Hello ReaderI’m writing this from 37,000ft en route home after a full week of strategic farm planning through CTEAM. If you farm in Canada, I highly recommend this farm management course. It’s an excellent way to invest in your business.
It’s hard to believe we’ve cruised through 46 issues of Beyond Agronomy News- this is the final one for 2014. This week we’ll review the top articles of 2014, the year of the rollercoaster.
Let me recap the season:
After 6 ½ months of winter, the snow had mostly melted by May 1st and we traded in our toques for ball caps and began planting. Cool, wet weather dominated May-June, which helped produce some of the best crop stands we’ve had in years. The weather did a 180 and turned hot and dry during flowering and grain fill through July-August, which unfortunately curbed yield potential.
By September 5th we were a week away from harvest. It had been 128 days since winter had passed and that day we were smacked with a cold reminder- hard frost and 8-inches of snow. After the snow melted we went in to pick up the pieces. Harvest was a long, tiring haul to the finish line but we made it. A few lifters, knives, guards and reel fingers less than when we started but we made it.
In the end, we had average to above average wheat, barley and canola yields with average to below average pea and faba bean yields. Wheat and barley quality was all over the map with No.1 14% protein wheat and malt quality barley to feeds and sprouted grains. Crop prices have slid downward since June but crop inputs have remained similar to last year. The 2015 crop year will be a challenging one given lower margins, high input costs and what looks like a softening in the long Bull Run in grains.
I want to thank you all for subscribing to Beyond Agronomy News and providing feedback throughout the year. We’re connected to farmers, agronomists and industry reps from all over the world and there is nothing I like more than hearing about the innovations and creativity inside your farming systems. Let’s continue to raise the bar in agriculture and build resilient farming systems. Our prayers are for your success and good health in the coming year. Have a Merry Christmas and we’ll be back with Volume 10 in the New Year.
CX-6 Smart Seeder hits the field
Revolutionary air drill to launch in 2015The CX6 Smart Seeder drill is a game changing, revolutionary drill that promises to solve a lot of today’s issues with metering, delivery, sectional control and get this, on the go filling! Picture this, seed and fertilizer are delivered from the 430-bushel on-board air cart to each shank where six individual electric motors meter up to six products right above the opener. A foam roller that looks like a cog wheel grabs the seed and fertilizer and drops it via gravity into one of three openings in the triple shoot and that is also fully adjustable, paired row openers. The technology is equipped to variable rate six products on each shank, has sectional control and variable rate down pressure to control depth and packing pressure on each opener. Did I mention this is all controlled via wireless technology? No wires from the cab!
The second feature on this drill is on-the-go filling, which virtually eliminates fill times. The drill comes equipped with a tow-behind 430-bushel tank that is designed to refill the front tank while you seed. When the back tank is empty, a simple unhook switch from the cab allows you to drop the tank off at the end of the field where a highway tractor can tow it back to the yard for refilling. A winch design behind the drill lets you hook the back tank up again and continue the cycle of refilling on the go. So, no more tandems, B-trains or special filling carts to fill the drill with next to no downtime.
To give you an overview, here are the solutions this drill provides:
- Air flow issues by metering seed and fertilizer above the shank where it’s delivered to the opener by gravity.
- Residue by placing a cutting disk ahead of the tyne which cuts residue and creates a channel for the tyne to flow through.
- Equal metering from opener to opener. No distortion from manifolds to randomly divide seed.
- More uniform distribution down each row without air flow to bunch seeds, ie peas, canola.
- Overlap eliminated, less delay from meter to seed allows more accurate off/on times, and independent opener off/on rather than sections.
- Accurate metering in non-linear travel. Turn compensation.
- Ability to apply high resolution prescription. Both due to less delay in delivery gives a more accurate application position, turn compensation, and individual independent opener metering.
- Depth control by prescription. Don't underestimate the value in this one.
- Six-product capability, trivial versus five industry leader, but the shuttle cart makes it logistically feasible to do it.
- Refill on the go. Huge efficiency gain in downtime, no extra trailers required, no conveyors, or augers in the field.
