Soil School: Ground-truthing tillage strategies with Adam Ireland

It’s important to know what’s going well, and what’s not, especially with soil. Certain “canaries in the coalmine” can indicate existing, persistent problems with management practices that over time can be improved.

Adam Ireland, who farms with his family near Teeswater in Bruce County, Ont., is joined by Bernard Tobin for this episode of Soil School, in one of Ireland’s fields.

Albadon Progressive Ag is the corn, soybean, wheat and cover crop side of the business, but Ireland’s family has been in the dairy business for generations. Most of their ground is rolling hills, mostly loam, but with some variability here and there in texture. Ireland uses a combination of no-till and strip-till strategies on his farm.

When he was younger, Ireland would notice how the tops of those rolling hills would be eroded away, and the depressions were filled with all that good soil. Ireland was noticing the effects of tillage erosion, and says that was the premise for converting acres to no-till, starting with soybeans, then winter wheat.

The farm also hired a neighbour who had a strip-till rig to try it out and liked what they saw. “Immediately, the first benefit, coming out of alfalfa, going into corn, and I didn’t have to pick near as many stones,” says Ireland, and after a few years, he bought his own strip-till equipment.

Ireland says that the fertilizer efficiency — banding fertilizer — gives him flexibility in the spring, he can plant a little faster going through the field, and the erosion has vastly improved.

Ireland, who was also one of the first participants in the Ontario Soil Network, is always looking to improve and has even done his own trials this year, in partnership with the Mosaic Company’s Aaron Stevanus, comparing fertility rates in no-till, strip-till, and conventional tillage.

“I want to prove to myself that I’m still on the right path,” says Ireland about the trial. “Definitely on some of those challenging, rolling hills, I’m pretty confident that even though come June, I look across the field, I look at the neighbour’s and even though their corn just looks a little better, we’ll get to harvest and we’re going to have more bushels, or just as many, because those knolls are going to make up for any shortcomings.”

In a nutshell, Ireland wants to see if those bushel gains are just as good on strip-till as they are in conventionally tilled fields, on a flat piece of ground. One half of the field that he and Tobin are standing in was conventionally tilled, then the whole field was strip-tilled, so that the field was treated the same, fertility-wise.

On top of the tillage question, Stevanus added in some fertility treatments, including additional nutrient blends. To top it all off, Ireland and Stevanus are soil testing the two sides of the field, using the fenceline as a base line, for soil health characteristics.

One thing that Ireland’s noticed over the years is that his flat field has had increased resiliency to excess moisture, that would normally erode a lot of soil and nutrients. “The strip-tilled ground just stays where it is a little better, and we still get good infiltration, because those worm channels are still there,” says Ireland.

“This is not a linear path that we’re on, we snake one way, we snake the other, we’ve tried a bunch of different things,” says Ireland. “I wouldn’t say that my operation is cutting edge. I really respect the operations in the province and in North America that are starting on the bleeding edge, that really do a lot of trial and error, and they share their information.”

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