By Angela Lovell

Building a successful farm doesn’t always require following the latest trends or diversifying into multiple enterprises. Sometimes, it’s about making incremental changes that add up to a more productive, profitable and sustainable farm over the long run.

For Kevin Auch, that has meant paying close attention to the practices that have improved soil health, while managing the business of his second-generation farm near Carmangay, Alberta where he grows cereals, pulses and oilseeds. 

When his dad, Don, moved the original family farm from Picture Butte to its current location in 1963 – the year Kevin was born – he paid a reasonable price for the land. It came with a catch: the farm’s sandy soils had been badly eroded in places due to previous tillage practices. His first order of business was preventing further damage before revitalizing its productivity.

Without the products of today (that have enabled farmers to employ no till) Don had to be creative. He grew fall rye and heavy straw crops so he could leave the soil covered most of the time, tilling minimally and only when absolutely necessary.

“I was brought up with this attitude of let’s keep our soil around because this is highly erodible soil, so we have to be careful with it,” Auch says. “That was the management mindset right from when I was growing up.”

Always ready to try new things

Auch emphasizes that he and Don were not innovators but they were always keen to try new practices and ideas that they thought would improve the farm’s soils and bottom line.

“When you’re trying to fix up a farm that’s had its productivity lowered because of erosion, you don’t have the finances to be able to do the latest and greatest, but we were early adopters,” he says. “If something looked like it was a promising technology, we were right in there, so when no till started taking off, we were into it fairly quickly because we could see the benefits of it.”

Ever since completing his agriculture degree at the University of Alberta, Auch has maintained an avid interest in academia. He has worked with research scientists over the years, trying to be on the leading edge of how to practically apply new practices and technologies on the farm. 

Today, some of the tools Auch has at his disposal (such as crop protection products and no-till seeding equipment) are very different, but the principles of soil management remain the same.

“We have some great crop protection products like glyphosate. That means we can do the equivalent of a tillage application to kill all the weeds without having to disturb the soil, and till all the straw under and disturb the microbiome in the soil,” he says.

Today, Auch uses specialized equipment like a Shelbourne stripper header that doesn’t cut the plant, but strips off the seed-bearing portion (the pods in the case of canola, peas and chickpeas, and seeds in wheat and other cereals), leaving behind a plant stalk that is still attached to the roots in the ground to provide much taller standing stubble.

To seed into that kind of stubble – which can be as much as three-feet high – Auch uses a Pillar disc/hoe opener that can seed through heavy residue and maintain the protective plant material on top of the soil to prevent moisture loss and wind erosion.

Building soil health

As with more and more farmers, Auch has learned just how valuable the soil fauna and flora are to build and maintain the productive capacity of his soils.

“As we have adopted no till we have seen a lot more life in the soil,” he says. “There’s more earthworms but there’s also all the other micro-organisms that have rapidly increased in populations. That helps the productivity of the soil because it builds extra organic matter and improves the soil structure, so we get better water holding and infiltration capacity.”

That said, he knows there is a delicate balance between using today’s technologies and abusing them.

“In the agricultural community, we are starting to see resistances to glyphosate and some of our other crop protection products and it’s because we aren’t rotating them enough,” he says. “Resistance is a natural thing. If you use a crop protection product, you’re always going to have some degree of survivability with weeds. And if you overuse it, you just amplify the speed at which resistant populations appear and thrive in your crops, so we need to rotate those chemistries.”

Auch achieves this by practicing crop rotation – waiting at least five years before growing the same crop (and using the relevant chemical product for that crop) again. 

“If you grow different crops, you have to use different types of crop protection products on them and they have different modes of action for controlling the weeds,” he says. “I’ve had that in my mind for decades now; how to not create those resistances.”

This strategy has also allowed him to drastically reduce the amount of fungicide he uses on the farm.

“The disease cycle requires a host, the right environment and presence of the pest, and when you have all three, you have an outbreak. I remove the host crop and it doesn’t come back in for five years,” he says. “I don’t have control over the environment or the pest, but I can control the host and that’s what we’re doing here.”

Building resilience

Auch’s farm management includes many practices out in the field, including no till, long crop rotations and leaving the soil protected. All these moving parts work together to ensure the farm is productive.

“We have to be able to do all the things we are doing and still make a profit and the fact that I’ve put so much effort into trying to reclaim soil productivity and soil health has made us a lot more profitable,” he says.

