The On-Farm Applied Research and Monitoring (ONFARM) four-year research program has begun delivering results and data.
ONFARM established 33 cooperator sites, eight edge of field (EOF) sites, 25 best management practice (BMP) sites, and a baseline data set in its first year.
“It really represents a great starting point to look ahead to the rest of the ONFARM project,” said Don King, senior agronomist and Soil Resource Group (SRG) president at the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSICA) annual meeting.
SRG is in charge of the soil health assessments and sampling at edge of field sites where crop management data is also being collected via interviews and window surveys to aggregate the inputs and yields into a profitability map, said King.
Additionally, the project will compare measured data for nutrient load prediction and scenario testing of BMP adoption in watershed models.
SRG established a network of side-by-side trials to identify soil health indicators and test the effectiveness of BMPS, particularly cover crops, organic amendments and reduced tillage, with farmers across southern Ontario last winter.
Participants needed to follow standard field crop rotations, primarily corn, soybeans and wheat and use single species up to a 14-way mix cover crop and several tillage styles to qualify for the project.
King said Zac Cohoon, a Durham region co-operator, who was named 2017 Innovator of the year for his work with compost to build organic matter on his farm, brought a great deal of experience and knowledge to the project.
The farm’s 1,700-acre, predominately grain and oilseed operation, consists of imperfectly drained sandy loam soil, and hilly land provides several challenges, including inconsistent yield across the land base.
Cohoon uses cover crops to hold soil structure, build soil organic matter, and provide late-season forage production to sequester nutrients that can benefit the next crop.
Cohoon admits there are challenges around seeding machinery, seeding timelines, and residue management for the following year’s crop.
“I truly believe that cover crop production needs to be utilized for more than just the crop that it grows itself and the soil and nutrient holding ability,” he said. “I think there is added benefits and return on investment to being able to add livestock to that rotation, making the cover crop more profitable.”
The ONFARM project allowed Cohoon to investigate the viability and benefit of other cover crop species and assess the benefits and challenges of integrating new plants.
“Every year that we can increase soil organic matter, helps us increase our on-farm goals,” he said. “ONFARM is doing the qualitative and quantitative analysis for me, as well as providing expertise and advice on rotation and cover crop varieties.”
The baseline sampling included chemical, biological and physical parameters and several field measurements, such as water infiltration, bulk density, penetrometer, soil temperature, moisture and profile characterization along with yield – which could be related to the in-lab measurements.
“Important among these was a detailed soil survey investigation conducted at each of the benchmark locations to identify soil health risks,” said King. “It was determined that we really have to be incorporating field assessments to get a better understanding of our soil health interpretation.”
Samples were taken from benchmark locations from one set of treatments for the baseline and will be revisited after the first treatment and again in year three for a full gamut sampling.
King noted researchers collected reference site samples for the BMP trial sites and EOF sites from an adjacent bush or undisturbed area.
“Not to be used for comparison with field levels, but it describes and essentially demonstrates a soil’s potential,” said King.
The soil health data collection breaks down to capture the benchmark soil readings, treatment information, such as BMP type, implementation method and cropping information and treatment effects, including soil health parameters and agronomic performance.
The measurements will compare the inherent baseline variability against the change in management samples and treatment information, said King. Additionally, the data will also capture BMP implementation, cost and its effect on productivity.
King said ONFARM data analysis is ongoing and preliminary results indicate a vast variability that exists for organic matter and active carbon across the soils found in landscapes province-wide.
Displaying a graph of a single site for organic matter and active carbon, King said the differences appear based on landscape position within the upper slope, mid-slope and lower landscape of the field.
“These differences within a field are important to recognize in attempting to measure soil health and to be able to measure change over time,” King said, adding the blue diamonds indicate the native soil measurements within the group.
“The data set is very large,” he said. “It’s diverse in conditions and provides a platform for research for years to come.”