- Shuttle cart handles six products and also can be used to change products in the field. For example, if you want to switch from durum to wheat, no need to take the drill home to clean out. No extra truck required in the field.
- Shuttle cart frees up man power in that it takes two men to move a truck to the field, only one to position the shuttle.
Photo credits: Clean Seed Capital
Deep banded manure improves sodic soils
A new approach to fixing sodic soilsI recently listened to an interesting presentation on the impact of deep banding manure in sodic soils. As we know, sodic soils have high sodium levels and clay content in the subsoil, high pH and poor physical soil structure. When sodic soils wet up, the clay particles disperse in water and seal off the soil. When the soil dries out it turns to cement. Alberta alone has millions of acres of sodic soils, mainly on the east side of the province. For more on sodic soils go here.
Dr. Peter Sale, researcher from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia led a project that looked at deep banding organic amendments like alfalfa pellets, chicken manure and inorganic amendments like gypsum, sand and MAP in sodic soils. The products were banded with a deep ripper down to 30-40cm at rates of 10-20 T/ha (4-8 T/ac) on 32-inch row spacing. The deep ripper had pipes mounted to the back of the shanks where amendments were metered from a box above (see photo). The results of this study were nothing but impressive!
These are a few results:
Control: 7.6 t/ha
Deep ripped: 8.0 t/ha
Gypsum: 8.5 t/ha
Alfalfa pellets: 12.9 t/ha
Control: 3.6 t/ha
Deep ripped: 4.2 t/ha
Gypsum: 3.8 t/ha
Alfalfa pellets: 6.5 t/ha
Control: 4.8 t/ha
Deep ripped: 4.5 t/ha
Manure 20 t/ha: 7.6 t/ha
Phos + Urea: 5.6 t/ha
½ fert + ½ manure: 5.8 t/ha
[To convert t/ha to bu/ac in wheat: t/ha x 1000 x 0.89 / 60 = bu/ac. Click here for the trial results including economics.]
There were several other trials that I’ll summarize in a quote from Peter Sale. “The yield increases in the subsoil-manured crops in 2012 were around 2 t/ha of canola at one site, more than 4 t/ha of wheat at each of the 3 wheat sites, and 2.7 t/ha at the faba bean site. Over the 8 years of subsoil manuring research, we calculated that the average yields for wheat crops, for 12 site x season combinations, was 5.8 t/ha for the commercial crop and 9.3 t/ha for the subsoil-manured crop, which represented an average yield increase of 60%.”
Highlights from the 2005-2012 trials:
- Subsoil manuring involves adding 15-20 t/ha of organic amendment in rip-lines into the top layers of clay subsoils, to increase nutrient supply, crop water use and crop yields.
- Subsoil manuring is expensive; it involves the incorporation of high rates (up to 20t/ha) of organic manures into clay subsoil and is estimated to cost in excess of $1100/ha depending on the location of the farm.
- In-crop field experiments, over 5 sites from 2005-2011, covering a range of extreme seasons and different crops, are showing consistent yield increases for cereals of 2-5 t/ha with subsoil manuring.
- The field trials across the High Rainfall Zone, using small, hand-harvested plots, found that large increases in grain yields continue to occur, over a four-year period, with subsoil manuring.
- The large, continuing, and consistent increases in grain yield with consecutive crops mean that subsoil manuring is highly profitable.
- Research into the use of processed crop residues as subsoil amendments is now required to reduce subsoil manuring costs and the reliance on animal manures.
I will be watching to see how the Aussie’s refine this process. If we could generate a 60% yield increase, this practice may have some serious potential in Western Canada. To read more on deep banding manure go to our website here and here. SL
Taking moisture use efficiency to yield
A look at the French-Schultz methodWhen it comes to moisture use efficiency in Western Canada, there has been very little work done to calculate optimum yield potential based on the rainfall patterns and evaporation rates in each area. In Australia, researchers French and Schultz developed a model to calculate the maximum wheat yield potential for a given rainfall and evaporation rate back in the 1980’s, which is still widely used today.
