This summer, the most important changes happening at Axten Farms, a multigenerational operation near Minton, SK, are those taking place underground. Axten Farms is run by Derek and Tannis Axten, with help from their teenage children, Kate and Brock. They started no-till farming in 1996. Eleven years later, they adopted low-disturbance disk seeding. “Basically, what pushed us was moisture,” says Tannis. “We have very dry, fragile soil and anything that worked up the soil also dried it out.”
After seeing how zero-till seeding improved soil structure and water infiltration, the couple looked at how other farm practices impacted their soil’s ability to grow plants. “We recognized that soil conservation seeding was a step in the right direction, but realized it’s just the first step,” says Tannis.
A FOCUS ON FUNCTION
While there’s a movement to talk about soil in terms of “health,” the best soil management practices focus on improving how soil functions, says Benjamin Ellert. A biogeochemist with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Lethbridge, AB, Ellert studies agricultural soil in terms of its ability to grow plants.
In sum, soil has a job to do, says Ellert. He agrees that minimum tillage revolutionized prairie agriculture by leaving plant residue on the surface. This increases soil organic carbon, improves moisture retention and encourages soil biodiversity.
But conservation tillage is just one part of a bigger story. Soil organic carbon, crop water use and soil biodiversity also benefited from a dramatic drop in summer fallow acres and a correspondingly large increase in land under crops, says Ellert. Together, these changes improve soil’s function as part of a larger biological system.
Land that’s continuously cropped without summer fallow, for example, produces more plants to take up atmospheric carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. This is important from a climate change perspective, since more photosynthesis returns more carbon to the soil where it’s sequestered. When practiced with sound crop rotations with ample diversity, continuous cropping also improves soil nutrient cycling and disrupts plant disease and pest cycles.
“The best thing we can do for our soil is have a live root,” says Tannis, explaining that on some of their acres, she and Derek use companion crops, like clover, which are left as a cover crop post-harvest. The companion-cropped land is seeded to fall rye later in the year. They also practice controlled traffic farming to reduce compaction. “Every time we go into our fields we follow the same tracks,” says Tannis.
To improve nutrient cycling, the Axtens follow science-based rotations and usually intercrop all of their broadleaf crops. That necessitates rigorous seed cleaning, but the dual crops prove helpful at harvest, since the flax physically supports the chickpeas and the mustard holds up the peas.
How do they know all of the extra work benefits their soil? Water infiltration tests show improved absorption of spring melt and summer rains. Tannis, who once taught high school biology, also monitors the soil, takes notes about what she sees and even studies the soil under a microscope in a home lab. “The soil was heavily bacterial before,” she says. “With more moisture in the soil, we’re seeing more worms. We’re also seeing beneficial nematodes, protozoa and fungi, a real increase in biological diversity.”
Ellert and Tannis Axten both use the word “resilience” to describe soil’s ability to grow plants year after year. Given weather extremes, pest pressures and other external variables that prairie farmers face, Ellert says resilient soil systems are important for farmers. “This is soil that can bounce back and maintain productivity and system integrity in the face of these variable weather conditions from year to year,” he says.
That resilience includes the ability to hold onto fertilizer not used by a dry year’s crop. “When the rain returns, yields will go up,” says Ellert. “I think farmers deserve credit for being aware of the productivity of the soil and what works and what doesn’t work on their farms.”
Increased attention to the soil as an agricultural resource is building soil resilience on their farm, says Tannis. And it shows. In 2017, their farm recorded about an inch of rain. Soil samples showed little active microbiology and crops struggled. A year later, the microbiome recovered quickly and in 2020, when they got 13 inches of rain, good infiltration helped the soil absorb the water without eroding or drowning plants in low areas. As Tannis sees it, their soil had been prepared to function well.
Although the soil is a priority at Axten Farms, not everything happens underground. The family opened an HACCP certified seed cleaning plant on the home quarter in 2020. This year, they’re adding a flour mill and bagging line to expand a farm-to-wholesaler distribution system that’s already selling mustard to a spice shop and camelina to an oil press.
These new builds position the farm for future business opportunities that are a good fit with a farm management plan that nurtures the humus-rich soil where the Axtens grow 5,500 acres of cereal, pulse and oilseed crops.
What’s in your soil?
Although you need a lab test to determine exact soil nutrient levels, farmers can learn a great deal about soil by taking a close look at the resource holding their crop roots in place, says farmer and soil microbiome enthusiast Tannis Axten. “We farmed for many years without even looking at our soil. Today, it’s one of my favourite things to do.”
If a soil study is new to you, Axten suggests you take a shovel to the field and lift up a few shovelfuls of soil and plant roots. Healthy roots will be covered in rhizosphere. Rhizosphere is the soil that clings to roots. It teems with active biology and feels sticky, or moist. While you’re at it, look for worms and other soilbuilding organisms. Axten also assesses soil compaction and moisture, and she keeps track of what she sees in different fields and at different locations in the same fields.
The Axtens use these nittygritty details to guide decisions about field and crop management practices that improve how their soil functions. It’s a lot of work, but Tannis is convinced the effort pays off in how it helps them optimize crop production — all puns aside — from the ground up.