The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 017

A field of young corn plants

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 017 - Reducing greenhouse gasses with drainage systems

Anything’s possible when researchers and producers come together. Hear from Dr. Chandra Madramootoo of McGill University and Guy Vincent, a grain and cash crop producer, as they discuss their collaborative journey to reduce greenhouse gasses and increase crop yields.


Kirk: Welcome to The First Sixteen. My name is Kirk Finken.

Sara: And I am Sara Boivin-Chabot.

Kirk: The reduction of greenhouse gases and climate change are top of mind for everyone these days. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone wants an answer to solve it.

Sara: But what everyone might not know is that researchers and producers have been working together to develop solutions for many, many years. And lots of these solutions take the form of beneficial management practices.

Kirk: I have a feeling we’re going to hear that phrase a lot during this episode. Sara, do you think you could give us a little bit of a resume on that?

Sara: Sure! Beneficial Management Practices, or BMPs, are practices that can be implemented by growers to facilitate a more environmentally sustainable method of production. They can address everything from water retention to manure management.

Kirk: Yeah, and our department has just wrapped up the Agricultural Greenhouse Gasses Program, which was developed to create a list of these BMPs for producers to implement.

Sara: The great thing is, they’ve already been tested on farms. Producers and researchers worked hand in hand to get concrete results on these projects.

Kirk: Innovation and teamwork in action. I love it. So today, we’re going to hear from two of those collaborators: Dr. Chandra Madramootoo from McGill University, and Mr. Guy Vincent, a grain and cash crop producer.

Sara: Together, they came up with and tested a really unique system for significantly reducing greenhouse gases, while also reducing soil nutrient loss to near zero. It’s a double benefit.

Kirk: So let’s hear the specifics from Dr. Madramootoo first. Doctor, what’s the practice that you worked to develop on Mr. Vincent’s farm?

Chandra: The BMP that we looked at is the improvement of water management practices on agricultural lands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to fertilizer applications. The BMP is that we use intensive subsurface drainage on agricultural lands in Quebec and Ontario to increase crop productivity. Now, if we can use the same subsurface drainage system to regulate the water table control in the field, the level of the water table, we will also have an impact on controlling the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted from agricultural fields. We undertook, after the agreement of the producers, to test the system on their farms. We then went ahead and installed the water table control system on their farms, and then we measured the water quality and also the greenhouse gas fluxes from their farms to see whether this technology would be appropriate under our conditions in Canada, eastern Canada.

Kirk: And what were the criteria for success?

Chandra: Well, we had one principal criteria to see, first of all, whether the farmers were able to manage the system without adding much more work to their existing farming conditions, and our second criterion was just to measure if there was indeed a reduction in greenhouse gases from the implementation of the system. And what would be the best level that we could keep the water table control at to be able to get the maximum reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Kirk: So what are the results?

Chandra: For a system with the installation of controlled drainage, we were able to reduce N2O fluxes, nitrous oxide fluxes, by as much as 40%, with the controlled water table management system. There are other benefits. Firstly, one can reduce the amount of nitrate that is leached into the groundwater and to rivers and watercourses with the system of controlled drainage. And at the same time, one can also increase crop yield. We have found, in very dry years, using this system, that we can increase crop yields by as much as 18 to 22%, increase in grain corn yields using the controlled water table management system.

Kirk: 18 to 22%? Really?

Chandra: Yeah, but that's only in a dry year. You know, in a regular year, no, in a regular year, you don't see that much increase in yield. No. So with climate change, if the years, if the growing season gets drier, yes, definitely you'll see those yield increases. Yes, for sure. In very wet years, we do see benefits in terms of greenhouse gas reductions and reduced nitrate leaching, but we don't see any benefit due to yield increase.

Sara: And would that cover the cost of implementation?

Chandra: Yes, definitely. Definitely. It covers the cost of installation. We estimate from some work that we have done with colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan, we did a cost-benefit analysis, that the cost ranges from $300 an acre to about $1,200 an acre to install such a system. If it's a very sloping terrain with a lot of undulations, it's going to be more costly to implement the system. If it is relatively flat land, as we see in the Ottawa St. Lawrence Lowlands, it's a lot less costly to implement, and the closer the drains are spaced, it is also a lot cheaper to install this water management system on their existing drainage system.

Kirk: Wow. So, to recap, we’re talking about up to 40% reduction of nitrous oxide – that’s a greenhouse gas. In itself, that’s a single goal that is significant. But then you get the other benefits. Reduced leaching of nitrates into ground water, streams, lakes and rivers. That’s good. That’s holding the nutrients in the soil. And in dry conditions, a potential increase in yield of 18 to 22%. All for $300-$1,200 an acre. Those sound like some pretty great returns on investment to me.