The French-Schultz yield calculation is a simple and measures the attainable yield per unit of water use. For example, research determined that it was possible to produce 20 kg of wheat per hectare for each millimeter of moisture based on rainfall and soil evaporation rates. The main criticism of this model is that it doesn’t take soil type, rainfall patterns or drainage into account. Though not perfect, it was a great starting point. A lot has changed since the 1980’s with the adoption of minimum tillage or direct seeding systems. Some have altered the evaporation rates to reflect todays zero till systems. Here are examples of the old and new equations:
French-Schultz, Old equation
(Growing Season Rainfall – Evaporation) x 20 kg/ha for Wheat
(350 mm – 110mm) x 20kg/ha / 1,000 kg/ha
4.8 tonne/ha or 71.2 bu/ac
(Growing Season Rainfall – Evaporation) x 20 kg/ha for Wheat
(350 mm – 90mm) x 20 kg/ha / 1,000 kg/ha
(350 mm - 90) x 20kg/ha / 1,000 kg/ha
5.2 tonne/ha or 77.1 bu/ac
To put this method into practice there is a website available here that allows you to enter post-harvest rainfall, in-season rainfall and your seeding date to calculate a yield estimate based on a wet finish or a dry finish.
Oddly enough, I ran our wheat yields through a calculation that didn’t include soil evaporation and generated 21 kg/mm/ha. Now, 2013 was an exceptional year but at the same time, we’ve achieved similar moisture use efficiencies in previous years.
94 bu/ac / 12 in = 7.8 bu/inch
6,300 kg/ha / 300 mm = 21 kg/mm/ha
If there is one thing I’ve learned from the Aussies, it’s their attention to soils and climate and their impact on yield. We have a lot to learn about benchmarking yield potential in Western Canada. If we don’t know what our yield potential should be, how are we going to find out whether our systems (rotation, agronomy) are over or under performing? Every successful business set targets so they know what they want to achieve. Production agriculture should be no different. Perhaps we could encourage our researchers to find out. SL
Find research on French-Schultz here and here.
Economies of scale, efficiency and family farmsEvery week in the news you hear of company mergers and acquisitions that are designed to create efficiencies and economies of scale to grow profits. You could argue that family farms are pressured to focus on economies of scale to increase profitability as well. In fact, input companies and machinery dealerships structure discounts that encourage farms to grow and benefit from economies of scale. So how do you generate economies of scale and efficiencies in farming today when land is hard to come by and competition is fierce? You collaborate.
John Gladigau of Collective Farming Australia and Robin Schaeffer from South Australia formed a collaborative farming venture between their two family farms six years ago. The initial collaboration called Bulla Burra consisted of two, 5,000-acre properties and has grown to crop over 22,000 acres between owned and leased land in 2014. I know John; he’s a fellow Nuffield Scholar and focused his research on collaborative farming. You can read his report here.
The core of Bulla Burra’s business model is the development of optimum efficiency cells, and the implementation of a professional business structure with an emphasis on accountability and transparency. There are seven key principles that are central to the success of any collaborative business according to John.
Differentiate between real estate and operations. Most dryland farmers in struggle to realise that they are actually running two enterprises, a real estate business and and operations business, and both of them need to return a profit in order for long term sustainability to occur.
Utilise Machinery resources efficiently. One of the great limiting factors in growth in the agricultural sector is the over capitalisation in machinery. Businesses need to understand the true cost of owning machinery, compared with investing that capital in other income producing investments and utilising machinery from other sources.
Create cells of optimum efficiency and replicate them. This is one of the key principles farming businesses need to comprehend in order to grow their level of efficiency and profitabilty. Basically this involves creating cells of optimum efficiency (sometimes called scaleable units) by matching the machinery, labour and infrastructure required to most efficiently farm a given area of land, and replicating those cells in order to grow the business.
Create an environment of win-win. We deal with many people within our businesses. Neighbours, share farmers, lessors and lessees, contractors, wholesalers, retailers, marketers and employees. We need to create an environment where all parties have something to gain, no matter the circumstances.
