Cultivation/Production, Equipment/Technology, Most viewed stories, News May 2024, North America

Rock-solid results: How Newfoundland farmers are overcoming stony soils with cutting-edge technology

There’s a reason Newfoundland and Labrador is affectionately known as “The Rock”. Not only are the province’s stunning coasts full of them, but so are its soils, from the eastern Avalon Peninsula to the fields in central and western Newfoundland.

The presence of stones and boulders makes growing horticultural crops a challenge for farmers, particularly for growing root crops such as potatoes, carrots, parsnips, garlic, and others. The stones are impenetrable to roots and bulbs, reducing yields and causing irregular-shaped crops or blemishes that reduce their marketability and storage quality.

Facing rock bottom head on with new equipment

In 2021, St. John’s farmer Chris Lester approached Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) knowledge transfer coordinator, Peter Murphy, and agronomy technician, Wayne Molloy, about studying an intriguing solution to eliminating rocky fields – a stone burier and bed shaper reverse rotary tiller.

“Chris sent us video of the stone burier and bed shaper equipment in action in a field with extreme stone conditions, and then we saw a demo on a field at a farm show in Montreal, and we were impressed with its potential to be useful for Newfoundland soil conditions,” says Wayne.

The stone burier and bed shaper equipment can attach to a traditional 150 horsepower or higher farm tractor. Its reverse rotary tiller separates the stones and soil, placing stones at the base of the seed bed about 12 inches below the soil surface while shaping one to four soil beds of varying sizes depending on the needs of the farmer and crop being grown. This allows the nutrient-rich soil to remain on the surface of the field, giving crop roots more room to expand.

The AAFC St. John’s Research and Development Centre purchased a stone burier and bed shaper in 2021 to begin studying the potential benefits of its use on Newfoundland soils as well as to provide demonstrations to local farmers wanting to see it in action.

Peter and Wayne tested the equipment on carrots and parsnips planted in one meter plots over the 2022 and 2023 field seasons. Weather stations captured soil tension (how strongly soils hold moisture) and soil temperature through sensors placed at four- and eight-inch depths beneath the soil surface. They also recorded rainfall, wind speed and direction and evapotranspiration (crop water-use) at 30-minute intervals.

Yield and quality results for carrots and parsnips grown using the stone burier and bed shaper tillage equipment were compared to conventional tillage methods where the ground is loosened by large discs. Everyone came away impressed that the stone burier and bed shaper “buried” the conventional tillage method.

“The yields were 30% higher or more with the stone burier and bed shaper equipment than with conventional tillage. The quality and length of the carrots and parsnips were better – they were straighter and more marketable, with less damage for longer term storage,” according to Peter.

The data from the stone burier and bed shaper also showed that water availability was more uniform throughout the soil bed and that the soil bed structure was less compacted, with fewer stones. There was less sunburn on carrot and parsnip tops, as well as less soil heaving.

Farmers leaving no stone unturned

For the last two years, Chris Lester demonstrated the same equipment on carrots, parsnips, and garlic on his farm, Lester’s Farm Market, and was equally impressed with its capabilities.

“The stone burier and bed shaper made absolutely pristine soil beds without any stones on top and they keep their perfect shape without crumbling or falling down all season long. We always had trouble with crop growth because of stones, especially with carrots. Crop growth immediately jumped with use of the stone burier and bed shaper. Our carrots were longer and straighter with a significant yield increase. It was like night and day,” says Chris.

He was so impressed that he purchased his own stone burier and bed shaper, twice as big as the one that AAFC demonstrated. He will use it to prepare soil beds for all of his root crops on the farm, such as potatoes, as in the past he has lost 30 to 40 percent of his yield due to stone damage.

“The other advantage is that we are minimizing soil compaction because we are now making fewer passes to till fields with the stone burier and bed shaper compared to a conventional tiller. It’s saving me a fair bit of time and money on fuel,” explains Chris.

Other industry stakeholders were eager to see this equipment firsthand, so Wayne and Peter transported the equipment to show it to central Newfoundland farmers. Following AAFC demonstrations and promising data shared by Wayne and Peter, several more farmers in Newfoundland are now interested in this equipment and investigating the stone burier and bed shaper for their own farms.

Wayne and Peter plan to continue introducing the stone burier and bed shaper to more Newfoundland farmers starting in 2024 and beyond.

Soil bed preparation by the stone burier and bed shaper could be used for most root vegetables, and AAFC hopes to continue testing it in the future. This equipment is transforming rocky fields in Newfoundland into smooth soil beds for root vegetables, and its rocking farmers’ worlds for the better.

Key discoveries/benefits:

  • The AAFC St. John’s Research and Development Centre purchased a stone burier and bed shaper in 2021 to begin studying its potential on Newfoundland’s rocky soils and provide demonstrations to local farmers wanting to see it in action.
  • The stone burier and bed shaper equipment attaches to a traditional 150 horsepower or higher farm tractor, and its reverse rotary tiller separates the stones from soil, placing stones approximately 12 inches at the base of the seed bed, while shaping one to four soil beds of varying sizes.
  • Researchers compared the harvest data of carrots and parsnips grown following the use of the stone burier tillage equipment versus a conventional tillage method and found the yields were 30% higher or more with the stone burier and bed shaper. The quality and length of the carrots and parsnips were better – they were straighter and more marketable, with less damage for longer term storage.
  • The data recorded with the stone burier and bed shaper also showed that water availability was more uniform throughout the soil bed, with the soil bed structure being less compacted, and having fewer stones. There was less sunburn on carrot and parsnip tops and less soil heaving.

Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)
Photo: The stone burier in action.

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse


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