Soil School: Ideas and innovation with Woody Van Arkel

Keep your soil covered, do as little tillage as possible, maintain a living root system 365 days a year, and fit it all into an economic model that makes money: this is sustainable soil health.

It’s a challenge, for sure, but it’s one Dresden, Ont., farmer Woody Van Arkel is happy to tackle. On this episode of RealAgriculture’s Soil School, Van Arkel, chair of the Ontario Soil Network, shares his passion for soil heath and the ideas and innovation he employs to help reach his goals.

Cover crops play a big role in Van Arkel’s management strategy. Over the years, his approach has evolved considerably: he started with red clover and then moved to multi-species covers, incorporating as many as 18 crops in a blend, but he’s now dialled it back to just red clover and a simpler approach that includes a strong focus on a diverse crop rotation. A grain and pork producer, his rotation includes corn, soybeans, wheat, sugar beets, and this year he added sunflowers.

Well known for his innovative ideas and willingness to tinker with machinery, Van Arkel shares his experience with strip tillage and inter-seeding cover crops. He notes that one of the biggest challenges he faces is not being able to simply go to a dealership and buy the equipment he needs to put his ideas into action — in many cases the equipment he needs doesn’t exist. (Story continues after the video.)

He admits to resorting to “junkyard engineering by inventory” to modify old equipment and create the tools needed to enable his field experiments. A modified drill to inter-seed between corn rows and a band sprayer to spray out strips ahead of his strip tiller are two of the innovations that have rolled out of the shop.

In the video, Van Arkel discusses his efforts to grow twin-row, 30-inch wheat. He’s had some success and is hoping to incorporate a 30-inch farming system on his farm. He also provides a peek at his latest project: strip tilling corn into red clover. He’s band spraying and terminating a strip of red clover ahead of the strip-till machine in an effort to get the benefits of planting green without planting directly into the green cover crop.

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