Utilise specialist services. You do not have to know everything about every intricate aspect of your business. If you have the ability to source or collaborate with people who have expertise in areas you are lacking, have the ability to manage those people, keep them focussed on a common goal, and generously reward them both financially and mentally, then your business will grow and prosper.
A level of independence is needed. Every successful business talks about the need for professionalism, accountability and transparency in order for it to survive and thrive. Within a collaborative venture, these traits are even more important – especially in regard to the differences in personalities and any emotional issues involved. In fact, emotions and personality differences are one of the biggest threats to the success of any collaborative business. Having an independent person or group involved in a collaborative venture, who sit outside of the emotion, have no conflicts of interest, and has the ability to keep the business focussed on its strategic plan can assist a business to grow to a new level.
Be strategic. While this seems obvious, the reality is that most businesses focus on the daily operations of the business, rather than the business itself. Regularly scheduled time needs to be dedicated to determining what you wish the business to look like in the future, and what steps, structures and practicalities need to be put in place to make this happen.
Click here for an excellent outline on Bulla Burra’s structure, advantages and lessons learned.
There is no doubt that serious reductions in cost, gains in efficiency and improved profitability can be created through a collaborative model. Yes, you give up some autonomy in the decision-making but you also begin to generate a return on your land, on your farm, on your time, skill and family succession plan. I like the collaboration model and I’d like to see it work in Western Canada. It makes sense in so many ways. SL
Source: John Gladigau, Collaborative Farming Australia
Ag Venture Business Model
Strength in numbersWhile we’re on the topic of improving costs and efficiencies in farming, I’ve included a recap of the AgVenture group business model. This business model born out of Australia and one I came across in Kenya combines the buying and selling power of ten farms who also share equipment, parts and intellectual knowledge. I was so impressed with the structure and opportunities inside this type of business model and I thought it could be a good fit for producers in Western Canada.
The Kenyan-based AgVenture Group business model has four objectives:
- Procure Farm Inputs. To date it has been chemicals and fertilizer.
- Marketing of Crops. 2% levy to farmers on all crops, except peas are 5% levy.
- Processing of Crops. To date, AgVenture-owned crushing facilities extract oil from canola and sunflower.
- Research and Development. Bi-monthly field walks are conducted at each farm to learn new agronomy techniques. International agronomists are brought in and hosted by group members to introduce new farming techniques and agronomy practices.
Buying Inputs. It is up to AgVenture to negotiate a price reduction from the chemical companies. The member essentially pays the same (or less) as he always did and AgVenture keeps the margin. Benefits to members are that AgVenture profits, he has more clout and the ordering hassle is removed. He now has one invoice and one order once a week.
Selling Grain. This is a hard one to make in-roads on. AgVenture has targeted two or three millers and have developed relationships and partnerships with them. With this approach, they have begun to understand the group and it’s benefits. They find it easier to deal with one company rather than a number of individuals, payments are streamlined and quality issues are easily resolved.
Advantages. The advantages are many. It is amazing what two people can achieve over one. The key is that members are on the same wavelength. Members must be prepared to discuss everything and think long term.
- To purchase all agricultural inputs from the Company (unless in an emergency).
- All crops that can be processed internally must be sold to AgVenture.
- 90% of ‘non-processable’ crops must be sold through AgVenture.
- The joining fee is $12,000 CDN.
- The Shareholder’s Nominee is the only person, and shall remain the only person authorized to deal with the Company in relation to the business.
- Structure and other interesting points
- AgVenture is a Private Limited Company.
- The Board may distribute up to 50% of Net Operating Profits in the form of a credit/bonus to each shareholder. These will be in direct proportion to that shareholder’s value of business.
There is the possibility of purchasing equipment as one unit and the multi unit discounts that are available. Reducing equipment costs by 5% to 10% through multi-unit discounts may add some significant dollars to the overall gross margin of the company.
The sale of grain may be a little tricky given our autonomous nature to control grain sales but I can see a group working direct with maltsters, millers and processors with the ability to offer volume.
Steve’s quick math on ten 3,000 acre farms.
