Towards a Business Case for Soil Health: A Synthesis of Current Knowledge on the Economics of Soil Health Practices in Ontario

In collaboration with Équiterre, Towards a Business Case for Soil Health: A Synthesis of Current Knowledge on the Economics of Soil Health Practices in Ontario addresses key recommendations from The Power of Soil: An Agenda for Change to Benefit Farmers and Climate Resilience, which was released by the Greenbelt Foundation earlier this year.

Dec 22, 2021   •   Research

In collaboration with Équiterre, Towards a Business Case for Soil Health: A Synthesis of Current Knowledge on the Economics of Soil Health Practices in Ontario addresses key recommendations from The Power of Soil: An Agenda for Change to Benefit Farmers and Climate Resilience, which was released by the Greenbelt Foundation earlier this year.

The study aims to mobilize current knowledge to help build the business case for soil health on farms in southern Ontario and aid decision making by farmers and their advisors.

The study aims to mobilize current knowledge to help build the business case for soil health on farms in southern Ontario and aid decision making by farmers and their advisors. The analysis uses current knowledge on quantified costs and benefits while recognizing that many benefits remain unquantified. Thus, the analysis is an important foundation to build on and the estimates are likely conservative in nature and will evolve with new knowledge. This work starts a crucial conversation and stimulates further research documenting costs and benefits.

The report determines a range in net returns from the adoption of six different soil health practices:

1. Tillage intensity
2. Cover crops
3. Diverse crop rotations
4. Nutrient management
5. Organic amendments
6. Rotational grazing

Using data from literature synthesis and financially representative farm-level budgeting techniques for southern Ontario, the study found that most of these practices have a range of net returns, from negative to positive, implying that they may be financially beneficial to many farmers under certain conditions, but not to others with less favourable conditions.

Key Findings of the Report

· Tillage reduction appears to be a less variable practice, with a small range in net returns and small gains or losses that equalize to zero over five years.

· Cover cropping of mixed varieties has higher initial costs that move towards sustained positive values over 5 years due to increases in crop yields.

· Crop rotation also has initial costs, but like tillage and cover crops, the benefits become positive over time, as soon as the second year, with maximum sustained benefits by the fourth year.

· Of the 4R nutrient management practices examined, rate reduction has the smallest range in net returns, followed by split N application. Inhibitors and precision application have the largest ranges, with relatively high upsides for inhibitors and relatively low downsides for precision application. When N costs are high, 4R practices that save on these costs have a greater effect on net returns.

· Chicken manure use has a high potential upside, but beef manure barely breaks even with mineral fertilizers if the price of manure is zero and transportation distances are short.

· Rotational grazing can have relatively small costs and benefits, depending upon the intensity of grazing, with greater intensity having potentially greater net returns, but much higher upfront capital fencing and water costs. Cow-calf operations in Ontario appear to have negative net returns, overall, but management intensive grazing can relatively increase net returns.

The study also identifies several research gaps and provides recommendations for future action regarding soil health practices in Ontario.

The full report will be available in early 2022. If you would like more information, please contact the Foundation for details.