Agriculture

Organic Crops

 
 
 

Organic farming is an integrated system of farming based on ecological principles. Whether you're new to farming or are planning to transition from conventional production, there is a steep learning curve. Give yourself plenty of time to learn about building soil fertility and alternative methods for managing weeds and pests. The resources in the sections that follow will help you get started, but be prepared to do lots of reading and talking to organic farmers as you build your confidence and skills.

 

 
 
 

Resources

 
There are now more resources than ever before to help producers learn how to farm organically and how to navigate the complicated organic certification process and these resources are geared to how you like to learn. If you enjoy reading in the winter months, Canadian Organic Grower's Organic Field Crop handbook will give you everything you need to get started.  The Prairie Organic Development Fund's Green Manure Toolkit is also a must read when you are ready to learn about plant-based fertility management. 

 

If you are just getting into organic, you will need a network of organic farmers, buyers and specialized equipment suppliers. Nothing beats in-person events for networking. Keep an eye on the upcoming conferences, field tours, workshops etc. offered by organic associations and the University of Manitoba for learning events near you.

Manitoba Organic Alliance

SaskOrganics

University of Manitoba
 
If you to prefer online, check out the sources above for digital learning opportunities. MOA has put together a series of podcasts that can help you learn about topics relevant to organic crop farming, building soil health, saving seeds and more in a fun and accessible way. These podcasts are relevant to the farmer and non-farmer alike.
 
 
Risk Management
 
Minimize the risk of transitioning your fields to organic by using Manitoba Agriculture and Natural Resource's financial tools, including the organic Cost of Production templates. Using these templates, you can directly compare the cost and income associated with each of the main field crops grown in Manitoba.
 
If you're in transition, or considering a transition, consider transitioning your land gradually as a risk mitigation strategy. This will help you to minimize potential losses while you build your skills as an organic producer. Organic regulations do not require you to transition all your land at the same time.
 
The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) has specialized organic crop insurance for organic producers that can decrease your financial risk.
 
Your marketing strategy also helps manage risk. At least early in your career as an organic producer, a good strategy is to only grow what you can sell in advance. As you develop more relationships with organic buyers and more knowledge of the ins and outs of selling organic crops, you can shift some of your crops sales to the spot market to take advantage of in-year swings in the marketplace.
 
 

Additional Resources

 
 
 

A GROWING SECTOR

 
 
 

Organic field crop production is growing, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Canadian Prairies. This region produces close to 80% of  all the organic field crops grown in Canada. Key crops include red spring wheat, oats, barley and specialty crops such as hemp.

 
 
 

ORGANIC RESEARCH

 
 
 

Organic farming is now backed by credible scientific research and much of this new  research is specific to organic field crop production in the Prairie region. Manitoba is home to the Natural Systems Agriculture Laboratory at the University of Manitoba. Organic-conventional field crop comparisons at two locations - Glenlea in the Red River Valley and in Carman in south-central Manitoba, have produced concrete results that organic farmers can use to improve yields and crop quality. 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the organic-conventional crop rotation at Glenlea. Check out the 25th anniversary video. Click on the link for the Natural Systems Agriculture Laboratory in the Resources section to learn more about Manitoba organic research.

 
 
 

TRANSITIONING TO ORGANIC FIELD CROP PRODUCTION

 
 
 

Organic Standards require land to rest for 36 months following the application of  a substance that is not allowed on the Permitted Substances List. If  you can convincingly document that nothing has been sprayed in the past three years, you may be able to shorten the transtion period. However, for crop production you will have to be under the supervision of a Certification Body for a minimum of 15 months.

If you're considering a transition, be sure to download the Prairie Organic Development Fund's transition resources.

 
 
 


 
 
 

Organic Certification

 
 
 

If you're considering certification, the following steps will help you get started:

 
 
 

Step 1: If you live in Manitoba, set up a meeting with a Manitoba Government Organic Specialist. Email Laura.Telford@gov.mb.ca

 
 
 

Step 2: Download free copies of the Canadian Organic Standards ( CAN/CGSB-32.310, CAN/CGSN.32.311) and start by learning about the rules behind organic farming.

 
 
 

Step 3: Do some research or take a course. There are lots of resources to help. The transition resources on the PivotandGrow website are a great starting point. Canadian Organic Growers' Organic Field Crop Handbook also offers good background information along with practical advice for growing organic field crops.

 
 
 

Step 4: Talk to organic crop producers. You can meet them at local organic events and field days and at organic conferences, such as the Prairie Organics: Think Whole Farm Conference in Brandon February 8-9, 2022, Organic Connections and the SaskOrganic conferences in Saskatchewan, and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Conference in LaCrosse, WI.

