LAKELAND – Innovation and experimentation among area producers this growing season are being spurred by two streams of funding that have been made available.
“A lot of fields are getting seeded this year that probably wouldn't have been if there was not funding attached to it,” said Kellie Nichiporik, the environmental program manager at Lakeland Agricultural Research Association (LARA).
The On-farm Climate Action Fund and the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnerships are two major programs that offer funding tied to improved agriculture practices.
The objective of the On-farm Climate Action Fund is to support farmers in adopting beneficial management practices that store carbon and reduce greenhouse gases, states the Government of Canada website.
Practices that are eligible for the funding must fall under nitrogen management, cover cropping and rotational grazing practices.
While the On-farm Climate Action Fund is federally funded, the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnerships is a federal-provincial bilateral agreement that was released in April.
The Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership is a five-year funding commitment totalling $500 million. The program encompasses many projects eligible for funding, such as off-site watering systems, cross fencing, riparian fencing, and more, Nichiporik explained.
“The future is looking bright for people who are looking to try things on their operations,” she said. “Because there's funding for cover cropping a lot of people are seeding perennials this year, some are seeding annuals, some of it is just to rejuvenate their hay fields.”
Nichiporik sees the current funding being made available as a way for the federal government to “Target and to create resiliency within farms. Make them a little bit more adaptable to climate change, because some of the beneficial management practices that they're promoting improve soil health.”
Soil in good health can act as a buffer for extreme climate, she says. “You can increase your water holding capacity and your infiltration rate and that allows you to withstand drought better.”
So far, Nichiporik has helped 70 producers from Bonnyville, Lac La Biche, Smoky Lake and St. Paul apply for the On-farm Climate Action Fund. Over time, she thinks the Sustainable Canada Agricultural Partnership will begin seeing the same level of uptake.
With cover crops becoming very popular due to funding programs for it, LARA is looking forward to diving into a variety of cover crop trials on a larger scale than they have in the past.
The research association will be growing silage mixtures and some of its own cover crop blends.
"We will be growing different mixes of five to eight different species together to see what it looks like, what it does, and to look at the soil,” said Nichiporik.
Depending on what a producer’s goals are, the cover crops that they need will be vastly different.
Often clovers are seeded with wheat, when farmers are looking for a nitrogen boost, she explained.
With fields that have been used to grow silage, a second cover crop can be planted in the same season as a way to keep the soil covered and armoured in the wintertime, with the added benefit of preventing soil erosion and keeping microbes in the soil fed until the next spring.
LARA will also be hosting Greg Judy from Green Pastures Farm in June. Judy will be focusing on cross fencing and how producers can improve their grazing practices.
Simply put, cross fencing is used for rotational grazing.
“It's a way to more efficiently use what pastures you have. If you are able to split your pastures up and then move your cows throughout the season there will be more plant regrowth,” explained Nichiporik. This translates to higher productivity and better utilization of pastures.
As producers move their cows more frequently through smaller parcels, cattle tend to graze everything versus what they like the most.
“It improves your pasture composition, so you get better plant regrowth because some things are not severely overgrazed,” she said. “It also increases the species diversity because all the plants are left to recover, and you get healthier plants that way as well.”
Judy’s presentation will be in-person and will take place both indoors and outdoors with a lecture and hands-on component.
This growing season will also include intercropping trials at the LARA plots.
The benefits of intercropping, where you grow two different crop species together, are to reduce disease and get a yield bump from the crops. A bonus is generating healthier soil.
“The harvest is the same, you're just doing one pass of the combine, but what takes more time in the end is that you have to separate your seed into the separate crops,” explained Nichiporik.
Intercropping usually involves selecting crops that have different size seeds or crops with different seed colours. The growing method seems to be catching on.
“There are more and more farmers that are doing it. But there's a lot of hesitancy just because of the legwork at the end,” she said. “There's equipment out there, but there's a cost to getting into that equipment.”
The scale of operations can also have an impact on producers' ability or interest in diving into intercropping.
“I think it's a paradigm shift, because people know how to grow a wheat crop or barley crop by itself really well. But, when you start adding complexities, it's a hurdle to get people to introduce it on their own operation until they really see how it works,” she acknowledged.
But the benefits of intercropping are hard to ignore.
“There are huge benefits to the soil health, but you also get less diseases because the two crops together kind of create a disease break,” she said, adding intercrops reduce the pressure on plants compared to monocrops.
This isn’t the first time LARA has trialled intercropping. From 2012 to 2014 the research association looked at the intercropping of peas and canola – Peola.
“But this year, we are going to look at growing some flax and wheat and some lentils with barley,” said Nichiporik.
LARA’s intercropping trials will be monitored for different things. Some trials will be yield-based, some will focus on seed quality.