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American soil health guru plants seeds in Alberta

Gabe Brown spoke with producers about building better soil with 'cocktail' cover crops and integrated crop/livestock systems

gabe brown, soil health advocate

Gabe Brown found some fertile Alberta soil for his message that diversity builds soil health and boosts profitability.

The North Dakota farmer and soil health guru did a barnstorm tour of the province in the last week of October, starting in the Peace Country community of Grimshaw, swinging through Legal and Vermilion, and then zigging down south to Vulcan and zagging east to Pollockville.

It’s a typical schedule for the in-demand advocate of “cocktail” cover crops and an integrated cropping and grazing system to rejuvenate both soil and farm profits.

“Between now and Christmas, I have five days off,” Brown said of his speaking schedule.

While he drew big crowds at some stops, the Legal workshop was almost cancelled when only a dozen people registered. But it went ahead and that suited Rusty Bellamy just fine.

The operator of Big Coulee Farms near Athabasca is familiar with Brown’s methods, and has already implemented several of them.

But Bellamy — who raises pasture-based beef, pork and poultry — wanted the opportunity to meet the man himself.

Adopting Brown’s system of planting many species in his pastures to increase biodiversity and improve soil health has definitely worked on his farm, he said.

“When we started rotationally grazing about 14 years ago, we had one or two species of grasses and a couple species of legumes,” he said. “Now we’re up to 10 of each.”

Bellamy said he’s noticed a huge improvement in his soils, with high moisture content and a large earthworm population even in a dry year like this one.

Brown started his rethink of farming more than two decades ago after questioning the wisdom of having to constantly add more and more synthetic fertilizer to his tired soils to maintain yields. At the time, the soils at his farm near Bismarck had organic content levels below two per cent and years of tillage had destroyed the soil’s structure.

“I had to make some changes,” Brown told his audience in Legal. “I realized that I wasn’t able to keep operating in that manner. I had really accepted a degraded resource. I came to the conclusion that what I had to do if I was going to be successful was regenerate my resource.”

Mimicking nature

His solution was to imitate nature, specifically native rangeland. He stopped tilling, and started growing cocktail cover crops in the 1990s, steadily increasing the number of species as he saw the benefits of this program.

“It’s diversity that drives soil health,” he said. “Nature is full of diversity, yet we as producers try to force monocultures on it.”

Organic matter levels have tripled, he said, and that tilth and improved soil structure allows his fields to soak up water like a sponge, instead of running off.

By growing multiple cover crops including cool- and warm-season broadleaf and grasses, Brown tripled his forage and dry matter production. He said yields improved on cash crops, and he hasn’t used pesticides or fungicides in years, and his growing season has been extended because the cover crops help heat up the soil.

The presentation grabbed the attention of Bill Visscher, who runs Smoking Elk Ranch near Morinville.

“I could do a lot better job than I’m doing,” said Visscher. “I just started winter feeding the other day, but theoretically they should be (grazing) in the field.”

He was inspired to come out after attending a presentation earlier this year by Jim Gerrish, a Missouri commercial cattle and sheep producer who has gained renown for his intensive grazing system.

Visscher said he’s going to try growing cocktail cover crops, and also wants to try to implement some sort of rotational grazing, even though that’s challenging with elk because they need to be divided into smaller groups for management reasons. He’s also looking to improve his pasture and soil health, and extend his grazing season.

Brown’s presentation gave him lots of ideas, but the challenge will come with implementation, said Visscher, a member of the Gateway Research Organization (part of the Agriculture Research Extension Council of Alberta, which sponsored Brown’s tour).

And that was also part of Brown’s message — it’s not an easy system to adopt, he said.

It requires a lot of experimenting, including finding the right cover crops for your area, Brown told his audience.

“I’ve had people stop after a year or two and that’s fine — it’s not for all people,” he said. “You have to be willing to put in the time and learn things like carbon-nitrogen ratios and how nutrient cycling works. But once you do, it will significantly increase your bottom dollar and improve the resource for future generations.”

And, Brown added, he’s never known anyone who switched back after staying with his system for five years.

COPA Medallion COPA finalist in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
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