10 x 3,000 acres = 30,000 acres
30,000 acres x 1.5 T/ac = 45,000 tonnes of grain
$130/acre (fert/seed/chem.) x 45,000 acres = $5,850,000.00
$5,850,000.00 x 12% margin from rebates and bulk discounts = $702,000.00
45,000 tonnes x $300.00/tonne avg x 2% levy = $270,000.00
Total potential operating margin = $702,000 + $270,000 = $972,000
You could pay a managing director an excellent salary plus bonus and find a top notch individual to run the business with $972,000 plus in annual gross margin. The remaining margin can be put towards processing facilities, value adding, on farm research, bringing in international crop consultants and other possible ventures in the future. You would have one invoice for all your crop input bills and enjoy the benefits of economies of scale without the additional risk of farming more acres. I think this business model would fit inside a group of five two to three thousand acre farmers easily. With the right group you could gain some serious competitive advantages over farms that operate autonomously. SL
Source: Don White, Ag Venture Group, Kenya
Combining logistics with N use efficiencyWhen it comes to logistics during planting, one of the biggest bottlenecks is the downtime created by handling large volumes of seed and fertilizer. Each year, farms typically apply between 250 to 400 lbs/ac of fertilizer and roughly 120 to 150 lbs/ac of seed in a direct seeding system. This creates a lot of downtime as you slow down to stop, crawl up ladders, open lids, swing out augers, back up trucks and fill every 1.5 to 2.5 hrs. The bulk of that product is nitrogen and the real holdup in the system.
In 2013, we developed an inter-row side dress nitrogen system that helped us remove a large portion of the nitrogen applied at planting, and apply it at the correct time in-season. This freed up space in the air cart, which reduced downtime during fills and allowed us to spend more time putting seed in the ground. In a late start scenario like this year, having a flexible system that reduces downtime relieves a lot of stress.
Here’s an example of how we increased our efficiency at planting.
Steve’s quick math
Air cart capacity is 6 tonnes or 230 bushels
Old system: 300 lbs/ac fertilizer, 140 lbs/ac seed = 30 ac/fill
New: 190 lbs/ac fertilizer, 140 lbs/ac seed = 40 ac/fill
Increase in efficiency = 33%
Air cart capacity is 11 tonnes or 430 bushels
Old system: 300 lbs/ac fertilizer, 140 lbs/ac seed = 53 ac/fill
New: 190 lbs/ac fertilizer, 140 lbs/ac seed = 69 ac/fill
The additional cost of our side dress toolbar is $3.00 an acre to run and operate plus the additional cost of having 40% of your nitrogen applied as UAN 28-0-0 for a total of $7.30 per acre. The added cost will be more than offset by the yield gains realized from properly timed nitrogen in-season. For example, just prior to bolting in canola and GS30 (stem elongation) in wheat. In my experience, barley does not require a split app in our climate, all up front at seeding works well.
The late spring has everyone rethinking their efficiencies at planting and unfortunately, placing all of your nitrogen needs in the spring decreases both planting efficiency and nitrogen use efficiency. The two-pass system with the side dress toolbar is low disturbance, allows you to adjust N rates based on the season and frees up precious air cart space to increase acres per fill. The side dress nitrogen strategy is making a lot of sense for us this year. It’s time to evaluate our nitrogen application systems. SL
Top 2 limiting factors in Prairie Agriculture
Wheel traffic and poor residue managementAs crops begin to head and canola begins to flower, there is no better time to evaluate drill performance and residue management than right now. I’ve been sent a flurry of photos by email and twitter on the impact of wheel traffic and poor residue management this year. If we don’t address these issues soon, we can look forward to uneven crops, saturated soils and heavy dependence on timely rains for crops to finish well.
Top Photo: (Source: Brandon Gibb) Aerial photo showing multiple years of wheel tracks from large scale heavy machinery. PS: Looks great from the road, not from above.
Middle photo: (Source: Steve Larocque) 40-ft John Deere 1830 hoe drill pulled by a John Deere 9430 wheel tracked with 800mm duals.
Bottom photo: (Source: Stuart Lawrence) Multiple years of tractor, air cart and liquid wagon running on the same AB line for 3 years. The lentils are 5 inches shorter than outside the tracks.
