Soil Activity in Winter: Soil doesn't sleep under its blanket of snow

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Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research has found that biological activity in soil continues throughout the winter, at temperatures well below freezing. This new information will help to develop improved farm management practices that increase nutrient use efficiency and reduce nutrient losses.

"People think there is nothing going on in the soil during the winter but that’s not true," says Dr. Claudia Goyer, who co-leads the AAFC research with Dr. Martin Chantigny.

Their research focused on "life" in agricultural soil during the winter and found that up to 70 per cent of gases from the natural breakdown of plant material, fertilizers, manure, and microorganisms occurs over the winter. How much gas is released is affected by the temperature of the soil, which in turn changes depending on how much snow is on the ground. Soil activity over winter also affects phosphorus and carbon levels available for spring growth.

"People think there is nothing going on in the soil during the winter but that’s not true."

- Dr. Claudia Goyer, Molecular Bacteriologist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Research was coordinated across dozens of site at AAFC research centres in Agassiz (British Columbia), Lethbridge (Alberta), Brandon (Manitoba), Ottawa (Ontario), Québec/Normandin (Québec), and Fredericton (New Brunswick), along with research partnerships with Dalhousie University, Université de Moncton, Université Laval, and University of Manitoba.

With new funding under Growing Forward 2, research scientists are continuing to explore a variety of agricultural practices that could help reduce nutrient losses over the winter. Is it better to apply fertilizer earlier or later? Are there effective additives that can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses after manures and fertilizers are applied in the fall? Research is ongoing to offer sustainable, economically and ecologically viable farming models to agricultural producers.

AAFC is joining other organizations worldwide to celebrate the International Year of Soils 2015 and raise public awareness about the fundamental roles of soils in our daily lives. We are doing our part by leading research and development activities in agri-innovations to enhance both the economic and environmental sustainability of Canadian agriculture.

Key Discoveries

  • Up to 70% of gases from the natural breakdown of plant material, fertilizers, manure, and microorganisms occurs over the winter and depends on how much snow is on the ground.
  • Soil activity over winter affects phosphorus and carbon levels available for spring growth.
  • New soil research under Growing Forward 2 could change fall fertilizing practices.

Photo Gallery

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Wintertime in Saskatchewan
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Dr. Martin Chantigny measuring gas emissions with an innovative technology developed at the Soils and Crop Research and Development Centre, QC.
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Dr. Claudia Goyer during her snow/soil testing, Winter 2014.

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