Soils Champions

Nova Scotia dairy producer builds biodiversity, profitability

Eric Patterson farms with a focus on conservation

Eric Patterson's farm looks over the beautiful Annapolis Valley.
Eric Patterson's farm looks over the beautiful Annapolis Valley.

The countryside around Eric Patterson's Wolfville, N.S. dairy farm has defined its production approach. Located on what is known locally as South Mountain, overlooking the beautiful Annapolis Valley, the 300 acre farm is directly connected with the natural landscape.

Patterson's neat farmstead belies his farming philosophy. He believes strongly in soil conservation and farming sustainably. That includes, he believes, maintaining the links with the natural landscape.

The farm is primarily a dairy operation milking approximately 50 cows with another just over 50 younger and replacement animals. Milking cows are housed in a free stall barn, fed a total mixed ration and grazed on 50 acres of permanent pasture.

The pasture is divided into paddocks, with movable fences which adjust each day to allow fresh grass for the cattle. Other crops include corn, spring grains, winter wheat, with forage used for hay and haylage.

Water management is important to farm sustainability. The pasture has a pond for watering and to protect water quality fresh water is pumped to tubs in the pasture laneway for the cows.

Crops grown in Eric Patterson's dairy operation help conserve farm soil.
Crops grown in Eric Patterson's dairy operation help conserve farm soil.

The farm has a drilled well and spring fed water reservoir system and the well has been on a water nitrate monitoring system, run by the Nova Scotia government. Sampling helps ensure nitrate levels don't exceed recommended standards. To date they have not.

More from farm soils

Soils on the farm are managed for productivity. The mainly clay soils are tile drained wherever possible. Soil on hillsides is typically very shallow to bedrock with some area having only three to four inches of topsoil. That's one main reason that a permanent pasture system is used to prevent erosion.

Acid soils in Nova Scotia demand use of lime to raise the pH to get maximum benefit from commercial fertilizer applications. Manure is used as a key part of crop fertilizer. It is incorporated into soil on annual crops and applied to forage land as well, all with an eye to reducing the necessity for purchased fertilizer. A nutrient management plan has been established for the farm to drive fertilizer use and management.

Marshlands nearby, behind dikes to protect from saltwater, are also farmed as part of the enterprise. These are extremely fertile properties that will grow tremendous crops of forage, corn and small grains, says Patterson. However the soil is heavy clay and must be managed carefully, only worked when it is dry enough.

"Soil conservation is very important to me as a producer because all crop growth traces back to the soil as a base or starting point," says Patterson. "The difference between a field with good fertile soil and one without is huge. It could be the difference between a good profitable crop or a poor one which is unprofitable.

"At the end of the day, you must make money farming or you will be out of business."

Dikes in the background protect farm croplands from seawater.
Dikes in the background protect farm croplands from seawater.

Measuring biodiversity

To get a better sense of the farm and biodiversity, an Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation Plan was completed. The goal of that plan is to recognize current biodiversity conservation activities on the farm and to provide farmers with realistic and specifically tailored land use options that support biodiversity and conservation planning.

This is mutually beneficial for wildlife and the farm, since increased biodiversity will promote interrelationships between species that are necessary to create highly stable functioning ecosystems, says Patterson. This results in more productive croplands, fewer insect pests, improved forage for livestock and better water quality.

The combination of natural wetlands, shelterbelts and woodland edge, woodland, hayland, cropland and rough cover provides an excellent environment for a broad range of species.

Remaining competitive

"A huge challenge for today's farmers is that the Best Management Practices that address soil and water conservation need to be economically viable if they are to be adopted by producers," says Patterson.