As an example, 2023 was a dry year that reminded him of 1988, an equally dry year when he was just getting settled into his farming career. At that time, they used to summer fallow, which was their only real option to conserve the tiny amount of moisture received. Despite their best efforts, Auch and his dad only managed a 12 bushels/acre wheat crop on the best of those fields. This year, with similar conditions, but a regime of no till and maintaining a thatch of residue on top of the ground, they were able to get an average of 29 bushels/acre on their spring wheat and 17 bushels/acre of durum wheat, which was their worst yield. 

“Although it’s a terrible yield – about half of our average for durum – the fact that it did anything on a year like this shows the value of the things we are doing,” Auch says. “There is enough organic matter in there, and enough cover on top to protect it that the soil moisture stays there until the plants use it, and that’s a huge change.”

Not easy to be patient

After many years of focusing on building organic matter and organisms in his soils, Auch believes he has finally achieved a balance that is starting to show itself in areas such as better fertilizer efficiency and consistent crop yields. But that took a long time and it wasn’t easy to be patient when he set out on this journey.

For the first few years, Auch wasn’t getting the full value from the fertilizer he was putting on his crops because, as the soil fauna populations increased, they were also using those nutrients, so there wasn’t as much going to the plants. He now feels he has reached a stasis point where the soil life population has stabilized and is cycling those nutrients back into the soil in a highly plant-available form. 

“In those first five years, I was putting on all this fertilizer, and not getting the benefit, but that was 25 years ago, and the benefits are showing today and for the last 20 years,” Auch says. “If you took the average, we are achieving probably 10 times the productivity that we were in 1988, just by the combination of practices that we’ve adopted over the last four decades.”

Auch continues incorporating new practices that he thinks will hold some benefit to his farming system, like intercropping flax and chickpeas. He’s been intercropping on about 160 acres over the past four years as he’s seen promising research into its benefits for reducing disease and aiding more uniform crop maturity. He’s still trying to find the perfect balance of seeding rate but he has already reduced his fungicide use under irrigation from three to one application.

Paying attention to the numbers

Just as important as the agronomy is the work Auch does in his office, making sure that the business management side of things is not neglected. In fact, he believes that farmers have to be business managers first and foremost.

“I’m interested in agronomy and how to make the farm more productive but without that business acumen, how are you going to pay the bills?” he asks. 

According to Auch, who also taught courses in financial management for Alberta Agriculture at Lethbridge College for several years, it’s not just vitally important to make sure you can pay the bills, but that your lender knows it too.

“You have to understand the business part of it,” he says. “My banker doesn’t care if my soil health is going up if I’m not making my payments. When I started farming, I was teaching at the college and we weren’t making a lot of extra money, so when I was buying anything, it was always financed. When I went to the banker, I had run the numbers, and I could say this is my need, here’s why, here’s the financial aspects to it, here’s what the return is going to be, and this is how I plan to pay it off.”

Auch encourages farmers to learn as much about the financial aspect of their businesses as they can.

“Don’t just rely on your accountant to tell you if it’s a good business decision,” he says. “Accountants are great at accounting, but they aren’t always trained in running your business. Get yourself educated on at least the basics of financial management.”

Being an advocate for agriculture

Auch, who is chair of Pulse Canada and a director with the Alberta Pulse Growers, also believes that farmers advocating for agriculture is important to help ensure policymakers better understand today’s farming methods and the impact their decisions will have at the farm level. He recently hosted a group of senators from the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee on his farm to teach them about soil health.

“It was the first time that Senator [Robert] Black, who chairs the subcommittee, had come to an actual farm in Western Canada, and kudos to him and the other senators for having the interest to come out and for wanting to learn more about agriculture in Western Canada,” Auch says. “When real farmers can have a relationship, or at least some communication with the people who are involved in policy development and implementation in our governments, then at least they understand better what can be done.”

Auch sees lots of upside potential for the agricultural industry, especially in the area of technology, which he believes many farmers could be leveraging more to benefit their operations.

“There is a lot of technology that we have right now that farmers aren’t using to its full capability, such as georeferencing and traceability of production,” he says. “Rather than paying a consultant to give you a prescription based on something that you don’t understand, why not be able to look at a yield map of your own farm and use that information to either improve the rest of the farm to get up to the high yielding areas or fixing those spots that are low yielding because you know what is going on.”

The farm has grown from 2,000 acres since his dad purchased it to just over 5,000 today. Auch says he hasn’t been aggressive about acquiring more land because his son and daughter, who are both pursuing professional careers in Edmonton and Calgary, are not likely to return to farm. Auch isn’t against the idea of a non-family transition though, but there is a caveat: he would only consider handing the reins over to someone with the same mindset that he and his dad have always had.

“Whoever I would work with the next time would have to have at least some of the attitude towards soil quality that I do,” he says. “I don’t want to see it go back to what it was in the 1930s.”