Big climate, small changes

How can producers at the farm level make changes and still reap the rewards

By Colleen Halpenny

As defined by the United Nations, climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. They note that the consequences of climate change now include intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms, and declining biodiversity.

While there is much discussion and research into what is fuelling these changes, agriculture has taken a large public hit as a sector of focus. The Climate Atlas of Canada (CAC) investigates all levels of climate change across the country and has dedicated research into farming practices and how producers can thrive in these challenging times.

The CAC highlights the interwoven relationship between producers and climate, and farmers know all too well that agriculture is highly dependent on weather.

Modern methods, techniques, and technologies have made today’s crop and livestock farms increasingly productive, but agricultural success still depends on getting just the right amount of rain and just the right amount of heat at just the right time of year.

close up of dry cracked dirt in wheat field
    ronstik/adobe.stock

As we know, the following systems are directly affected by weather patterns:

  • The planting, maturing, and harvesting of crops all depend on consistent seasonal patterns.
  • Livestock depend on feed, water, and a tolerable range of heat and humidity for healthy, productive growth.
  • Climate helps determine which pests and diseases will spread, and how much time, effort, and money farmers must spend on herbicides, insecticides, and other defences.
  • Beyond the harvest, patterns of temperature and weather affect the entire supply chain of storage and transportation that brings food from the field to the dinner plate. So how are the effects of our climate crisis changing farming here in Canada?

Best management practices

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) offers the Environmental Farm Plans (EFP) program to assist producers with climate challenges. EFPs are assessments voluntarily prepared by farm families to increase their environmental awareness in up to 23 different areas on their farm. Through the EFP local workshop process, farmers highlight their farm’s environmental strengths, identify areas of environmental concern, and set realistic action plans with timetables to improve environmental conditions. Cost-share programs are also available to assist in implementing projects.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) acknowledges that a warming climate may provide opportunities for agriculture in certain regions with an expansion of the growing season in response to milder and shorter winters. This could increase productivity and allow the use of new and potentially more profitable crops.

Dr. Linda Gorim, the Western Grain Research Fund chair in cropping systems and part of the department of Agriculture, Food, and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta, reminds producers that results are possible with small changes.

“Don’t underestimate the power of incorporating cover crops to your system. This is a very holistic approach to fix nitrogen, feed soil microbes, and in the off-season for canola and wheat we now have plants feeding the bees to keep them healthy for the next year’s crop,” she says.

Gorim says that cover crop usage is increasing as farmers look for different ways to improve production while decreasing nitrogen costs. She is currently undertaking a project looking at variable seeding and herbicide timings to broaden the window for producers.

“There is a tight window where producers can harvest and seed. So, we need to find new ways which will make cover crops more accessible to a broad range of producers and timelines. In discussions with regenerative producers in Leduc, they have anywhere from two to 12 cover crops in rotation based on their needs and goals.”

As an example, Gorim shared that a trial with canola being pre-seeded with a clover mixture allowed the clover to grow alongside the main crop. As the canola reached the flowering stage, the clover was also flowering in the canopy. After some initial concerns about contamination at harvest, Gorim was relieved to see that after desiccation of the canola, the clover fell to the bottom of the canopy and lay on the ground resulting in a clean harvest.

Other positive results have been seen in Saskatoon with Italian rye grass. “The canola canopy will establish well when combined with this. We like this pair as it gives excellent weed suppression, is a winter kill option, so producers don’t need to worry about termination, and enough biomass to feed livestock after the canola is harvested. Which adds another layer of positive interaction as the livestock graze the field.”

Producers are taking more initiative to engage with soil testing and better understand their specific needs, how much nitrogen they are currently fixing, and what opportunities there are for improvements.

Trevor Thornton, owner of Crop Care Consulting based in St. Francois Xavier, Man., says he isn’t worried about the nitrogen cap as he believes producers have been using more than needed and instead now need to adapt their practices.

“Nitrogen has been our band-aid crutch for a long time; we need to change that. It’s a big paradigm shift in thinking that will take some time. But getting growers to understand that other elements are just as, or more so, important than nitrogen, is going to be a big undertaking,” he says.

