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Soil Conservation

Soil Conservation

Soils provide ecosystem services critical for life as it acts as a water filter and a growing medium which provides habitat for billions of organisms. Soils are the basis of our nations  agroecosystems which provide us with feed, fiber, food and fuel.  As a producer, the sustainability of your business is dependent upon the conservation of the soils of your land.

Soil Conservation Act

The Soil Conservation Act describes the requirement for landholders to prevent soil loss or deterioration from taking place or to stop loss or deterioration from continuing. The Act delegates authority to local municipalities and outlines the powers and duties of the designated officers. It also outlines the process, procedures and governance for appeals under the Act. Offences related to, and penalties for, contravention of the Act are described.

View the Soil Conservation Act Using This Link

Soil Conservation Notice Regulation

The Soil Conservation Notice Regulation, under the Soil Conservation Act, contains the information required for a form of notice and provides an example form.

View the Soil Conservation Notice Regulation Using This Link

Farming Smarter - Soil Conservation Series

In 2021, Farming Smarter in partnership with municipalities in Southern Alberta produced a series of articles on soil conservation and methods which can be implemented to stop its spread.  This initiative was in direct response to significant wind soil erosion events which continue to plague southern Alberta's agricultural land which has historically resulted in irreparable loss to productivity and subsequent remediation costs to restore ecological and economic capacity. 

Farming Smarter is a farmer-led, registered Canadian charity that focuses on projects to improve the resilience of crop production in Alberta. It serves innovative producers, agronomists and agricultural stakeholders while partnering with like-minded organizations involved in agriculture innovation, applied research and knowledge transfer in production agriculture. 

Please consider reading the following five articles, they are an excellent source of information to reduce the effects of soil erosion on your farm and may allow you to prevent the economic effects of soil loss to your agricultural business in the years to come. 

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Soil Conservation Articles

Yes, Blowing Soil Breaks a Law

 By Kristi Cox

It’s not just a heartbreak to see soil blowing east across roads and fields – it’s also an infraction. Soil erosion has negative effects, not just for the landowner losing precious soil, but also for neighbouring lands, roads, ditches, and buildings. In Alberta, the Soil Conservation Act and the Agricultural Service Board Act pair up to provide protection for this soil and help ensure longevity of agriculture in the province. The Soil Conservation Act originated in response to the severe wind erosion the prairies saw in the 1930’s. Alberta passed the Control of Soil Drifting Act in 1935, then replaced it in 1962 by the Soil Conservation Act.

Blowing soil can affect not only your business but all those downwind.

Dollars Blowing in the Wind

By Kristi Cox

 There’s more to blowing soil than what (painfully) meets the eye. Those airborne particles can hold vital nutrients and even crop disease. Finer soil particles such as silt, clay , and organic matter tend to be more vulnerable to wind erosion. They are also generally rich in nutrients and essential for healthy, fertile soil. Gurbir Dhillon Ph.D., research scientist with Farming Smarter in Lethbridge, explained that this is one of the biggest issues with wind erosion. What else is blowing away with eroded soil? Money! Dhillon explained that if an inch of soil is lost to wind erosion, approximately 550 pounds of nitrogen per acre will be lost in addition to other major crop nutrients like phosphorus and potassium. Producers must replace them to maintain productivity on their land. The value for these nutrients in terms of equivalent fertilizer costs can be as high as $325 per acre. With several dust storms, the erodible portions of fields can lose this amount of soil in about a decade. This estimate only addresses the loss of macronutrients and doesn’t account for other factors that can reduce profits such as yield decreases, loss of soil structure, less water retention by soils etc.

Where does it blow?

All this macronutrient-rich soil is going somewhere. “Some is deposited on roads and in ditches, where it isn’t productive at all,” said Dhillon. “The deposition of nutrient-rich windblown soils in the drainage ditches or irrigation canals may have other implications such as aquatic weed and algal growth and reduction in water quality.” To make it worse, the soil can also come with problems like weed seeds or diseases. This is a gift the neighbour doesn’t want.

Soil collects wherever the air currents slow down, due to structures or changes in topography.

Economics of Agricultural Blow-Dirt

By Madeleine Baerg

When the wind picks up and the sky turns grey with blow-dirt, everyone loses. For the farmer whose field seems suddenly half in the air, the economic impact of a major wind event can be nothing short of devastating. “The topsoil is the most productive strip of soil. Losing any amount of topsoil disproportionately impacts productivity, even if there is a decent amount of topsoil,”  explains Gurbir Dhillon, a research scientist at Farming Smarter in Lethbridge.

Unfortunately, we need more research to account for the many field condition variables that make an effective assessment of wind erosion’s actual costs at the farm level, says Dhillon. That said, he says some past studies can provide some guidance, including a study conducted in the 1990s by AAFC soil conservation research scientist Dr. Frank Larney that showed a yield drop of 40% when a two-inch layer of topsoil was stripped from a wheat plot. 

