Researchers and farmers can and often do have great partnerships in unlocking the secrets of productive agriculture. But at times they will grumble about each other — such as why farmers won’t adopt certain practices despite a mountain of data, or the merits of university research plots the size of your bathroom.

But in Canada a different approach was taken, specifically to convince more farmers to add cover crops to their rotations. Although scientific research shows the benefits of cover crops for improving soil, water and air quality, producers are reluctant to change their practices, says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

A question was posted about whether science can address farmers’ concerns by integrating them from the start into a project using mathematical models to represent the complex interactions between soil, plants and climate?

Some people obviously think so. With the help of a consultant in modeling and participatory approaches, scientists from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Québec, representatives from the Montérégie UPA and researchers from institutions including Université Laval and the Centre de recherche sur les grains (CÉROM) have tried a new collaborative approach with producers in the Rivière des Hurons watershed region, according to an AAFC news release.

They were invited to join a research and knowledge transfer project based on ‘participatory modelling.’ The collective expertise of the participants was used to develop new rotation systems that include cover crops.

Stéphane Gariépy, Knowledge and Technology Transfer Manager for AAFC, says the systems considered had to provide an ecological service for the watershed, be tailored to the particularities of the farms in the targeted territory, and meet the producers’ needs for profitability. Then, their medium and long-term effects had to be assessed using modelling tools.

Between 2016 and 2019, producers, scientists and agri-environment stakeholders gathered in workshops on several occasions to share their respective objectives, develop a work plan and create prototypes of rotation systems.

After field trials, they discussed the results of the modeling of the first prototypes and developed better rotation systems.

They used the STICS crop simulation tool to compare conventional rotation systems (i.e., corn–corn–soybean–spring wheat–peas) with those developed in the workshops (for example corn–ryegrass intercropped, corn–ryegrass intercropped, soybean, winter wheat after field peas).

They were able to assess the impacts of these rotations on crop yields, and the amount of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in soils or certain greenhouse gas emissions.

The cover crop rotation results were encouraging, as they showed.

  • Reduced losses of organic matter from soils and lower losses of carbon and nitrogen from soils, even in the short term, and reduced runoff to streams;
  • Negligible effects on yields (no significant losses);
  • No competition between corn and the cover crop;
  • Possibility of reducing emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a powerful greenhouse gas.

At the end of the project, around 10 producers chose to use rotation prototypes including cover crops on their land. AAFC says all of them saw the benefits of sharing their knowledge and the value of using mathematical models to design and evaluate new systems.

While climate change requires a fairly rapid adaptation of cultivation methods, AAFC says this innovative approach will serve as a pillar for the accelerated adoption of best practices in cultivation to promote soil, air and water quality, as well as to improve the profitability of Canadian farms.

I think this integrated approach to agricultural research makes a lot of sense, and more stakeholders should investigate how more of this could be done in the U.S.