Field Boundary Habitat (FBH) refers to areas of agricultural fields that are not farmed for a variety of reasons, including poorly drained soils, sodic soils, thin or rocky soils, steep slopes, or the presence of heavy tree cover. Small areas devoted to windbreaks, fencelines, terraces, waterways, stream buffers, or permanently retired headlands can also be categorized as FBH. FBH may contain native plant communities, non-native plant communities or mixes of native and non-native plants.
FBH provides no clear economic advantages from a farm business perspective. At the same time, FBH has been shown to have no negative impact on farm profitability in certain contexts. The main benefits of FBH is that it provides soil, water, and biodiversity conservation benefits at the field and landscape scales. FBH serves as insect, bird, and small mammal habitat and can improve the abundance and diversity of these types of fauna. FBH can also help to provide erosion control, improved water infiltration, and reduced runoff. In most cases, FBH is not intentionally created nor is it actively managed. There are two FBH programs in North America that seek to promote the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of FBH:
- Prairie Strips:
In 2019, the USDA introduced a new practice called “prairie strips” under its long-running Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Prairie strips can be established through a cost share agreement. There are few restrictions on where Prairie Strips can be placed within a field, but they should be designed in a manner that does not significantly impede agricultural production. Prairie strips cannot exceed 25% of the cropland area within a field and must range between 30-120 feet in width.
- Species At Risk on Agricultural Lands Partnership (SARPAL):
SARPAL is an Environment and Climate Change Canada-funded program in a number of Canadian provinces. The Ontario SARPAL project has been running in its current form since 2016. SARPAL is a cost share program that focuses on enhancing field boundary and pasture habitat for insect and animal species designated as Species at Risk (SAR) by the Canadian federal government. As with the prairie strips program, SARPAL facilitates the management of SAR habitat without comprising profitable crop and livestock production on participating farms.
If a farm business is considering the establishment of FBH, it should be designed in manner that does not interfere with existing or future farm production and be seeded in a cost-effective manner using locale-appropriate species. In principle native perennial species are preferable to non-native perennial. However, native perennial species germplasm may not be cost-effective and can be slow to establish.
To maximize the benefits of FBH, newly established FBH or existing FBH should have a realistic and cost-effective management plan, such as its incorporation into managed grazing practices, timber or forestry management, prescribed burning, and spot-spraying for invasive weeds.
Carbon sequestration in agricultural landscapes is a promising climate change solution. BUT there are significant challenges for implementing carbon sequestration projects in production agriculture contexts, according to the World Bank. The Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) MRV Sourcebook for Agricultural Landscapes lays out these challenges in detail.
Is carbon sequestration in agricultural landscapes a viable climate solution? Sure. But be prepared to wrestle with costly, difficult, and still-in-development monitoring, reporting, and verification methodologies.
No-till/high residue practices in dryland grain, pulse, and oilseed commodity production are now common across the Canadian Prairie provinces and are increasingly being used on the U.S. High Plains from Montana to the Texas Panhandle. No-till/high residue practices have largely replaced tillage and chem-based fallow on farm operations where they are utilized. Typically, off-season cover crops are not possible to use in these locales because of limited soil moisture and/or short growing seasons. Therefore, cash crop residue serves as the primary means of soil protection until the following growing season.
It is in the best interest of growers to maximize post-harvest residue to ensure maximum soil moisture retention, enable winter snow catch, and minimize soil erosion. One added benefit to maximizing post-harvest residue is that combine fuel consumption and overall wear and tear can be significantly reduced. Residue management behind the combine also becomes less of an issue since most crop residue is left standing. During the past decade, improvements in no-till drill and row crop planter design have made it possible to direct seed into significant amounts of standing residue while maintaining consistent seeding depth and minimizing hairpinning.
No-till/high residue practices also require maximizing residue at harvest. The most common approach to this is the use of stripper headers for small grains, canola, peas, and even shorter varieties of millet and sorghum. Stripper headers pluck cash crop heads and pods from the stalk. This results in significant amounts of standing residue post-harvest. Research from Western Kansas has shown that stubble left behind a stripper header must be 18 inches or higher in order to maximize soil moisture retention.
At this time, stripper headers are only available from one UK-based manufacturer, Shelbourne-Reynolds. The lack of competition in the stripper header market has resulted in high prices for both new and used units. AGCO/Massey Ferguson manufactured stripper headers primarily for U.S. rice growers between 1996 and 2006. While these AGCO units provide good performance and are easy to maintain and repair, they are increasingly difficult to locate on the used equipment market and their maximum width is a now narrow 24′.
Pan headers are made specifically for sunflowers seeded with a drill. They are designed to pluck sunflower heads from the stalk, leaving the stalk and root intact. Pan headers have long been on the market and are available from a variety of North American and European equipment manufacturers, resulting in more reasonable prices for new and used units compared to stripper headers. There are also a variety of all-crop heads that can be used for sunflowers planted using a row crop planter, but it is not clear if these provide the same manner of residue preservation during harvest.