Wind selectively removes soil’s fine mineral particles, clay and organic matter. The loss of these soil components dramatically impacts the remaining soil’s water infiltration and water holding capacity. It leads to increased soil crusting, run-off, and water erodibility. It also decreases soil’s capacity to attract and retain positively charged molecules including nutrients, herbicides, etc. Together, all of these factors reduce soil fertility and productivity.

Wind also costs nutrient availability. Since some nutrients attach themselves to clay or organic matter, a farmer’s nutrients will hitch a ride out of the field when the soil blows. Too, losing organic matter means a corresponding loss of nutrients that would otherwise have become available through natural decomposition of that organic matter. Taken across all Canadian agriculture, the costs are very significant.

Don’t Blow Good Neighbour Relations

By Madeleine Baerg

Blow-dirt can also be detrimental to farm fields downwind. Anyone who has found themselves in or next to a field that starts to blow knows that wind filled with particles of sand, clay and organic material is highly abrasive. When a field starts to blow, the abrasive action can decimate a seedling crop next door, and/or can scrape up the surface of a neighbouring field and start it blowing too. At a municipal or regional district level, the costs of blow-dirt can be significant. So far in 2021, the County of Newell, for example, spent nearly $250,000 on its soil conservation program, specifically on contractor fees, labor, trucking, staff time, and gravel to resurface silt-covered roads. “This spring, Mother Nature gave us a whopping spring, so [the County] did bear the majority of the costs of clean-up,” says Todd Green, director of agricultural services with the County. That said, he points out that costs aren’t always so high: the County spent just $908 on soil conservation programming last year, and $0 in both 2018 and 2019.

To better meet taxpayers’ needs into the future, the County is currently creating a soil conservation policy, and updating the Unauthorized Use of Property bylaw regarding who must pay for clean-up. “We’ve talked to many producers who have had [blow events] happen and they all know we can’t sustain the practice of paying for the clean-up. It’s not sustainable long-term for ratepayers who don’t have soil erosion issues to pay for those who do,” says Green.

Tillage is Problematic on the Prairies

By Kristi Cox

No till, cover crops and wind breaks all play a role in mitigating wind soil erosion on the Prairies, but are they equally effective? Allowing soil to blow has negative effects, so it’s important for producers to determine the best practices to ensure they are protecting this resource. David Lobb, Professor in the Department of Soil Science at the University of Manitoba, explained that even small amounts of soil loss can cause big problems. Blowing soil and crop residue can: damage crops; reduce road visibility causing accidents; and cause respiratory problems. Ultimately, even with careful measures to decrease wind erosion, it can’t be eliminated completely. “You should never have the expectation that wind erosion will be completely stopped,” said Lobb. “We always need to produce food, and wind erosion occurs even in natural environments. But, when humans are involved, they need to make sure what they do doesn’t make it dramatically worse.” How do we keep soil where it belongs?

“Use as little tillage as possible,” said Lobb. “It reduces wind, water and tillage erosion problems.” No-till practices have a two-fold benefit when it comes to wind erosion. The plants themselves slow the speed of the wind at the soil surface, substantially decreasing soil loss. Tillage breaks the soil into individual, lighter particles, which are more easily lifted by the wind, so avoiding that practice holds soil in place as well.,Cover crops are used as an alternate source of fixed vegetation.

“If you keep your residue from the previous crop in the ground, the extra residue from the cover crop probably isn’t going to make a significant dent in the wind erosion issues,” explained Lobb. “They can add biomass, but they are not likely to have a huge impact on soil erosion. I would always argue that you shouldn’t till in the first place if you can help it.” Cover crops can, however, be useful following low residue crops like pulses or potatoes.

Winter wheat crop growing in the spring of 2021 at Farming Smarter.

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Assessing your soils

The Soil Information Viewer assists land managers and producers in making general land management decisions. This resource tool allows users to query soil information from the Agricultural Region of Alberta Soil Inventory Database (AGRASID). AGRASID describes the distribution of soil types for the agricultural land base of Alberta. The viewer is an excellent tool to determine the possible soil conditions, horizon depths, and soil textures on your property. This is merely a tool, and all conditions should be verified by field investigation. To use the Soil Information Viewer, visit the following link:

Use the Alberta Soil Information Viewer 

A soil survey of the County of Warner was initiated in 1978 in response to specific concerns regarding soil salinity and erosion as well as the need to update the land resource base.  The product of that survey is a report which includes a general description of the area, in-depth information on the soils in the region, and a section on present land use, interpretations and degradation. You can access the report at the link below:

Soil Survey of the County of Warner, Alberta - Agriculture Canada Research Branch, 1986

Soil Erosion

The County of Warner No. 5 covers an area more than 450,000 hectares and includes three physiographic regions, the Eastern Alberta Plains, the Western Alberta Plains, and the Southern Alberta Uplands. These regions surficial deposits are primarily glacial till, with minor amounts of lacustrine and fluvial sediments. 

Surface soils within the County are brown to dark brown on the plains, to black on the western side of the Milk River ridge. The soils are dominantly Chernozemic, with minor amounts of Solonetzic, Gleysolic, and Regosolic.

