GHGMP News Releases

Summerfallow acres continue to decline

Indian Head, Sask., September 23, 2004

The often heard conservation message over the past 15 years to "keep your stubble up" has obviously been heard by Canadian farmers as the number of conventional summerfallow acres has dropped dramatically.

While a move toward reduced and zero-till farming has provided economic and production advantages, the trend has also benefited the environment through reduced soil erosion, and a measurable reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Statistics Canada shows the total summerfallow acres dropped from nearly 20 million acres in 1991 to about 10 million acres in 2002. And it appears the trend will continue.

The numbers reflect adoption by a growing number of producers of conservation farming practices that include zero tillage, direct seeding, chemfallow and continuous cropping, explains Doug McKell, executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC).

Although the change is driven by environmental concerns and the need to protect the soil, many producers have also found an important economic benefit from reduced machinery costs and in many cases improved production. The absence of tillage has also played an important role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions as more plant carbon is stored in the soil.

For more details on benefits of reduced tillage and other options to conventional summerfallow visit the SCCC Website at and check out articles under the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program for Canadian Agriculture (GHGMP). The three-year federal program launched in 2003 has established dozens of on-farm demonstrations across the country to promote practical and environmentally sound production practices.

Summerfallow is largely a Western Canadian farming practice. It has been used through out the history of Prairie agriculture as a means of conserving soil moisture and weed control. Many farms, particularly in the driest areas, traditionally followed a 50/50 summerfallow rotation, which meant 50 percent of annual cropland was summerfallow each year.

Conventional summerfallow involves several light tillage treatments throughout the growing season to control weeds and conserve subsurface moisture. With the introduction of low-cost, broad-spectrum herbicides more producers have switched to a technique of chemical summerfallow, often referred to as chemfallow, which means crop residue is usually left on the soil surface during the fallow year and weeds are controlled with herbicides.

While farm census figures show a few thousand acres of land remained fallow in Eastern Canada, this is not being done to conserve moisture, says Dr. David Burton, Chair of Climate Change Research at Nova Scotia Agricultural College. "There may be land that's not seeded for rotational reasons or to control crop pests, but conventional summerfallow is largely non-existent," he says.

A concerted effort over the last 20 years has produced a dramatic reduction in conventional summerfallow acres in Western Canada. That move has been driven by a need to reduce wind and water erosion of soil, save time and at the same time, improve soil quality. Millions of tonnes of topsoil have been lost over the years from wind erosion alone. Tillage also contributed to a major decline in soil organic matter and overall soil quality.

Education and awareness programs have been geared to show producers that conservation farming practices such as zero and reduced tillage and direct seeding, can conserve soil moisture and actually increase crop yields even under continuous cropping. Reduced herbicide costs, too, make chemfallow an economic option.

The GHGMP supports a broad range of projects across Canada with the goal to promote awareness of agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. SCCC administers the delivery of the soil and nutrient management sector component of the program. For more information on activities, visit the SCCC's Web site at

For more information, contact:

Doug McKell, Executive Director
Soil Conservation Council of Canada
Indian Head, Sask.
Phone: (306) 695-4212

Jerome Damboise, Program Co-ordinator
Eastern Canada Soil and Water Conservation Centre
Grand Falls, New Brunswick
Phone: (506) 475-4040