If you calculate the impact of wheel traffic from tractors, castor wheels, air carts, combines, sprayers, grain carts and truck traffic, you’re looking at close to 50% of your land base covered by wheel tracks every single year. Now, kick it up a notch with poor residue management by spreading a 36-foot cut across just 10 feet and you can tack on another 20-30% of your land base with poor emergence, slow crop growth and uneven maturity.
The compounding effects from wheel traffic and poor residue management make it nearly impossible to stage herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, swathing and harvest timing properly. The whole system falls apart when crops are uneven. Those who are dealing with these issues right now know exactly what I’m talking about.
Steve’s (conservative) quick math
4,000 acres x 50% of land base x 10% yield loss x $400/ac revenue = $80,000.00
If you look at the wheel track damage in most fields from just the tractor and drill again this year, the yield loss is much greater than 10% because it is so visible, like in the photos above. A 4,000 ac farm may see up to a $250,000 loss in yield potential from wheel track damage and poor residue management. I suspect many will continue to go on business as usual and try to solve the problem through tillage. That may solve the residue issue but in-season wheel traffic cannot be solved with tillage. We have to start looking at tires, ground pressure and innovative systems like CTF to manage wheel traffic. You can only count on timely rains to keep crops alive for so long. When the timely rains stop, it’s going to hurt. SL
For links to other CTF resources go to controlledtrafficfarming.org
The key to tripling moisture use efficiency
Stored subsoil moistureAfter two weeks of warm, dry weather crops are already starting to show signs of heat stress. To me, it sends out a clear message that our current direct seeding system is in need of change. Do you think a system that relies on timely, consistent rains to produce optimal yields is risky and unsustainable? Thankfully, there is a way to boost grain yields during dry grain fill periods. The answer lies below the ground.
Research from CSIRO in NSW, Australia revealed a tripling of moisture use efficiency when plants had access to stored soil moisture at depths of 0.85M to 1.85M during dry run ups to flowering and post flowering in wheat. That’s right, wheat can access moisture at depths of up to 1.85M and generate serious moisture use efficiencies during periods of dry weather. In fact, research by French and Shultz showed store soil moisture in the full profile can generate 20 kg/mm/ha (17.8 lbs/ac) of grain where the current research shows moisture used at depths of over 1M during a dry grain filling phase can produce up to 60 kg/mm/ha (53.5 lbs/mm/ac) of grain. For the Imperial folk, that’s 22 bu/ac of wheat per inch of water, which is almost triple our current water use efficiency at 6-7 bu/ac per inch. See full research report here.
Wheat roots reach a maximum depth around the time of flowering. Until that point, surface moisture has primarily gone into producing leaves, stems, roots and biomass in general. It’s the moisture left at depth that is used to fill grain and generate higher grain weights, especially during periods of dry weather. Unfortunately, in todays heavy wheel trafficked soils with limited ability to absorb moisture, it appears that plants have very little access to stored soil moisture at depth. This is quite apparent when plants start to show signs of heat stress after just two weeks of warm weather and little rainfall.
The photo above shows me holding up a canola plant with a 15-inch taproot that I plucked from our field that has been in CTF for five years. This is a 60% cracking clay, 25% magnesium soil that has received just over 4 inches of rain this year. By rights it should be hard as a rock and near impossible to pull an intact root out of the ground. This is the same field where water infiltration rates were over 120 times faster in the CTF side versus the random traffic check.
If you want to build or maintain the yield potential you’ve created in the first 60 days after planting, it is imperative to start looking at how to finish the last 60 days with adequate stored soil moisture. As the research has pointed out, subsoil moisture plays a significant role in producing grain and does so very efficiently at depths below 1M. With crops drying up and showing signs of stress after just two weeks of moderate heat and little rain, it’s time to start re-evaluating our direct seeding system. SL
Impacts of wheel traffic on nutrient uptakeThe impacts of wheel traffic on nutrient uptake are largely unknown in Western Canada. Research in other parts of the world like Europe have shown that immobile nutrients like phosphorus and potassium, which move by diffusion and root interception, are hindered by soils with high bulk density. Compacted soils also have a hard time mineralizing nitrogen, sulphur and manganese due to the reduction in oxygen which mineralizing bacteria require to survive.