Thornton instead encourages growers to think like a plant to better fuel the plant, and cautions that not paying attention to the big picture can lead to expensive fixes down the road.

“We don’t need as much nitrogen to grow the same plant if you’ve taken care of the other micro and macro nutrients in your program. As an example, if your soil is short on magnesium, it won’t matter how much nitrogen you hammer on. The yields won’t match your invested cost.

“Look at other options like liming and calcium applications – those are even options in the Farming Simulator game!

“So, invest the time to find out your baseline, and then work to create the optimum blends.”

close up of dry cracked dirt in farm field
    sima - Adobe Stock

Thornton and his team focus on maximizing production per acre and bringing previously poor or unyielding acres back into performance. He acknowledges the weather and environmental factors are conditions outside of the growers’ controls, so instead focus on all the protection and positive yield factors you can to bring a high-yielding product to market.

Challenges

Professor Sven Anders, of the department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology with the University of Alberta, cautions to be considerate of the wording used when discussing the climate crisis.

“The fact that we call it climate change makes it a political issue.

“Producers can quickly get a bad taste in their mouth when topics like fertilizer use, carbon taxation and emissions are put into discussion.”

In their November 2021 report Farming the Future: Agriculture and climate change on the Canadian Prairies, authors Julia Laforge, Vanessa Corkal, and Aaron Cosbey shared that across Canada, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are 12 per cent of the national total – but noted government policy plays a critical role in supporting farm-level changes, and much more is needed to spur the adoption of climate-friendly practices.

The authors also noted that conflicting policies within governments can make it challenging for producers to act to protect the environment.

man standing in grocery store produce section next to vegetables
    sima - Adobe Stock

Anders’s experience is that, to date, most producers are making choices based on production system reasons, looking at water, soil health, biodiversity, and yields, but rarely is climate the main driver.

“It makes sense – they’re looking at their bottom line. They must protect production benefits in order to stay in business. A lot of the best management practices do have positive climate mitigation results, but they weren’t put into place for that reason,” he says.

Gorim agrees that additional funding and incentives from all levels of government would positively influence the uptake of climate-positive practices.

“Incorporating urea inhibitors and slow-release fertilizers in those peri-cropping systems in combination with the four Rs, they don’t always result in increased yields, but shift the benefit to the environment. Asking farmers to buy at their own cost with no financial returns, it’s a hard sell,” she says.

Gorim cites the use of cover crops in European countries where there are payout incentives, and the high participation by farmers of all backgrounds.

She notes that the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions benefits everyone, but communities cannot expect farmers to continuously shoulder the cost.

Thornton acknowledges the additional time it takes to change practices such as split applying your reacted urea instead of front loading at seeding.

In educating producers on their current soil conditions, and long term goals, he says that returns are multilayer and putting in the additional effort and time today will give back and set your system up for positive yields in the years to come.

Anders notes that large agri-business companies are starting to inquire about production systems in more detail as the public domain demands change.

“They’re looking at how much fertilizer, is soil testing happening, are practices happening at proper times, how can we reduce unnecessary emissions. But yet it isn’t clear whether farmers see premiums or pricing advantages from using these sustainable sources,” he says.

Instead, Anders looks to how the conversation can shift to a positive outlook and start to entice these changes.

“When benefits aren’t harvested by the individual, but the community, it’s going to take big cost sharing to make the shift. The general population may acknowledge that best management practices provide a variety of positives that we as society would like to see happen and benefit from, but the costs rely completely on the farmer. So how do we improve the cost sharing mechanism?”

Cost sharing programs are a top-down effect, and so Anders looks for the federal and provincial policies to come to agreements on how to properly compensate farmers.

Gorim says “research is lacking to show the benefits and understand how these system changes will benefit the short- and long-term soil and ecosystems. We also cannot yet quantify the value of extending the photosynthesis lifespan with extended growing seasons.

“The research field is working to find innovative blends and positive returns to assist with mitigating input costs and changing the traditional mindsets.” BF

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