We often hear about farmland being a finite resource in this world of ours.
And of course that is true in regards to acres. Once you minus the mountains, deserts, swamps, lakes, urban sprawl and all the other things which restrict land from ever growing a crop.
But it goes farther than that as we move forward.
Just because land is productive cropland today does not mean it will be tomorrow.
Soil degradation is a real issue moving forward. Existing land can lose its productivity for a range of reasons, all relating to affects which damage the topsoil.
The most obvious of those is erosion which literally carries nutrient rich topsoil away.
Many of us will be familiar with pictures of great clouds of dust billowing over the landscape in the 1930’s. It was blowing topsoil which contributed to the era being known as the ‘Dirty Thirties’.
Things were not so much better here on the Canadian Prairies in the 1980s either. Land blew. Topsoil flowed into ditches with rain runoff.
Topsoil which takes year to build from crop residues was being lost every time rain was heavy, or the winds blew too hard.
The good news, at least here, is that farm techniques have evolved to the point where topsoil conditions are actually improving. That was the message from University of Saskatchewan Professor Jeff Schoneau when he spoke in Yorkton recently.
Schoneau credited two major changes in how farmers approach cropping as the reason for the improvement.
The first is a more diversified cropping rotation. For decades, basically from the time land was first broke, until the 1980s, most farmers on the Prairies focused production on cereal crops. Wheat was king, barley the prince, and oats the fill-in when needed. And of course in areas durum was important, and rye grown as well.
All were cereals.
Yes there were acres of rapeseed and flax and a few other options, but they were minor acres.
The development of canola, with its unique oil profile put an oilseed crop into almost every farm rotation in a matter of years.
The realization farms here could successfully grow pulse crops also changed rotations. Saskatchewan farmers were quick to grow acres of lentils and peas, and that trend may continue as new soybean varieties are making that crop more viable here.
Pulse crops in a rotation are particularly good because the crops can fix nitrogen so that the crop actually aids the soil nutrient profile.
Of course crop rotations are ultimately influenced by crop prices. Acres naturally gravitate to crops with the highest potential for profit, so at present are skewing hard toward canola.
Still as Schoneau noted the more diverse a rotation the better it generally is for the soil.
The bigger impact though was the development of direct seeding technology.
The ability to seed directly into stubble still standing from the previous fall had two major impacts on farming. The first, it allowed farmers to continuous crop. Summerfallow is all but nonexistent these days, and without the need to rest fields with summerfallow, more acres are available to production annually.
And more importantly in terms of soil health, the stubble and its root system are a built-in shield to the effects of other water and wind erosion.
Such adaptations to farm techniques to protect the topsoil we have is critical, in that area producers here have been leaders.