Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Cover crop needs incentives

Donald J. (Buck) Ross, who has years of experience with cover crops, thinks the federal and provincial governments should offer farmers an incentive of about $300 per acre to adopt the technology.

He figures that would cost about $1 billion a year, would be much less expensive than some other carbon-reducing programs and subsidies and would stimulate rural economies.

At $300 an acre, he figures farmers would plant cover crops on about a third of the province’s 27 million arable acres. Those crops would take carbon out of the atmosphere, which is better than alternative policies which only reduce carbon emissions.

Ross uses cover crops mainly after harvesting wheat on his 700-acre spread between Moorefield and Arthur, but sometimes plants if he’s able to achieve an early harvest of soybeans.

The mixtures he plants are combination of oats, yellow semi-leafless peas, tillage radish, turnip, sorghum-sudangrass, sunflowers, rye, clovers and phacelia.

The combinations depend on what he’s aiming to achieve.

He also routinely plants red clover with his winter wheat. His cash crop rotation is the standard wheat, corn and soybeans.

He usually sprays glyphosate (eg. Roundup) on the cover crops before winter, leaving the plant cover to protect the field from wind and water erosion until spring when he tills before planting.

He needs to till the cover crop, rather than no-till planting, because he needs the spring soil warmth in his relatively cool part of Southwestern Ontario.

Ross has always been keen about conservation and soil health.

He and his family have planted miles of shelterbelts of cedar and spruce trees. He figures the shelterbelts occupy 30 acres and, at $20,000 per acre for good farmland in his area, it’s a contribution worth at least $600,000.

“Plus,” he says, “it costs us about $15,000 a year in maintenance” such as trimming, removal and replanting.

He and his sons, who are partners in Ross Enterprises, are all trained and licensed arborists and they run a tree-trimming and tree-removal business to supplement farm income.

Ross is also one of the team that investigated biodigester technology in Austria and has built three big ones – at Elmira, Leamington and at beef farmer Carl Frook’s feedlot near Hanover.

The Bio-En Inc. plant at Elmira is now supplying enough electricity to power all but the largest industries in the town, all of it generated from waste material such as green-bin collections in Peel Region.

Ross is one of the farmers who takes the digestate that remains after generating electricity. It is a fertilizer certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, mainly because the feedstock is pasteurized during processing.

It has a relatively low, but still valuable, nutrient content of .4 per cent nitrogen, .2 per cent phosphorous and .08 per cent potash.

He stores it in a manure lagoon until the timing is right for field application.

Adoption of these kinds of technologies “is a win-win-win proposition for everyone,” says Ross.

But he is convinced that the cover crop component needs a $300-an-acre incentive from governments to achieve widespread adoption.

“I know there are farmers who think they can do it for less,” says Ross. “But we have been doing this for long enough that we’ve got a pretty good handle on what it costs.”

One of the major benefits is much-improved soil health, but the profits from that are elusive, given the high rate of variability in crop growing conditions from year to year.

This year the payoff was substantial, he says, with yields for corn and soybeans that were well above the already-high provincial averages.

One of the big reasons for that yield boost was the moisture-retaining capacity of the increased organic matter in his fields.

There are other significant benefits, such as increased worm populations because they thrive on tillage radish and turnips, and increased populations of beneficial root-zone microbes.

Ontario’s Environment Commissioner, Dianne Saxe, recently released a special report on agriculture that said the same things as Ross, including a call for incentives for farmers to adopt technologies that reduce greenhouse gases.