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Which approach makes the most cents? Evaluating the effect of land conversion practices on soil health and yields of barley and oats

Principal Investigator: Amanda Diochon

Research Institution: Lakehead University

Timeline: May 2021 – October 2026  

Objectives:

Identify land conversion practises for agricultural expansion in Northern Ontario that maximize profitability and promote economic and environmental sustainability by:

  • Quantifying and comparing the effects of land clearing practises used in Northern Ontario on soil health and soil organic matter stores.
  • Identifying best management practises for land clearing in Northern Ontario that maintain or enhance soil health and grain crop yield.
  • Determining the profit margins of land clearing and agricultural management practises to identify the most economical way to increase Ontario’s agriculturally productive land base.

 

Impacts:

  • Encourage the adoption of wood residue incorporation into the soil during land clearing, as opposed to bulldozing topsoil and residues off-site, by demonstrating the long-term benefits to soil health and organic matter stores, which will enhance overall environmental quality, profitability, and sustainability of agriculture.
  • Identification of land conversion practises that promote high grain crop yields and healthy soils so that agricultural expansion in Northern Ontario is profitable for growers and an innovative model for environmentally sustainable agricultural expansion in other parts of Canada.

  

Scientific Summary:

Climate change is creating opportunities for agricultural expansion in Northern Ontario, which will demand the conversion of forest and scrub-brush to productive fields. Historically conversion has resulted in losses to the “bank” of soil organic matter of up to 50% because of lower returns of organic matter to the soil and conditions that favor decomposition of existing stores. These losses presumably erode soil health because of the key role organic matter plays in determining the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil, the heart of its well-being. Leaving woody biomass on-site through the process of mulching and subsoiling could mitigate these losses, while being the most rapid and potentially cost-effective method for land conversion, but there are knowledge gaps that beg for the proposed research. Significant declines in yield in the second year after mulching have required the application of large amounts of fertilizer, the longer term benefits of leaving organic matter on-site have not been studied, and it is unknown if established indicators of soil health (e.g., Cornell Soil Health Assessment (CSHA)) are applicable in more northern climates. 

This project will address these gaps by:

  • Examining the longer term effects of land conversion on soil health and soil organic matter and identifying the best indicators for monitoring change in soil health in Northern Ontario through measurements and comparisons of indicators of soil health on farms that have mulched and cleared conventionally in Northern Ontario.
  • Establishing a field trial to examine the effects of woody residue incorporation (timing and placement), rate of fertilizer application, and rotation strategy on yields of oats and barley, two key grain crops in Northern Ontario, soil health and soil organic matter stores.
  • Determining the profit margins of land clearing practices to identify the most effective, economical, and sustainable approach for Ontario’s grain farmers.

External Funding Partners:

 LUARS (Lakehead University Agricultural Research Station)

Lakehead University Environmental Laboratory

NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada)

 

We acknowledge the support of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

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