For 12 years, Laurent Lefebvre and Jean Côté have been moving toward farming without manure. Though they began as dairy farmers in 1973, they decided to stop farming animals in 1997 and concentrate exclusively on field crops. With their fields Certified Organic since the 1980’s, they were concerned about possible deficiencies when they stopped using animal-based fertilizers. The two co-owners decided to call upon two agronomists, Jacques Petit and Pierre Jobin. The agronomists affirmed that it is completely possible to grow without manure, as long as one-third of the fields are left as meadow each year.
The 1/3 approach is nothing new. In Germany, the peaceful agriculture movement supports the idea of leaving the land to rest (as meadow) one year out of three. In the U.K., Stockfree-Organic farming, which is free of animal inputs, uses long term green manures (2 or 3 years) and with long rotations (over a period of 8 years).
The key to success
The farmers chose a rotation over 9 years, during which the first 3 of those years are permanent meadow. The following years alternate between cereals and legumes. The meadow plays the role of a green manure over a long time period. The plants have the time to become well established, drawing deep nutrients and forming wide and dense root systems. Moreover, the meadow stimulates and shelters life, fixes nitrogen, makes new minerals accessible, and improves the structure of the soil while also nourishing the soil.
Such a meadow makes it possible to diversify the crop rotation. It counteracts the pest cycle and offers a way to counter against competing plants (often called "weeds") by its density and the following soil work.
The meadow is planted in the springtime at the same time as a cereal (ie. wheat). It is composed of a mixture of 7 species: alfalfa, clover, fescue, millet, dactyl, Kentucky bluegrass, and sweet clover. It’s only after the grain is harvested that the meadow is established. The following two years, if the price of hay is good (more than $70/tonne), up to two cuts will be harvested. If not, the hay is left in place, just like the third cutting.
The third year, after the second cutting, this meadow will be destroyed by two passes with a rototiller and one pass with a subsoil plough. The temperature must be hot and dry. The cropland is then left fallow, during which time the roots are exposed to the sun, after being uprooted by the tillage. The fallow ends in September with the sowing of autumn grains or with a green manure of white mustard. That green manure picks up the nutrients made available during the fallow, avoiding leaching. It also protects the ground against erosion during the winter.
On their 490 acres of active farmland, (that includes 85 more acres in transition), in 2005 they grew 162 acres of soy, 80 acres of wheat, 50 acres of spelt, 43 acres of buckwheat, 25 acres of flax, and the remaining 130 acres as hay.
Monitoring the results of soil analysis every 3 years confirms an improvement in its properties. Every year, parts of the land are limed, to
return it to a neutral pH. Only magnesium seems at the moment to be a
slightly low, but this situation could be corrected by the use of limestone
that contains magnesium.
Other green manures are used at different stages of the rotation. Clover
and grain are sown simultaneously just before the final pass of the harrow.
After harvest all crop residues and residues and straw are left in place,
building the amount of soil organic matter.
As well as soya, wheat, spelt, buckwheat and flax, Janlau Farm has tried
various legume crops in the past: lentils, chick peas and red broad beans.
The last of these were grown for 10 years for export to Germany. A
difficulty with legumes is that they do not completely cover the soil,
allowing weeds to grow in the gaps.
Another interesting trial consisted of growing flax in association with
the short-straw wheat variety Barry. The idea was to harvest the flax (which is taller) first, and to harvest the wheat afterwards. This technique was successful, except for one year when showery conditions favoured the wheat, which then choked the flax.
In the last two years spelt growing has been difficult due to showery
conditions in December. As an alternative, they plan to cultivate a new
variety of spelt which can be sown in spring rather than in autumn.
Their marketing strategy is to produce grain for direct human consumption.
Grain is sold directly to customers at La Pierre Mill and Les Brumes Flour
Mill, while soya is sold to the Japanese market via an intermediary.