Like most Ontario farmers, 2019 was a trying year from Mike Belan.
The Lambton county farmer sat tight last spring as his Brookston clay loam soil absorbed heavy rain, but Belan was confident his farm could withstand Mother Nature’s moisture assault. He’s learned to be patient thanks to a 30-year investment in building healthy, resilient soil.
That commitment to soil health, environmental stewardship, and progressive thinking made Belan a deserving recipient of the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO) 2020 Innovative Farmer of the Year award, presented this week at the IFAO conference at London, Ont.
RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin sat down with Belan to talk about his family’s soil health journey, which started in the late 1980s when farmers across country were feeling the strain of tough financial times. A third-generation farmer, Belan now farms 1,000 acres along with his father, Mike Sr., and uncle Tony near Petrolia.
When Belan’s grandfather farmed, he plowed every year, which at the time was considered the norm; but when much of the family’s farm equipment was sold in the late 1980s, they turned to no-till to keep the farm viable. In the early 1990s, the Belans were using a John Deere 750 no-till drill to plant their wheat and soybeans.
They also developed a method to plant corn with the drill, an uncommon practice, but they made it work because they already owned the drill. Today, they continue to use the original 750 drill to plant wheat, soybeans, and cover crops, and use a planter to no-till their corn.
Belan notes how long term no-till and maintaining a corn-soy-wheat rotation has helped mitigate weed pressure. In 2014, they integrated an oats and radish cover crop for the first time. Now, they use a five species mix of oats, radish, peas, vetch, and triticale. The Belans have also modified their existing equipment to inter-seed cover crops and improve corn establishment while using a split-rate, Y-drop system for nitrogen application.
While the Belans have noticed how implementing cover crops has benefited the soil, they have also added value to the farm business through the addition of a few heifers to graze the cover crops and sell beef direct to consumers. If it were more easily accomplished, Belan says he would bring livestock in for all their acres.
The concept of building and maintaining soil health really started to strike a chord in the Belans’ way of farming in 2012. After hearing Blake Vince and Dave Brandt speak the they began to think about integrating cover crops to improve soil health and reduce input costs and compaction.
The Belans began to ponder moving the farming success assessment meter from yield to profit and consistency. Consistent yield is now considered more valuable than a rollercoaster ride of high and low yields from year to year. While they maintain above-county average yields, their soil testing suggests their soils are being maintained but never in excess.
They have considered increasing their yields by adding more nutrients but constantly evaluate how those costs will affect their return on investment, says Belan. He does, however, keep a sharp eye on base nutrient levels to ensure higher-yielding crops don’t create a nutrient deficiencies that could hamper future crops.
Implementing new practices, like planting into a four-foot-high cover crop, can be an unnerving experience. Knowing neighbours and farmers at the coffee shop are watching (and at times, scoffing), adds to the stress. The Belans, however, have seen the beneficial impact from cover crops such as reduced soil erosion, increased water filtration, and reduced compaction, and now they wouldn’t farm any other way.
From a long-term perspective, Belan believes farmers have to rethink how they manage their farms. “We need to be more focused on soil health. The commodity crop is a secondary beneficiary of how healthy your soil is,” he says. “I think that’s the way forward.”