A few weeks ago, I took tissue tests in wheat and canola, just inside my tramlines and just outside the tramlines in the next furrow over to compare nutrient uptake. In wheat, the plants with no wheel traffic had significantly higher nutrient concentrations across every nutrient compared to the plants just inside the tramlines, only 12 inches away.
The graphs you see here show the results of tissue samples taken in wheat grown in slightly compacted soil versus un-compacted soil after 5 years of CTF. This soil has a neutral pH with sufficient to optimum level of all nutrients based on soil test results. The tissue samples were taken 12 inches away from each other. The graph on top is from the un-compacted soil and the bottom the compacted soil.
Notice that all nutrients in the compacted soil are lower, in some cases by a large amount. Phosphorus uptake was reduced by 38% while sulphur and calcium were reduced by 50% and 70% respectively. The story behind the micronutrients is the same, all lower.
When you think about the impact of wheel traffic, it’s not benign. From tractors, air carts to castor wheels on air drills and sprayer traffic, all of them compress soil to some degree depending on moisture conditions. That means close to 40% of most fields are covered by wheel traffic before the crop is even out of the ground. The end result can be a serious reduction in nutrient uptake, even when soil test nutrients show sufficient to optimum levels.
It’s interesting to see the impact of wheel traffic first hand instead of reading the research about it. It’s also good to see the benefits of reducing wheel traffic by moving to CTF. In this case, a 50% increase in phosphorus uptake and 70% increase in calcium. There’s no doubt that we will all place a stronger focus on the impact of wheel traffic as we upgrade equipment and continue to farm during these wet, compaction prone years. Food for thought. SL
Planting alfalfa without losing a years production
Intercropping alfalfa with winter wheatIn a perfect world I think most of us would include forages into our rotation. Specifically, forage legumes like alfalfa, which increases soil organic matter, relieves compaction from deep taproots and adds nitrogen to the soil. The added interest in alfalfa is also because it’s been fetching roughly $180/tonne with yields of 3-5 tonne/ac on dryland. The reason most of us don’t include alfalfa in the rotation is because you typically have to take a field out of production for a year to get the alfalfa established.
Dr. Bob Blackshaw from Ag Canada in Lethbridge looked at underseeding alfalfa to winter wheat from a different angle. By seeding winter wheat and alfalfa at the same time in the fall, they wanted to see how much nitrogen they could add to the soil to improve the following crop. What they didn’t emphasize was the success they achieved at establishing an alfalfa crop without taking a field out of production for a year. For the full research report go here. Here are a few notes from the study that compared monoculture winter wheat as the check:
Materials and methods
- Winter wheat variety AC Radiant treated with Dividend was planted 1.5 inches deep on 9-inch rows in mid-September with a double disk zero-till drill.
- Alfalfa variety AC Longview was planted between the winter wheat rows rows at the same time with the double disk drill at a depth of .75 inches and a rate of 5.3 lbs/ac.
- Fall planted alfalfa exhibited good winter-hardiness, provided some weed suppression without reducing winter wheat yield.
- The alfalfa contributed an extra 16-18 lbs/ac of available soil N at the time of seeding the following spring crop.
- Alfalfa densities ranged from 5.4, 7.6 and 9.6 plants/ft2.
- Alfalfa tonnage weighed in July the following year prior to winter wheat harvest ranged from 150 kg/ac to 690 kg/ac and 1 T/ac.
- Fall-planted alfalfa increased the yield of succeeding canola crops.
- Fall inter-cropped alfalfa did not reduce winter wheat yields.
- The predominant weeds were flixweed, kochia and annual sowthistle but weed densities were low.
Last, the most common method to managing alfalfa is to silage the first cut and then cut and bale the second cut to sell it on the dairy market for $180 to $200 a tonne. You could net a tidy $400 to $500 an acre growing alfalfa, which rivals any crop we produce right now. Food for thought. SL
Quick evaluation of vertical tillage unitsAnother year of heavy residue, lodged crops and ruts from harvest traffic has peaked the interest of many to purchase vertical tillage units. I had a chance to watch a demo of three VT units side by side to compare the residue management, field finish and soil disturbance on barley stubble. I looked at the Salford RTS, Horsch Joker and Case TT 330 Turbo and I've shared my notes below.
