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Soil Health Research Ongoing

Another crop year is upon us, and once again, potato producers are busy preparing. Pre-planting tasks abound – repairing and updating equipment, prepping the soil, checking and preparing seed, scheduling help. I’m not a potato grower, so I know I am missing myriad steps producers take.

But one thing I do know – ensuring the health of your soil is paramount to healthy production and good yields.

Some new research is underway in New Brunswick that focuses on soil health. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist Louis-Pierre Comeau is sifting his way through New Brunswick soil in search of answers to on one of the biggest issues facing growers: the loss of soil organic matter and the decrease of soil health in farm fields. He wants to help growers reduce soil degradation.

New Brunswick soils are typically rocky, shallow, prone to erosion and have low and diminishing levels of organic matter, which is important for holding the soil together and providing essential plant nutrients. Indeed, in comparison to other farmland worldwide, New Brunswick has some of the most challenging soil for farming. On top of that, potato farming requires deep tillage that breaks soil structure and accelerates organic matter decomposition.

Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter and, therefore, soil degradation is not only hurting potato yield, it also contributes to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Comeau has been taking soil samples and gas measurements from different fields in New Brunswick to calculate the carbon balance in different fields. Using modern lab techniques and equipment Comeau can measure plant and root production to determine the annual balance of carbon going in and leaving the soil.

Comeau’s research to date shows that solutions to soil degradation may come from new beneficial management practices such as tillage practices and diversified crop rotations. He also believes growers should include more nitrogen fixing plants in crop rotations and promote pulse as cash crops in the region.

Of course, many potato growers are well aware of the soil degradation issue and are willing to take steps to correct it, but they need more support to try new and innovative practices.

At the end of the day, with the implementation of agricultural beneficial management practices, more carbon from crop residues can be put back into the soil which improves soil health and fertility. In addition, this contributes to soil carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change.

A story on Comeau’s research and findings will appear in the summer 2018 issue of Spud Smart.

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