Sara: I thought so too, which is why I called up Mr. Vincent to get his first-hand opinion. Mr. Vincent, on a daily basis, what were the costs like for you on this project?

Guy: It doesn’t cost much. I can tell you that because I have all the bills from Hydro-Quebec, which I’ve taken out. For one year, to pump the pump, and to heat the two buildings of six square metres each, heated all winter, it costs around $1,000 plus taxes.

Sara: And how about the results?

Guy: We’ve been told for over 25 years that there were phosphorus losses. Now we don't have any phosphorus losses. We monitor the water all summer. So there’s pretty much... it can happen once in the summer that we may have to... we have a safety drain. We can say a little higher, lower than the surface, there. About 50-70 cm lower than the surface. If there were 50 mm of water, a little might run off, but it’s very, very little. We have gone from a soil richness of 50 to 60 in phosphorus to around 240, 230,240 kilos in phosphorus. We have no losses.

Sara: Wow, that’s really important. And, you’ve been working with researchers since 1964. Why do you do it?

Guy: Because the goal is always to learn something new every day. If you don't learn something, it’s a lost day. For me anyway. But I like to learn things. I’m probably slower at learning computers than a lot of young people. But I can see clearly if a plant has lost phosphorus or magnesium. Mostly I’m interested in soil conservation. It’s extremely important because the government can tell us we can do this or we can do that. But I don’t want to risk losing or damaging my soil when we do experiments. We had a researcher who came four years ago. And we worked hand in hand with her — please excuse the expression—because she said: I did this, I did that, what do you think and what the result will be. We knew exactly what she was doing, and we could then see whether there were any changes from our point of view because this was someone who had a very good knowledge of agronomy and it was better to have a researcher who was someone who was going to do, let's say, research on greenhouse gases. She had a doctorate in the chemistry of air, but when we can have someone who knows soil science and has a background in soil science, we learn even faster.

Sara: And how about you, Dr. Madramootoo? Why do you enjoy working with producers?

Chandra: They're willing to try something, they're willing to invest in research, applied research on their farms. It costs them a bit. We, of course, finance a bit of it. But maybe our BMPs are workable because we work with farmers who are interested in doing new things and seeing new things. To be frank and honest, as you know, we haven't had a lot of good, strong field data. And I think for me, that's probably the biggest thing that drew the project to me, or drew me to the project, is that we don't know a lot about... We have a lot of models. I mean, the government of Canada, whether it's Agriculture Canada or Environment Canada, they do a lot of modelling to get the numbers and to understand things on a big regional scale. And I understand that must be done when you're trying to understand things at a regional scale or a national scale of a country. That's what the government wants to do or has to do. But you know, a lot of these things that we try to model and understand regionally and globally, unless you have good field data of what's happening at the farm and the field level, it's very difficult to bring results, global results down to the producer and say, "Well, you know, we would like you to do this or, you know, you have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30%." What does that mean to them? But if you can do a project on their field and show them with their practices what's happening, I think they then understand it a lot better and they can contribute a lot better to, you know, all these discussions we're seeing in the COP and so on, what does it mean to them? It's all too high up in the sky, but this actually brings it home to them. So I would say I'm very much a field-oriented type of researcher. I like to work with producers to understand what they see as challenges and bringing things down to their scale.

Kirk: I really love stories like this. Producers and researchers, reducing greenhouse gasses and increasing crop yields. There’s benefits at every level.

Sara: Yeah, it was a really interesting exchange. And, you know, the AGGP2 projects all had in their funding conditions to communicate their results, so if you want to have more information, look with your agronomist or your producer association to learn about the ones that apply to you.

Kirk: The AGGP2 program has come to an end. That doesn’t mean that the work on greenhouse gasses and climate change ends. In fact, the contrary. You know, the government currently has a lot of programs that are aimed to support research on sustainable farming and reducing greenhouse gasses. What are some of the resources that are available to folks, Sara?

Sara: Well, there’s four or five programs that are on the website right now, and one comes to mind, it’s the one we call Clean Tech, and it’s about developing new technologies as well for reducing environmental impact of agriculture.

Kirk: So I guess the best advice is, you know, go and take a look at our website, which is…


Kirk: And on that note, you know what to do, right?

Sara: Yeah, invite our listeners to subscribe to our podcast on their favorite platform. We have an episode out every month or so. We explore the new, the different, the important goings-on in the agricultural and food sector. We talk with and to the innovators and the early adopters, the first 16% on the innovation curve!

Kirk: I love your shameless promotion. I was actually just going to say try something new.

Sara: Oh yeah, that too.

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Episode 017 - Reducing greenhouse gasses with drainage systems

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