 
 
 

Step 5: Do some thinking and planning. What can be grown on your land? What was the land used for before? Were synthetic chemicals used? How long ago? You may need to conduct soil testing to determine how much soil organic matter is available and whether your soils are deficient in nutrients and micronutrients.

 
 
 

Step 6: Decide what you want to produce. Do a market survey. Figure out how you will market your products.

 
 
 

Step 7: Find a federally-accredited certification body (CB) to start the certification process. Most CBs have an an online registration form that you can complete in order to receive their certification package. Note that each CB will have different forms and pricing structures. Talk to other organic producers about their experience with a particular CB. Canadian Organic Growers provides has a list of  questions that you can ask each CB.

 
 
 

Step 8: Your chosen CB will require you to develop an Organic Plan that includes a carefully-considered crop rotation that will build soil organic matter and fertility and provide needed nutrients to the crop that follows, a plan for managing pests and disease without synthetic chemicals, a record keeping system to document everything that you do, and a farm map that includes potential buffer zones between your farm and the next.

 
 
 

 

 
 
 

Managing Soil Fertility

 
 
 

Fertile soil is essential to successful organic crop productions systems. Synthetic fertilizer use is not allowed, therefore organic farmers must use other means to replace nutrients and improve soil fertility. Organic soil management techniques build organic matter and humus, protect the soil from erosion, reduce nutrient loss, and maintain soil in a condition that supports diverse life-forms. Crop rotations are an essential component in fertility management, pest control and long-term sustainability.

The Organic Field Crop Handbook and the Natural Systems Agriculture Lab at the University of Manitoba offer some practical advice. Pivotandgrow's Green Manure Toolkit is also a great place to start to select green manures that will work best in your region.

 
 

Nutrient Requirements

 
 
 

There are 17 essential nutrients required for plant growth. The essential macronutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and sulphur (S).Calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) are considered secondary nutrients. Micronutrients include iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), boron (B), molybdenum (Mo), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), nickel (Ni) and chlorine (Cl).

 
 
 

The remaining nutrients, carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O) compose more than 90% of the dry matter weight of the plant and are supplied from air and water.

 
 
 
The soil often provides the majority of the nutrients, however, the remainder must be supplemented.
 
 
 
The "law of the minimum" states that yield is determined by the factor that is most limiting. For example, if only enough N is available to grow a 30 bushel per are crop, yet there is enough of all the other essential nutrient to grow a 40 bushel per acre crop, the yield will be limited to 30 due to the limited N. The "law of the minimum" also applies to other factors such a light, heat, moisture and crop variety.
 
 
 

 

 
 
 

Producers in Manitoba usually discover that adequate supplies of N and P are the most challenging nutrients to supply in an organic system, although S can also be a challenge in some soils.

 
 
 

Sources of Nutrients

 
 
 

Nitrogen (N)

 
 
 
  • The plant uses nitrogen:
    as a main component of amino acids and proteins, which are required for growth and yield
  • in the production of chlorophyll
 
 
 

The primary source of N on an organic farm is atmospheric N fixed by legumes. Forage legumes and plow-down of legume green manure can provide most of the N required to grow crops. Nitrogen s provided to the organic farm through the application of composted manure and by incorporating straw and organic wastes back into the land.

 
 
 

Phosphorus (P)

 
 
 

Phosphorus is important in many plant metabolic processes:

 
 
 
  • Photosynthesis and respiration
  • Energy storage and transfer
  • Protein and carbohydrate metabolism
  • Cell division and enlargement
  • Structure of DNA
  • Component of cell membranes
 
 
 

Phosphorus is important in stimulating root growth, promoting early maturity, kernel development and increasing winter survival, particularly in perennial legumes.

 
 
 

Manitoba soils Manitoba soils do generally contain sufficient  P, but finding P in a form that is readily available to crops can be challenging. Dr. Martin Entz from the University of Manitoba has learned a great deal about managing P in an organic farming system.

 
 
 

Potassium (K)

 
 
 

Potassium is involved in several plant processes:

 
 
 
  • Production of structural components like lignin and cellulose which impart stalk strength and lodging resistance
  • Influences CO2 uptake, photosynthesis and opening of stomata in leaves
  • Influences water uptake
  • Influences starch and sugar content, enhancing storage quality
  • Aids in disease and insect resistance
 
 
 

The K requirement is high for perennial crops, forages, potatoes and tomatoes. Most of Manitoba’s soils are naturally high I K and can meet the needs of the crop. The exceptions are sandy soils and those with a high organic matter content.

