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Field Day at the Fairview Research Farm

A cool grey day with no rain drew about 145 people to Peace Country Beef and Forage Association’s Field Day at the Fairview Research Farm Aug. 1. Organizers Lisa Jeffrey and Katy MacLachlan of PCBFRA said the turnout was down a bit from last year, but given there had been no rain, many producers were baling hay so they were happy as many turned up as did.
There were four presentations to benefit local producers: Daryl Chubb demonstrating soil health assessments, Eric Verstappen demonstrating working stock dogs, Dr. Akim Omokanye speaking about the year’s research and Master’s degree student Alan Lee speaking about his research into intercropping oats, canola and peas.
There were also displays from SARDA, Farm Safety, bee keeping, and several pieces of equipment to look at – some belonging to the research farm, some to PrairieCoast Equipment, the local John Deere dealer.
For kids who were too young to enjoy the presentations there was a bouncy castle and face painting.
The research farm covers a lot of area, so there were horse drawn wagons to transport visitors back and forth between the parking area, farm yard, and research plots.
Daryl Chubb had a soil pit to show the different levels of soil and to demonstrate how it changes with depth. The top layer is the soil where most growth occurs, below that is a sandy layer and below that clays and it usually gets harder as you go deeper. Other things change too, Chubb showed that salinity gets higher as you go deeper – at the research farm the reading on his instrument went from .15 at surface to 2.5 26 inches deeper. He explained that when the reading gets to 4 the soil is considered saline, and added that in southern Alberta he encounters soil that reaches 5.5 or higher.
During discussion of how to deal with extreme conditions in soil, salinity and Ph both, he said producers are better to adapt to the soil than to try and change it, unless they have a lot of time and money to spend, adding there are areas where producers lime the soil to reduce the Ph, and have to do it every two-three years.
He demonstrated one tool in his toolbox, which measures soil hardness, or how much force it takes to penetrate. He added that when roots hit the layer that takes 300psi to penetrate, they mostly stop – though most annual crops only go about six inches down.
He explained that working with soil requires balancing economics with agronomics and producers also have to take into account what they need from the soil which is different for grain farmers as opposed to mixed operations.
He said the biology of soil is very important to – salinity of two or higher can shut down soil biological activity, as can too high rates of nitrogen application (though adding nobody knows how high is too high).
Asked what is the worst thing you can do to your soil, he responded with a question – What are you doing to manage it? He explained no-till practices are beneficial in that there is less compaction, giving the soil better filtration, but diversity is key, mycorrhizae is all important to the system.
Other tools Chubb has are instruments that measure Ph, calcium, potassium, and sugar levels (Refractometer). He explained they all have their limitations and cannot replace lab testing of soil, but they are very useful tools in analyzing soil health.
One test he uses which does not require any expensive requirement is to take a clump of soil, dry it for a day, then put it in a mesh basket and put the mesh basket at the top of a jar of water and watch how long it takes for the soil to go through the mesh.
The longer it takes, the better the structure of the soil is. You could also do a soil filtration test – drive a metal tube about six inches wide into the soil then pour a measured amount of water into it (about 700mls). When that has been absorbed pour in an additional 700mls – the more it can absorb and the faster, the healthier the soil.
Dr. Akim Omokanye spoke about the different research going on at the farm – variety trials for barley, oats, triticale and soft white wheat, as well as brassicas and broad leaf-plants, perennial forage legumes, alternative cereals and grasses for forage production, perennial forage grasses and perennial forage mixtures.
They are also looking at cereal/pea mixtures, warm season cereal/pea mixtures, cover crop mixture seeding rates, mixed and alternate rows incrop, cover crop cocktails with and without corn, soft white wheat and wheat to improve forage energy, intercropping.
Dr. Omokanye was recognized for 10 years of Service with PCBFA – he joined them 10 years ago in August – Lisa Jeffery presented him with a framed picture. Dr. Omokanye is now an adjunct professor at University of Alberta and will be doing occasional lectures there. As well, the research farm will be getting more grad students working summers which will give them exposure to real life agriculture and to the Peace as well as strengthening NPBRA’s research programs.
Alan Lee, a Masters Degree student from U of A, worked at the research farm last year and returned this year. He was at the field day to explain his research into intercropping oats, peas and canola. He explained, “We know that intercropping works, what we need to find out is why it works.” He added that if researchers can discover why it works (and by extension, how) they will be better able to explain to producers how to make use of intercropping. One important factor is the mycorrhyzae, which is fungus in the soil which delivers both water and nutrition to plant roots. It also acts as a kind of social network (a very slow speed version) where plants send out signals when they are being attacked or are under stress, which prepares other plants in the area to react. Intercropping introduces different types of roots and different types of mycorrhyzae to the soil. He said the yield from the individual crops is lower, but the yield of the two combined is about 1.5X higher than if it had been a monocrop. Part of the research being done involves taking soil samples to analyze the mycorrhyzae.
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