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Edmonton soil experts create brighter future for Alberta agriculture
As Dr. Miles Dyck, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources explains, soil in Alberta is categorized in three ways.
“Most of the agricultural land in Alberta is in southern and central Alberta where there is black and brown soil areas,” Dr. Dyck says, adding grey soil areas are common in forests. Black and brown soil is common in grasslands that lead to higher nutrient levels in the soil.
“Forest soils are much different because the tree roots are biggest, but not as fibrous as grasslands,” Dr. Dyck says. “A lot of the organic matter accumulates to the top layer, so when they cleared the forest to convert the land to agriculture, a lot of the organic matter in the system was removed in the conversion process.”
This creates a problem for Alberta farmers, because the grey soil area covers about 15% of the province. While Dr. Dyck and the rest of the Breton Plots Management Team use the Breton Plots site for a wide range of agricultural research, the team’s main objective is to help the average Alberta farmer better manage their grey soil areas.
The Breton Plots Project
The Breton Classical Plots were established in 1929 by the University of Alberta, and experiments were designed to test different crop rotations to determine the best way to promote growth in the grey soil zones. Fertilizer use was also used to explore the effects of adding nutrients to the soil.
After a successful combination of fertilizer and crop rotations were discovered, a second long-term experiment was set up alongside the classical plots. Dr. Dyck says the agro-ecological plots, expand on the classical plots by comparing three very different rotations: permanent cover with chemical fertilizers, continuous grains with chemical fertilizers and an eight-year rotation consisting of forages, legumes and grains without any chemical fertilizer.
The agro-ecological compare rotations addressing nutrient deficiencies naturally through animal manure, rather than chemically with conventional fertilizer. Combined, the classical and agro-ecological plots have helped determine what type of rotations and fertilizers are best suited to the grey soils in the Breton area and elsewhere in Alberta.
“We’ve shown that rotations with a mix perennial and annual rotations are most productive on these soils and nutrient deficiencies can be addressed with chemical fertilizers, green- or animal manure” Dr. Dyck says.
The results from these two long-term experiments have helped the Breton Plots team understand how to effectively use the grey soil, and this information can be shared with the agricultural community.
Building a better community
In recent years, Dr. Dyck has focused a portion of his research on climate change.
“One of my projects is looking at the influence of long-term agricultural management on greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr. Dyck says. “Regular nutrient cycling processes in soil and microbial activity in soil produces both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, which are greenhouse gases. What we’re looking at is how the different long-term rotations and practices influence the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the soil.”
Dr. Dyck’s work explores the impact of different fertilizer products on crops and the results help him understand how we might limit the release of greenhouse gases. , His work on sustainability is one of the ways the Breton Plots team gives back to the community.
“When I talk about my research to others, I can tell there’s a lot of interest in it,” Dr. Dyck says. “Other scientists are interested, farmers are interested and the agriculture community is interested. That’s the impact that I’ve seen as being a small part of the larger Breton Plots group.”
The Breton Plots research impacts a large population in Alberta due to its connection to the agriculture industry. Dr. Dyck and his team frequently host events aimed at sharing their findings with the community to create greater efficiencies for farmers.
We communicate a lot of the results of our work to the public through things like the Breton Plots field days, and through extension publications,” Dr. Dyck says.
He notes Alberta is culturally rooted in the agriculture industry, and his team tries to publish their work publicly on an annual basis. The breakthroughs his team are discovering are important to many Albertans and his team makes a point of sharing their data freely with the public.