk, then, during part of his slide-show presentation, he unexpectedly appeared to digress when he showed a couple pairs of decaying underwear.

Thankfully it all made perfect sense shortly afterward when Vince explained the underwear is actually a litmus test for soil health.

One pair of the cotton tighty whities was considerably more decayed than the other. In fact, only the waistband and a few strands of material remained, while the other pair was beginning to decay but was largely still intact, although certainly unwearable.

Vince pointed out both pairs of underwear, which had been in the soil for some time, show that the soil is alive.

“The cotton – it’s 100 per cent cotton underwear – is ingested by the soil microbes,” Vince told his audience, who had gathered at the Sandman Signature Lethbridge Lodge Wednesday to listen to, and interact with, various presenters at the farming conference.

Vince explained the less-decayed underwear had been exposed to the soil of a heavy tillage corn crop with poor crop rotation and poor aggregate stability. The almost totally decayed pair of underwear, on the other hand, came from healthy, microbe dense soil.

“The underwear on the right came from my field; diverse cover crop, no till.”

And there is the tie-in to his presentation; conserving farmland with cover crops, and the importance of biodiversity. It’s a message he has shared around the world, and even shares with Twitter followers using hashtag #rootsnotiron.

“So that hashtag I’ve been putting on Twitter has gone around the globe, and it talks about just that, using roots as opposed to steel as we manage our soil.”

Vince stressed the importance of farmers controlling what is within their control.

“The thing that’s in my control, that drives my profitability, is how I manage my day-to-day expenditures; how I manage my soil, or how I choose to manage my soil. And actually managing your soil or not managing your soil with no till, is, indeed, a management decision, so doing nothing is actually doing something.”

Vince urged diversity over monoculture, which is a form of agriculture based on growing one type of crop at one time on a specific field. However, monoculture is not natural and subjects crops to increased risk of disease, pests and soil degradation.

“Any landscape, any soil around the world, was not created with a monoculture. We gotta get back to thinking about how the soil was originally covered, and it was covered with diversity.”

Vince advocates for diversity, not density. Diversity, he said, stimulates the soil, microbes and macro flora and fauna. But introducing diversity after following generations of old farming practices, is not easy.

“It’s about establishing new habits, creating a habitat, teaching old dogs new tricks. In this profession of agriculture, so much of this industry is about learned behaviour; grandpa did it this way, dad did it this way, that’s why I do it this way. Challenging those status quos, breaking down those barriers of tradition, is nothing short of difficult.”

Vince showed a picture of his field, recently planted to corn with a cover crop. In the background his neighbour is seen across the road, tilling his field and kicking up clouds of dust. Vince’s field, however, is clean and there isn’t any sign of dust.

Vince pointed out that while his neighbour has about $1.5 million worth of machinery to plant 150 acres, he has one tractor and a seed planter that was built in 1983 and paid for long ago.

“And that’s what I talk about; roots versus iron.”

He said corn is sprouting as it should, and his cover crop is dying as it should and the cover crop residue is building carbon in the soil, protecting the soil biology and minimizing soil compaction.

“So why do I like cover crops? Why do I get excited by cover crops? Because I can use less nitrogen; zero tillage; zero erosion from wind, water. I can increase my soil biological activity and I can capture solar energy for 12 months of the year.”

Vince concluded his remarks by reminding his audience that “it’s all about the roots,” and taking the biology that comes from roots, harnessing life-giving solar energy, feeding the microbes and providing healthful, life-sustaining food.

Vince was one of many presenters at the conference Wednesday, who gathered to share agriculture knowledge, brainstorm ideas, make connections and learn about new Farming Smarter research.

The conference concludes today with several more speakers, including keynote speaker Mike Jubinville of MarketsFarm, who will speak about marketing crops in turbulent times; Lethbridge research scientist Brian Bates who will talk about ultra-early seeding system to exploit on-farm GxExM synergies; and Nathan Neudorf, deputy premier and minister of infrastructure, who will include a question and answer session with his presentation.

Follow @DShurtzHerald on Twitter

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