How healthy is the soil in Alberta? A new database aims to discover

CBC Alberta and Saskatchewan have teamed up for a new pilot series on weather and climate change in the Prairies. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga will bring her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and their impact on daily life.

The first step to mitigating climate change is to understand where we are in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

In a region as vast as the Prairies, a big piece of the puzzle is how rural areas contribute to our emissions and storage record – and where is there room for growth.

Derek MacKenzie hopes to answer that big question with a new soil database research project

Derek MacKenzie says determining soil health depends on your goals. (Christy Climenhaga/CBC)

“There is huge potential for soils to store more carbon and there is huge potential for alternative agricultural practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says MacKenzie, associate professor of soil science at the University. from Alberta.

He is leading a two-year initiative studying the health of Alberta’s soil.

“Agriculture has enormous potential to mitigate climate change and be part of the solution to climate change.”

Digging up archives

MacKenzie says this database project began with an archived collection of Alberta government samples.

Between 1997 and 2007, soil samples were taken from 42 sites across Alberta and tested for things like salinity, fertility and total organic matter content.

Soil samples were taken from 42 sites in Alberta in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

MacKenzie says using these samples and resampling these sites with current techniques will allow researchers to study the genetic makeup of soil and the ability of soils to store carbon over the long term.

“That means adding things like microbial genomic diversity in soils…small insects and soil diversity and carbon stability in soils.”

more than dirt

Soil health can be complicated, going beyond just having enough sun and water. According to MacKenzie, it comes down to the sustainable function of the soil and depends on your goals for the soil.

In his view, soil functions for agriculture should include crop productivity as well as carbon sequestration, microbial diversity and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Soils have the potential to store huge amounts of carbon. And just looking at total carbon doesn’t tell you the whole story. It doesn’t tell you how easy that carbon is to break down or not break down. break down,” MacKenzie says.

Samples are taken from a number of sites across Alberta to measure the genetic makeup of the soil and the ability of the soils to store carbon over the long term. (Gateway Research Organization)

But gaining a full understanding of our soil health can be tricky. With this new database, MacKenzie’s goal is to help producers better understand what they are working with.

“The database itself is going to incorporate not just soil data, but also weather data, yield data, land value data, all kinds of different data points…that tie into soil health and that could inform management in the future.”

MacKenzie says this will be a starting point for producers to both access and share information.

“Individual producers will be able to download [results of] all the soil testing they’ve done,” he says. “Neighbors will help neighbors with management practices and with data.

And as more data is shared, MacKenzie says growers can learn more about the management practices available to make their farming system more sustainable and be part of the climate solution.

New database reveals Alberta soil health

A new database is being created at the University of Alberta to measure the province’s soil health, carbon storage and provide data to farmers to help plan management practices.

Producers already on board

MacKenzie says interest has already been generated for the database project.

“Everywhere I’ve been so far…producers come up to me and ask me how they can access the database and when will it be ready.”

One of the growers working with MacKenzie is Colby Hansen, who owns a mixed farm 35 kilometers northeast of Westlock, Alberta.

Colby Hansen sets up rotational pasture fences, used to reduce overgrazing. (Laurie Hansen)

Hansen raises cattle but also grows grain and hay to feed them. He farms using regenerative farming techniques, which means he works with nature to maintain his farm.

“I incorporate cover crops into my corn, so I put turnips…beans and clover with my corn to feed soil microbes and soil biology. And in turn, that also helps provide nutrients to growing corn,” he says.

He says he also uses rotational grazing to mimic how buffaloes used the land in the past.

“It’s sort of a take half, leave half concept of not overgrazing and leaving a residue for the plants to recover.”

Hansen says the regeneration techniques he has used — such as intercropping, which involves growing two or more crops in the same field in the same year — have contributed to the health of his fields.

MacKenzie’s soil testing project lets Hansen see the benefits. Preliminary results showed his regenerative-style field stored 20 tons of carbon per acre compared to four tons per acre on a conventional-style field.

“I’m very happy because carbon is obviously the engine of healthy soil. So the more carbon we can store in the soil, the more healthy crops we can grow.”

Hansen adds that research like this can help farmers realize that regeneration techniques can help the environment without creating financial losses.

“With climate change and everything going on…farmers hold the key to success. But we have to prove to farmers that they can make money doing it.”

Our planet is changing. Our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative called “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up to date with the latest news on our Climate and environment page.