Soil Erosion Indicator

The Soil Erosion Risk Indicator assesses the risk of soil erosion by water, wind and tillage in the Canadian agricultural landscape. The indicator gives a useful picture of soil health and productivity, particularly when considered with other soil health indicators, such as the Soil Organic Matter Indicator. It is also considered when assessing water quality issues such as the risk of water contamination from phosphorus and pesticides due to the transportation of soil-borne particles to water bodies. This indicator has tracked the state and trend of soil erosion risk associated with Canadian agricultural activities from 1981 to 2016.

Overall state and trend

The risk of soil erosion has been decreasing on agricultural lands in Canada. In 2016, the majority of farmland (76%) in Canada was considered to be at very low risk from soil erosion.

Use the interactive map below to zoom in and explore different regions. Note that in the Prairies, soil erosion risk is very low primarily due to the use of reduced tillage and no-till, as well as to a reduction in the area under summerfallow (a practice of leaving fields bare). In Eastern Canada and the Maritimes, the risk of soil erosion is mostly moderate or low, although there are isolated pockets of higher risk due to the cultivation of row crops such as sugar beet and potatoes and to a lesser extent corn and soybeans, which provide lower soil cover than cereals or oilseeds.

Figure 1: Soil erosion risk in Canada in 2016
Very Low Low Moderate High Very High

Use the interactive map in Figure 2 to explore the change in soil erosion risk between 1981 and 2016. It is apparent that the decrease in risk is most significant in the Canadian Prairies, although all parts of Canada indicate improvements in soil health.

Figure 2: Change in soil erosion risk, 1981 to 2016
Large decrease Decrease Little or no change Increase Large increase

Soil Erosion performance index

The state and trend of the Soil Erosion Indicator can also be seen in the performance index below.

Figure 3: Soil Erosion Index

Soil Erosion performance index
Description - Figure 3
Year Index Value
1981 71
1986 73
1991 75
1996 79
2001 83
2006 89
2011 91
2016 90

In 2016, the risk of soil erosion resulting from farming activities in Canada was in the "Desired" category. The index illustrates an improving trend, representing a reduction in erosion risk between 1981 and 2016. This reduction is primarily attributed to the widespread adoption of reduced tillage and no-till, as well as decreases in the use of summerfallow in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The index tends to aggregate and generalize trends and so should be viewed as a policy tool to give a general overview of state and trend over time.

About the performance indices

Specific trends

Reduced tillage in the Prairies dramatically lowers erosion risk

Prairie soils have seen significant improvements over the past 35 years, resulting from changes in land-use practices such as the reduction in summerfallowing and reduced tillage intensity. The adoption of no-till in cereals in particular, has had the greatest influence in terms of reducing soil erosion risk owing to the large share of cropland devoted to cereals on the Prairies.

Reason for this trend

The primary reason for the improvement in this indicator in Canada is due to the shift away from intensive tillage in the Prairie region. Intensive tillage removes most of the crop residue from the soil and leaves the subsoil exposed, which is then vulnerable to erosion from the effects of wind and water. Figure 5 shows the change in percentage of farmland between 1981 and 2016 under no-till as well as under summerfallow for the Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) as well as for Canada as a whole. Because the Prairie region accounts for over 85% of farmland in Canada, changes in these provinces significantly impact the national averages.

Figure 4: Trends in summerfallow and no-till in the Prairies, 1981 to 2016.
Description - Figure 4
Percentage of annual cropland under no-till
  1981 1986 1991 1996 2001 2006 2011 2016
Manitoba 1.4 2.9 4.3 7.7 10.8 17.1 20.6 18.6
Saskatchewan 2.6 5.4 8 17.5 32.1 4.98 60.3 66.4
Alberta 1 2 3 8.6 21 36.9 51.5 57.5
Canada 1.6 3.5 5.3 12.4 23.3 36.3 45.7 49.9
Percentage of annual cropland under summerfallow
  1981 1986 1991 1996 2001 2006 2011 2016
Manitoba 12.5 10.1 6 6.5 5.2 2.6 2.2 0.9
Saskatchewan 36.5 29.9 29.9 23.6 16.6 13.9 8.9 3.4
Alberta 21 18.9 16 13.1 11.2 8.6 5 2.5
Canada 24.1 20.4 19.2 15.2 11.3 8.9 5.6 2.3

Why this indicator matters

Soil is an essential resource for agriculture. Erosion of topsoil can result in lower fertility, which affects productivity, and ultimately profitability for the producer.  The loss of soil from farm fields can also cause water quality issues. Nutrients, pesticides and pathogens can attach to soil particles and move into water bodies with the eroded soil. Sedimentation—the build-up of fine sediment in water bodies—can also affect aquatic species.

The protection of agricultural soils through the implementation of beneficial management practices can ensure the long-term health of this important resource.

Beneficial management practices

The same practices that increase soil organic matter and soil cover will lower soil erosion risk. In the Prairies especially, producers can reduce the risk of soil erosion by reducing summerfallow and tillage intensity and by converting annual crops to perennial cropping systems. In areas vulnerable to wind erosion, such as the Prairies, shelterbelts and cover crops can be considered. In regions where crops are grown on slopes, particularly in the case of field crops such as potatoes, consideration should be given to systems such as strip cropping, with plantings running across the slope rather than up and down the slope. Erosion control practices such as terraces and grassed waterways that slow the velocity of runoff can also help reduce soil loss.

About the performance indices

The agri-environmental performance index shows environmental performance state and trends over time, based on weighting the percentage of agricultural land in each indicator class, such that the index ranges from 0 (all land in the most undesirable category) to 100 (all land in the most desirable category). An index value that is increasing over time suggests improving environmental performance, while a decreasing index value suggests deteriorating environmental performance over time.

Related indicators

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