A look at Saskatchewan's zero-till pioneers

By Calvin Daniels / Estevan Mercury
February 24, 2012 01:00 AM


If you grew up on a farm previous to the 1980s, the term summerfallow was as common to you as wheat.

Every farmer factored summerfallow into the farm crop rotation, often 50 per cent of the land left fallow to "rest" while the other half was cropped.

Of course weeds never respected the idea of land being rested, so they populated summerfallow fields, and the proven way of controlling those weeds before they could set seed and repopulate the field was to head out with the cultivator, turning the field black.

There was a certain level of pride in keeping the summerfallow black, at least in the years I was growing up.

Of course when Mother Nature decided to have a dry summer, it was not a good situation. The almost constant wind of the Prairies would send valuable topsoil into ditches, hedgerows, and to the neighbours since black dirt blows easily when dried out.

It is a lesson the industry should have learned in the 1930s, but it was one that really got taken to heart industrywide in the dry years which started the 1980s.

The idea of reducing tillage took hold, and minimum tillage systems came to the forefront.

A pioneer of the minimum tillage movement in the Yorkton area was recently recognized by the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association when it presented Fred Phillips with the Conservation Farmer Award.

It is interesting to talk to Phillips about the problems he and his brother faced after the family made the decision to reduce tillage to save the family's farm from blowing away.

While the award singled Fred out, he said it was actually a family effort to move to zero till farming techniques. He said his parents, Jim and Elsie, Uncle Ray and brother Martin were all involved in the decision to make the change.

"It was the spring of '81. It was a terrible spring. The land was blowing everywhere," he said. "As a family we sat down and said that's never going to happen again."

The issue was how to make minimum tillage work at a time before the agriculture industry was actually focusing on equipment and farm systems that were specific to minimum tillage.

Phillips said while they were on the cutting edge of converting, the edge can be a tough place as the industry of farming caught up to farmer needs. He said finding the right equipment in the early years was nearly impossible. He pointed to a Haybuster 1000 drill they used for seeding.

"It was the only true zero till machine that was available and that you could buy around here," he said.
Phillips said much of what is now "taken for granted" in terms of making zero till systems work today, was not yet developed. "It was really experimenting to see what worked."

It is actually amazing how quickly the agriculture industry made progress to meet the needs of farmers.

The Haybuster might have been Phillips only option in the 1980s, but quickly companies, predominantly on the Canadian Prairies moved to fill the need. The ingenuity of designers at companies such as Bourgault, Flexi-Coil, and Morris filled the need for direct seeding equipment, and minimum till moved quickly to zero till.

Zero till has added thousands of acres to annual production and that is critical to feed a growing world population.

And, the systems have accomplished the primary hope for the system, which was the near elimination of erosion from wind.

It was the foresight of farmers like Phillips that helped speed the process, and what they heralded is perhaps the greatest advancement in farming techniques since the plow.


© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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