Soil erosion is a naturally occurring process  in which soil is removed by wind (aeolian), Ice, water (fluvial), or by gravity. The gradual removal of topsoil from these processes reduces the soil organic matter content and affects the fertility of the soil profile. A reduction in the fertility of the soil, has direct implications for agricultural yields. The County, as with much of Southern Alberta has experienced historical wind erosion.

Types of erosion:

  • Water erosion – The movement of soil particles by the force of water, includes splash, sheet, rill, gully, and tunnel erosion.
  • Wind erosion: the Detachment and movement of soil particles by air, occurs by saltation and suspension.  Saltation refers to the dislodgement and impact of soil particles, the particles then result in the movement of other particles causing a chain reaction. Suspension refers to the
  • Mass movement: Downward movement of soil and rock under the influence of gravity, this is observed along the Milk River and coulee sides.

Soil salinity in Warner County

Soil salinity is a major land degradation issue in the County of Warner. Saline soils contain high levels of soluble salts, these salts increase the electrical conductivity of the soils. High concentrations of salts reduce the plants ability to uptake water and nutrients, and increase the toxicity of other anions (i.e. aluminum).

While saline soils are visible by the white crystalline crust at the top of the soil,  this is just expressed with soils that have increased electrical conductivity (2-4 dS/m), with soil EC less than this range can result in invisible salinity. Invisible soil salinity is typically expressed in the field with reduced yields as the salts affect the physiological development of the plants.

Coulee bottom salinity occupies the largest proportion of the county’s total saline area (34.5%), followed by contact/slope change salinity (32.7%).  Saline seeps are a natural process in which groundwater movement transports salts to discharge areas. For saline seeps to form, there must be a source of the soluble salts, water to move and contrate the salts, and evaporation exceeding precipitation and soil porosity to be conducive to capillary action. These tend to develop when there is successive wet years followed by dry conditions in which evaporation exceeds precipitation. 

Saline seeps can be classified into;

  • Contact/ slope change salinity
  • Outcrop salinity
  • Artesian salinity
  • Depression bottom salinity
  • Coulee bottom salinity
  • Slough ring salinity
  • Irrigation canal seepage salinity
  • Natural/ irrigation salinity

Common salts are sodium, calcium, and magnesium sulphates, there are also sodium, calcium and magnesium chlorides. The dominant salts in the county are sodium and magnesium sulphates, originating from bedrock and glacial till of the Bearpaw bedrock formation. 

The identification of saline soils is typically done using aerial photography or satellite imagery, but are confirmed through the collection of soil samples from multiple depths in the soil profile, one sample is not sufficient.

For more information on soil salinity within the county, please view the following documents;

Report of Salinity Mapping for Resource Management within the County of Warner

County of Warner No. 5 Soil Salinity Map - Alberta Agriculture

Alberta Government - Salinity Maps of Selected Counties

Agri-Facts: Dryland Saline Seeps: Types and Causes

Mitigating salinity issues

Agricultural practices are the most useful to control saline seeps, introducing salt-tolerant grasses in saline areas and alfalfa in applicable upslope recharge areas.

Upland Salt-tolerant crops may include; bromegrass, russian wild ryegrass, alfalfa, slender wheatgrass, altai wild ryegrass, crested wheatgrass, sweetgrass, and tall wheatgrass.

Mesic and riparian soils salt-tolerant crops may include; reed canary grass, timothy, and bromegrass.

Salt tolerances of crops. Moderate (4-8 dS/m) salt tolerant species include; six row barley, two row barley, fall rye, winter wheat, spring wheat, oats, flax, and canola (open pollinated).

Deep rooting crops – are used to lower the water table which restricts the capillary action by drying out the subsoil and thus restoring the soil water storage capacity. Alfalfa is a widely used species for this use as it uses 30 inches of water per year, roots may grow to depths of 6 metres in fours years with an active rooting depth of 3 metres. While kochia has incredible abilities to survive within saline soils, it is not advisable to permit their growth as herbicide resistant genes can be present within the population.

Soil salinity controls involve the control of saline seeps which require the management of increased groundwater, this can be accomplished with the following actions;

  • Deep rooted forages in the recharge area,
  • Salt tolerant forages in the discharge area,
  • Continuous cropping, and
  • The use of subsurface or tile drainage.

Consider using annual crops with increased salt tolerance such as barley or canola, increased seeding rates may further be a benefit. Also, consider the use of perennial forages in rotation such as alfalfa in the dominant recharge and salt tolerant grasses in the discharge.

Agri-Facts: Management of Solonetzic Soils

Agri-Facts: Management of Sodic Soils in Alberta

Agri-Facts: Salt Tolerance of Plants - Alberta Government

Managing Soil pH

The desirable pH range for optimum plant growth varies by crops, the best method to assess the pH of agricultural soils is to conduct soil testing throughout the field. These samples can be submitted to a laboratory which completes analysis of soil pH.