 
 
 

Sources of K include composted manure, but K is soluble and care must be taken to minimize leaching during storage. Much of the K is in livestock urine and will be held in the livestock bedding. Potassium can also be added to the soil in the form of composted straw and hay, powdered basalt, granite dust, clay minerals, langbeinite, greensand (glauconite), kelp meal, wood ashes and a variety of the materials.

 
 
 

Sulphur (S)

 
 
 

Sulphur also has many important roles:

 
 
 
  • As a constituent of amino acids to form proteins
  • Develops enzymes and vitamins
  • Involved in N-fixation by legumes
  • Aids in seed production
  • Needed for chlorophyll formation
 
 
 

Certain crops such as brassicas and forage legumes require higher levels of S as compared to cereal crops.

 
 
 

The primary sources of S are gypsum (calcium sulphate) and composted manure. Several S-containing soil amendments (such as Epsom salts and langbeinite) may be permitted, but approval from your certification body is required prior to application.

 
 
 

Although composted manure is low in S, it is generally the best amendment since it contains a balanced supply of other nutrients, as well as organic matter and micro-organisms.

 
 
 

Secondary and micronutrients

 
 
 

Although these nutrients are only required by plants in trace amounts, they are important to plant growth and development, as well as to the livestock that may consume the plants.

 
 
 

In a biologically active soil with good physical properties and a balanced, pH, micronutrients deficiencies are rare. Sandy soils with high pH and low organic matter contents are more likely to have micronutrient deficiencies. Because the range between deficiency and excess is small, certain micros can be toxic to plants if they exceed trace levels. It is therefore recommended that micros not be applied unless a deficiency is confirmed by leaf analysis or by visible plant symptoms. Compost and some seaweed products can supply micros.

 
 
 

Nutrient Loss

 
 
 

Conserving nutrients is an important part of any farm operation. Nutrient loss may harm the environment, in addition to the loss of money, time and resources. For example, nutrients leaching into ground or surface water may cause excessive algae growth and oxygen depletion, harming natural flora and fauna.

 
 
 

Nitrate leaching increases when certain factors exist:

 
 
 
  • Coarse-textured soils or soils with large deep cracks
  • Recharge areas in the landscape
  • Significant precipitation while crops are not using water
  • Limited plant root zone to intercept nitrate due to shallow-rooted or immature plants
 
 
 

Nutrient run-off increases when certain factors exist:

 
 
 
  • Fine-textured (clay) soils with low infiltration rates
  • High rainfall
  • Excessive tillage and crop residue incorporation.
 
 
 

Nutrient loss can be reduced with effective use of catch crops, crop rotations and good manure management techniques.

 
 
 

Soil Fertility

 
 
 

Nutrients to meet both the needs of the crop and organic certification standards may be supplied by several management tools:

 
 
 

Animal Manure

 
 
 
  • Manure from any source must be composted for a specific period before application on organic fields (check with your certification body for specific requirements).
  • The compost must not be allowed to pollute water sources and the pile must be turned regularly to allow effective decomposition
  • The levels of the various nutrients in the manure vary according to the type of animals, the nature of the feed and how the manure was stored. Manure generally contains all macro-and micronutrients, but rarely in the proportion needed by crops. Manure or compost analysis is essential to identify which nutrients may need supplementation from another source.
  • Its physical and biological characteristics make manure an excellent amendment for low organic matter, eroded, saline and other poorly-structured soils.
 
 
 

Green Manure

 
 
 

A green manure is a crop grown primarily for the purpose of being plowed down to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Organic farmers consider green manure to be an essential part of the farm ecosystem.

 
 
 

Many field crops can be used as green manure. Legumes such a yellow sweet clover an alfalfa are commonly  used but white clover, red clover, peas, Indian Head lentils, black medic and certain vetches are also used to add nitrogen and improve the soil. Non-legumes that perform ad multitude of functions include oats, barley forage grasses, mustard, buckwheat, and fall rye

 
 
 

Green manure plays a role in soil improvement, nutrient management and pest management.

 
 
 
  • It is effective in controlling erosion, adding organic matter, improving soil structure, stimulating biological activity in the soil and reducing compaction.
  • Legumes such as alfalfa and sweet clover can fix over 200 lb. per acre of nitrogen.
  • Effective green manure smothers weeds, breaks insect and disease cycles and provides a habitat for bees, parasitic wasps, and other beneficial organisms. Fall rye and oats are particularly competitive. Some crops such a s yellow sweet clover and mustard are allelopathic and produce natural chemical toxins that retard germination and inhibit the early growth of weed species.
 