There is little information on maximizing corn stalk residue in dryland corn in peer-review research, extension materials, or from equipment manufacturers. This could be because most corn growers east of the 100th meridian seek to break down corn residue as quickly as possible to facilitate cash crop planting/seeding the following spring. Some experienced dryland corn producers in Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas have provided some points on how to maximize corn stalk residue for the following growing season, including:
1) Plant dryland corn in June and harvest late
2) Use less aggressive rollers and run the header at a height just under corn ears
3) Use a header with worn out rollers
Aftermarket conversion kits are available for converting standard corn headers to effectively harvest millet or sorghum while leaving most of the cash crop stalk intact. While these conversions are reversible, the amount of time and effort it takes to install them means that the header cannot be practically converted back to standard configuration quickly.
Overwintered small grains have long been staple cash crops of the Canadian Prairies and U.S. Plains. Traditionally, winter rye, winter wheat, and triticale are the only small grain varieties with sufficient cold tolerance to be viable cash crops. However, recent trials and development of winter barley varieties shows that barley could be added to the list of viable overwintered cash crops. While it would be inaccurate to describe barley demand as “booming” there has been a respectable increase in demand for high-quality, food grade barley for the brewery and distillery market during the past 20 years.
Most barley varieties are spring planted because of poor cold tolerance. Recent trials of three existing winter barley varieties in Minnesota have shown that winter barley varieties are quite cold intolerant, with only one variety having more than 50% winter survivability. The development of a winter barley variety in Ohio shows that winter barley has an extremely narrow optimal seeding window in late September and early October. But if winter barley is seeded into conditions where weeds are kept under control in the fall and early spring, it can compete well with weeds as the growing season progresses. Winter barley’s susceptibility to winter kill make it a poor cash crop candidate for producers north of the 43rd parallel (South Dakota/Nebraska border). However, producers south of the 43rd parallel could turn winter barley into a regular cash crop if operations are able to meet the crop’s extremely stringent fall seeding requirements.
Two-row barley varieties are preferred by brewers and distillers thanks to larger grain size, and more desirable fermentation characteristics related to enzyme and protein content. Six-row barley varieties are typically used in the feed market, although some large breweries still make extensive use of six row varieties. Six row varieties are also used a supplement for specialty brews to add unique flavor characteristics.
Winter barley could be grown as part of a mixed grain intercrop with a winter-hardy pea variety in order to reduce N requirements, help to reduce disease pressure for both crops, and improve mid-to-late season weed control.
Options for growing overwintered cash crops in relatively cold and dry climates have improved over the past ten or so years. Beyond the standbys of winter rye, winter wheat, and triticale, some other small grains and brassica oilseeds can now be grown as overwintered cash crops. The harvest of overwintered cash crops in locations north of the 43rd parallel usually happens in late July or early August, leaving insufficient time to follow overwintered cash crops with a cover crop or another cash crop. In this scenario, practices that maximize post-harvest residue are one of the most effective ways to protect the soil surface until the following spring planting season.
Overwintered cash crops south of the 43rd parallel are typically harvested in late June or early July. These relatively early harvest dates of overwintered cash crops means that there is sufficient time to raise a warm season cover crop or a short season cash crop following harvest – provided there is sufficient soil moisture available from rainfall or irrigation. In places where winter wheat has long been a primary staple crop, stubble was typically left fallow until the following growing season. This leaves a 3-4 month window for weeds to grow and set seed and it leaves high-cost farmland idle. Cover crops or cash crops could help to reduce late summer and fall weed growth, provide additional residue, and provide additional sources of revenue beyond a single cash crop.
Single-species cover crop trials from South-Central Nebraska have shown that sunflowers, radish, and sorghum-Sudangrass produce the most biomass for common warm season cover crops following winter wheat. Warm season, multi-species cover crops mixes can also be grown as a dual use cover crop/forage crop for late summer and fall livestock grazing. There are a number of options for short season cash crops following an early summer winter cash crop harvest. These include dry beans (varieties that can be straight-cut), soybeans, sunflowers, corn, proso millet, and buckwheat.
Small-seeded crops like small grains and canola are usually seeded with box drills or air seeders. The issue with most box drills or air seeders is that they offer poor seed singulation and uneven depth control, which can lead to uneven seed distribution and uneven seedling emergence. This can be especially problematic in no-till/high residue scenarios. Recently, row crop planters have been adapted or custom-built to accommodate smaller seeded crops, to address issues of poor distribution and uneven seed planting depth. Depending on the configuration of the planter, row spacing can easily be switched between narrower row spacing and wider row spacing to accommodate row crops like corn or sunflowers.
The major disadvantage of using a row crop planter for small-seeded crops is that no large manufacturers offers off-the-shelf solutions. This leaves end users customizing stock units with aftermarket parts or building custom units. This can result in high up-front costs. At the same time, some air seeder manufacturers are beginning to offer seed metering solutions that use seed plates for seed singulation and automatic depth control for each row unit, using mechanisms similar to row crop planters.
