Excessive tilling can result in soil quality deterioration, soil loss through erosion, and changes to local water quality. New programs are now gathering data to help tackle the effect of crop production on the organic content and overall quality of the soil. In addition, several land management practices are revolutionizing Alberta farming. Reduced tillage, zero-till, and site-specific management systems reduce the environmental impact of crop production. Specific farm management practices that can reduce soil erosion include:
Minimum tillage - reducing the number of tillage passes to maintain at least 30 percent ground cover.
Zero-till seeding (direct seeding) - seed and fertilizer placement into previous untilled stubble.
Cover cropping - planting different types of crops in narrow alternate strips to prevent erosion. Strips are usually planted across the slope or across the direction of the prevailing wind.
Chemical fallow - leaving the land unplanted for one growing season. Herbicides rather than tillage are used to control weeds.
Crop residue management - maintaining at least 30 percent ground cover by spreading straw evenly across the land.
Fall-seeded crops - planting fall rye and winter wheat contributes to soil and water conservation and benefits local wildlife.
Technological advances in crop production (chemical, equipment and management practices) have also lessened the severe also lessened the severe soil erosion problems associated with summerfallowing. In particular, herbicides are sometimes used to replace one or more tillage operations to control weeds. Reduced soil erosion means more topsoil, the potential for healthier soil, and consequently, better crops.
As an alternative to tillage, crop areas at high risk from water erosion due to steep slopes or erodible soils may be better suited to forage production or grazing. Wooded areas with poor soils and steep slopes can be left in their natural state and managed as woodlots. In hilly, tilled areas, cultivating and planting across the slope, rather than up and down, slows down the flow of water and increases its absorption into the soil. Other ways to control water erosion include maintaining organic material and crop residue cover, minimum tillage, zero-till, and chemical fallow. To control severe water erosion, grassed waterways, lined channels, drop structures, contour farming and gully control are necessary.
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has specialists throughout Alberta who provide advice and information to farm managers about crop management systems and soil conservation practices.