 
 

The value of green manure can vary with the amount of biomass, the type of crop and the timing of the plow-down process. For example, most legumes turned under as green manure at the blossom stage will contribute in excess of 100 lb. of nitrogen per acre. A mixture of grass and legumes turned under at the blossom stage will contribute 50-100 lb. or N per acre. Grass and legume residue after harvest will add less than 50 lb. of N per acre. The rate of decomposition also varies with soil and climatic conditions.

 
 
 

Incorporating green manure with a discer into the top 3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm) of soil allows a favourable rate of decomposition. Deeper levels of incorporation will slow down the rate of decomposition. Incorporation levels below 6 inches (15 cm) should be avoided. Tillage in early summer may leave a considerable portion of nitrogen in the nitrate form by winter, and vulnerable to leaching or denitrification losses. Fall tillage will keep N in the organic form over winter, allowing N to mineralize during the next season.

 
 
 

As microbes break down the green manure residue, the micro-and macronutrients from these plants are made available over a number o years. An added bonus is that organic acids are released in the breakdown process, resulting in lower soil pH and increased plant-available phosphorus.

 
 
 
Table 1. N-fixation in inoculated legumes grown under irrigation in southern Alberta
Plant-N derived from the atmosphere
Legume (%) (lb/ac)
Alfalfa
Sweet Clover
Fababean
Field pea
Lentil
Soybean
Chickpea
Field bean
80
90
90
80
80
50
70
50
267
223
267
178
134
134
108
62
Source: R.J. Rennie, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Station, Lethbridge

 
 
 
Table 2. Increase in the available N of Dark Brown soils due to the residue of one grain legume crop
Legume Available N increase (lb/ac)
Lentil 9
Field pea 22
Fababean 36
Source: A.E. Slinkard, Crop Development Centre

 
 
 

Legumes in the rotation

 
 
 

When properly inoculated before planting, annual legumes such as peas and lentils will fix 50-90% of the N they require from the air (see Table 1).

 
 
 
  • Legume residue breaks down more quickly than non-legume residue, which allows N to be available sooner to subsequent crops when the residue is worked into the soil ( see Table 2).
 
 
 
  • Perennial legumes such as alfalfa supply substantial amounts of N to the soil from their root systems, even though much of the top growth may be removed as hay or grazed pasture.
 
 
 

Rotating high and low nutrient demand crops

 
 
 

Different crops require different amounts of the various essential nutrients. Rotating high and low nutrient demand crops may avoid depleting one of more of those essential nutrients in the soil. Knowing the nutrient demands of various crops is essential to the producer and many resources are available to provide this information.

 

Check out Pivotandgrow's Green Manure Toolkit for advice on choosing the right mix of legume and nonleguminous species for a green manure that will acheive your objectives.

 
 
 

Crop Residues

 
 
 

Returning crop residues to the soil contributes tremendously to the organic matter and the nutrient pool available for new plant growth. Crop residues also prevent soil erosion and improve the water-holding and infiltration properties of soils (see Figure 2).

 
 
 

The straw from a wheat crop yielding 40 bushels per acre can contain 25 lb. of nitrogen, 9 lb. of phosphorus, 55 lb. of potassium and 5 lb. of sulphur per acre.

 
 
 

Acceptable Fertilizers

 
 
 

Organic producers often use certain commercially-available fertilizer to address specific nutrient deficiencies identified by soil test. Rock phosphate, certain types of elemental sulphur and gypsum, borax, microbial inoculants and other products derived from natural sources are often applied to the soil, to the seed or to the plant as nutrient sources.

 
 
 

Before using an fertility products, check the Organic Inputs Directory to find out which brand name products are acceptable for use, but remember that your Certification Body will have the final say. All measures must be taken to avoid jeopardizing the organic status of the land.

 
 
 

 

 
 
 

Organic No-till

 
 
 

organic_no-till_roller.jpg  

 
 
 

Research by Martin Entz and his students at the University of Manitoba is showing that no-till is possible in organic systems and that no-till methods benefit the soil by increasing soil life, increasing soil carbon content and altering the way nutrients are cycled.

 
 
 

Ways to increase Soil Organic Matter

 
 
 
  • Use green manures
  • Keep stubble in the fields following harvest
  • Minimize tillage
  • Incorporate perennial forages
  • Keep the soil covered
  • Add compost
  • Use cover crops