Combining weed prevention and control tactics may result in successful weed management that is less dependent on herbicides. Some significant benefits to reducing herbicide use are lowered production costs and the ability to counter herbicide resistance. This article by Randy Anderson (USDA ARS) compares the effectiveness of weed control tactics in dryland wheat-summer fallow rotations to dryland continuous cash crop rotations on the U.S. High Plains. The dryland continuous cash crop rotations have an advantage in weed control because a wider selection of weed control tactics can be used. Weed control tactics from dryland continuous cash crop rotations can be broadly applied to other cropping systems in a range of geographic areas for effective weed control that is less herbicide dependent.
Good tips on no-till seeding in “hard, dry, and dusty” conditions from a 2012 Exapta Solutions newsletter. John Deere row crop planters, box drills, and air seeders are referenced, but the principles discussed could be applied to make/model of planter, drill, or air seeder. Main points are understanding how down pressure is applied to frame and row units and the importance of frequent ground truthing of seed depth (even with monitors that provide down-pressure readings).
Hybrid corn, millet, and sorghum varieties have dominated the production of these crops in Canada and the U.S. since the 1970s thanks to their high yield potential, disease resistance, and other traits that hybrids can offer. For the most part, open-pollinated varieties of these grains have been relegated to specialty grain markets and forage/silage production.
Hybrid small grains offer significant advantages when compared to open-pollinated varieties. But in contrast to corn, millet, and sorghum, hybrid small grain varieties make up only a minor percentage of small grain production in North America. Could the advantages of hybrid small grains lead to broader adoption in the future?
Hybrid small grains offer the following advantages over open-pollinated varieties:
-more even emergence
-improved pest and disease resistance
-a shortened flowering and pollination window
-more even maturity
-improved resistance to lodging
Improved pest and disease resistance, more even maturity, improved lodging resistance can lead to higher grain quality. This is especially important if target markets require higher quality grain – such as distillers or brewers.
At the same time hybrid varieties have some drawbacks, such as:
-higher seeds costs
-inability to use saved or held back seed-higher N requirements
-geographically spotty seed availability
Additionally, hybrid small grains could introduce more risk into production systems as a result of higher production costs. The risk posed is much higher in dryland grain producing areas with colder and drier climates, such as the Canadian Prairies or U.S. High Plains where growing season length and precipitation levels can vary drastically from one year to the next.
One way around higher seeds costs and N costs would be to adapt a row crop planter to use for small grains. The use of row crop planters for small grains allows for a 50-70% reduction in seeding rates and applied N rates. The precise spacing of small grain seeds means that individual plants increase tillering and have more space for leaf and root growth. This means that small grains planted using a row crop planter can match or exceed yields of small grains planted using a conventional drill or air-seeder. Another advantage of using a row crop planter for small grains is that row spacing can be set for interseeding a low stature cover crop (like red clover), a mixed grain intercrop (like peas or flax), a same growing season relay crop (like dry beans or soybeans), or a multi-season relay crop (like alfalfa).
Although hybrid small grains offer a number of advantages over open-pollinated varieties, it is unlikely that they will see widespread adoption that is seen in corn, millet, and sorghum production in the near future due high seed and N costs. But if high yields and high grain quality are important production goals, hybrid small grains may be worth considering.
Production agriculture in Canada and the U.S. has traditionally viewed soil as a growing medium that declines in function after it is converted from “natural” land cover to agricultural production. Soil health practices have demonstrated that agricultural soil function can be (and should be) enhanced through a number of different soil management strategies. Such strategies can help to reduce soil erosion, improve nutrient cycling, increase organic matter, and improve water infiltration/retention.
Soil health practices as promoted by the USDA NRCS and other agencies/organizations provide broad guidelines for improving agricultural soil function that must be adapted to local climate and soil conditions and ag. production requirements. If a soil health practitioner is interested in tracking changes to soil function systematically over time, a grounding in soil science fundamentals can be helpful. Basic measures of soil characteristics such as texture, organic matter, bulk density, and pH can be undertaken by any commercial soils lab or they can even be done on farm using relatively inexpensive equipment.
Like most countries in the world that have invested in comprehensive soil surveys, the Canadian and U.S. soil classification systems are significantly different. Despite such differences, scientific approaches to measuring soil characteristics are largely the same for both countries and there is significant overlap between Canadian and U.S. soil science resources.
Open access soil science resources are now available. The following resources are developed by soil scientists and are used as textbooks in university courses. They are written in an accessible style and represent state-of-the-art approaches.
Digging into Canadian Soils is an introductory textbook divided into three parts which cover fundamental soil characteristics and classification, soil genesis and distribution across different provinces and regions of Canada, and advanced soil management methods. The first section on soil characteristics and classification is suited for new practitioners of soil science and can serve as a good review for those with knowledge of discipline. The final section of the book has chapters on management practices for soil health and digital soil mapping which are extremely relevant to anyone working in production agriculture.
The Soils Laboratory Manual: K-State Edition is an excellent resource for those interested in understanding how basic soil test are conducting in a lab setting or those who intend set up a soils lab and do their own basic testing.
Soil and Water Conservation: An Annotated Bibliography reviews extension bulletins, USDA NRCS practices, and state and federal reports and resources. These publications and resources are a good starting point for anyone seeking to implement soil health practices and tracking soil health indicators in production agriculture systems.