Any good farm business needs a firm foundation. Derek and Tannis Axten looked to the ground beneath their feet, literally, to begin building what they’re confident, is a sustainable future.
The Axtens, who were selected as Saskatchewan’s Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award winners for 2017, operate a century farm at Minton, just north of the U.S. border. To help spread out drought risk, they also farm land at Milestone, some seventy miles away. All together, that amounts to 5,500 cropped acres.
It’s hard to describe them simply as grain farmers; it might be more accurate to call them soil farmers. Their approach to production involves a wide range of crops, often planted simultaneously. Being in a dry region of southern Saskatchewan adds an extra challenge. But always, their focus is on what’s best for what they consider their most important resource: the soil.
The 2017 drought really put the Axtens’ approach to soil health to the test. The low-input, intercropping, no-till techniques they’ve adopted over the last five years seem to be up to the challenge.
In the spring of 2006, the family became one of the first in the area to search for a no-till drill. When shopping for it took them to South Dakota, the dealer assumed they’d come to see soil guru, Dr. Dwayne Beck, of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm.
While that wasn’t the case then, the Axtens did their homework and the next year Derek made the first of what would become many visits to Dr. Beck at his facility, visits which ultimately changed the course of their farming.
Initially impressed by the moisture absorption of the soil in South Dakota, Derek began what would become a life-long learning journey into the fascinating world of soil science. On one tour he saw two farm fields across the road from one another that were dramatically different in their soil function because of the way they’d been managed. The Olds College graduate was soon convinced it was time to start trying new practices at home.
At the time, Tannis was a busy mom looking after two kids, plus doing the farm books and substitute teaching. “Until you see something, it doesn’t have the same effect,” she says. “Doing the books was when I really started getting curious.”
What caught her eye was a gradual reduction in input costs. Seeing Derek’s enthusiasm about the people he was meeting led her to join the tours and learning path. Then she began to really put her biology background to good use, and now does the majority of the farm’s soil testing and composting work. “When I found out I got to buy a microscope, that was my exciting moment,” she laughs. “It changes everything to look at what’s actually in your soil.”
“When we started looking at our soils under the microscope it made it real,” says Derek. “It’s a broken system. The real challenge for us now is to restore its functionality.” One of the key changes on the thirdgeneration farm has been a move to growing more than one crop in a field at a time. “All of our broadleaf crops are grown as intercrops of some form,” says Derek.
A basic combination many start with is peas in canola, but the Axtens also do flax in chickpeas, or lentils in mustard. They’ve compared notes with fellow farmer Colin Rosengren (from Midale, SK) on numerous other crop combo experiments. “We’ve always found it to be a net benefit, yield-wise, and we’re able to reduce our inputs,” says Derek.
Generally, they’ve found at least a 10 per cent equivalency ratio improvement over mono-cropping, but they have seen as much as a 50 per cent gain. Equivalency ratios are a way to measure yield between cropping systems so that you’re comparing apples to apples. For example, if you had 140 acres of intercropped peas and canola, you’d compare those yields to 70 acres of mono-cropped peas and 70 acres of mono-cropped canola.
The Axtens contend that intercropping means less need for fungicide or insecticide treatments, along with lowered disease pressure, as the crops appear to help each other out. For instance, as peas trellis up the canola, they keep off the ground, making for less disease and easier harvesting.
Derek acknowledges there’s a bit of finessing needed for intercrop harvest management, and they do use swathing and desiccants as tools in that effort. “But we’ve never had a huge maturity difference. The crops seem to even themselves out,” he says.
Now that half the farm is intercropped, a welcome addition has been a mobile grain cleaner plant, so crops can be separated right off the combine. In order to keep the biology always active in the soil, the Axtens also try to seed again as soon as possible after harvesting. The cover crops they put in work well for grazing the neighbour’s cattle, and keeping the soil intact over winter.
Last year, they were happy to take their neighbour’s corral cleanings, which they made into 14 large compost piles. With training in soil health management from world-renowned micro-ecologist, Dr. Elaine Ingham, through her company Soil Foodweb Canada, Tannis began experimenting with various compost recipes. This spring, using a 500-gallon “tea brewer,” they mixed water with the compost and applied it to their fields, instead of regular fertilizer.
“Our big focus is to increase the diversity of our soil biology,” she says. “The diversity of crops helps a lot, but by using compost extracts and teas, we’re trying to boost that by putting some biology back into the soil.”
After experiencing one of the wettest years in 2016, this summer has become one of the driest, with their area only receiving two showers, each one providing about a half-inch of moisture. The Axtens were very happy they’d cut back significantly on fertilizer.
“As time went on, and it didn’t rain, we knew the yields weren’t going to be there,” says Derek. “It’s been a lot less stressful this summer, knowing that we don’t have high inputs into the crops.” With no noticeable differences from other crops in the region, the Axtens figure they will be further ahead.
“Maybe that is our advantage — to be able to maintain yields in a dry year,” says Derek. And, adds Tannis: “If we’re maintaining yields, we’ve got to quit looking at yields, and look at the cost of production, because the bottom line is where we’re seeing the big difference.”
“If we can improve our resource at the same time, that’s the goal,” says Derek. By changing their focus from just meeting the plants’ needs, to giving the soil the biology it needs, the Axtens are confident the soil will cycle the nutrients and look after the plant requirements.”
I like to say healthy soil is going to give us healthy plants, which is going to give us healthier food,” says Tannis. “The nutrient density of our foods is down, so while we can produce a bunch of food, that’s great, but let’s make sure we’re producing quality food.”
No holistic approach to soil management would be complete without considering compaction issues, so the Axtens are on their third year of controlled traffic farming to minimize the impact of equipment on soil structure. “Put it this way,” says Derek, “every time I go to the field, or we do an operation, I think ‘What is the impact on the soil biology going to be?’ That’s the mindset.”
By taking a holistic approach to putting soil first, Tannis says they are already seeing a better balance in so many ways. “It’s not only the cutback in a lot of the expenses, but we’re enjoying what we’re doing. It’s fun and exciting to see what works, and it’s really renewed our passion for farming, and our optimism.” FF
A body of knowledge They may not be household names on the ag conference scene quite yet, but the Axtens cite numerous “rock stars” of soil health they’ve learned much from, beginning with the legendary Dr.
Interested in checking them out? Here’s a few to look up.
Dwayne Beck: www.
ca/dwaynebeck Dakota Lakes Research Farm: www.farmforum.ca/dakotalakes
Gabe and Paul Brown, Brown’s Ranch: www.farmforum.ca/brownsranch
Dr.Elaine Ingham, Soil Foodweb: www.farmforum.ca/soilfoodweb
Colin Rosengren, Rosengren Farms: www.farmforum.ca/colinrosengren