Test conditions: One pass at 8.5 mph, each tool set to 2.5 inches deep on a moist, sandy loam soil on silage barley residue with some quack grass and lodged areas. I have included the approximate prices of the machines that were in the field.
(Click on the name of the VT machine for a link to the specs online.)
Salford RTS, $80,000, 31 ft
- Leaves stubble anchored in the soil.
- Leaves 85-90% of residue on the surface or standing.
- This machine is built to cut and size residue, not incorporate.
- The cutting action of the wavy coulters does not work well in dry, hard soil.
- This is not a great tool for leveling ruts or incorporating products into the soil.
- This is a residue management machine only.
- Leaves just 50-60% of stubble standing
- The tool is built for working in wet soil.
- There is a lot of soil structure damage with this unit. More than the Salford but less than the Joker.
- Dislodges stubble and turns a lot of soil at 8.5 mph but less than the Horsch Joker.
- This tool does a good job of leveling soil and filling in ruts.
- The tool cuts and sizes residue well but does so at a cost of dislodging stubble.
- Dislodged stubble can create plugging issues with seeding tools in the spring.
- This tool could be used to incorporate products like fertilizer, granular herbicides and lime.
- This is the most aggressive machine of the three and an ideal machine for disking ruts and leveling fields.
- Leaves the least amount of stubble standing at 25-35%. Even the stubble left standing is not well anchored.
- There is a tremendous amount of soil mixing inside the working depth. It buried 5-inch tall residue out of sight.
- The Joker would do work the best for full incorporation of fertilizer or lime or residue.
- The field finish is smooth so likely the most at risk for wind and water erosion. You can manage soil disturbance somewhat through working depth and speed, much like the other VT machines.
In the end, not all vertical till machines are the same. The Salford stands out as a residue management machine. It cuts and sizes residue very well and leaves the stubble anchored. If that’s what you’re looking for then the Salford RTS is a good fit. If you’re looking to cut and size residue, manage some ruts while leaving some stubble anchored, the Case 330 TT would be a good choice. If you’re looking for maximum shallow incorporation, very little stubble anchored, field leveling and fertilizer incorporation then the Horsch Joker is the machine to do it.
My final remark is a warning to never undervalue standing, well-anchored stubble. We have to weigh the benefits of residue management with the drawbacks of soil disturbance in our semi-arid climate. Please do not undo 20 years of no-till. And how about this question: What kind of chopper/spreader modification could you build with $80-$90,000 to manage the residue you can't right now? Could we approach the problem from a different way? SL
A unique seed coating strategy
Improving canola emergence with limeI was researching seed treatment technology recently and came across a really cool trial on seed coating that significantly helped improve canola germination and emergence. The example comes from Victoria, Australia where canola seed was coated with lime and talcum powder to manage in-furrow acidity. The trial played out like this:
Problem: Producer was only able to achieve 30-40% canola emergence, where area average was just 50%. (Sound familiar, Canucks?)
Proposed cause: The ammonium based fertilizer blend created a zone of acidity with a high salt index around the seed creating undue stress on the seed.
Solution: Coated the canola seed with a 5% to 30% lime and talc mix to buffer the seed from acidity caused by the ammonium based fertilizer.
Results: The result was a 67% improvement in hybrid seed emergence and an 83% improvement in TT (triazine tolerant) varieties. This improvement was only seen once the coating level reached 20% or greater with best results at 30% with both lime and talcum powder.
When you look at an average emergence rate of 50% in canola and the big question mark over the toxicity of seed-placed fertilizer, you have to wonder if this technology would fit in Western Canada. It certainly warrants some research. It’s quite common for us to apply ammonium-based fertilizers like urea, MAP and AMS with the seed and we often push the envelope on what's considered safe. Perhaps this technology could help reduce the risk of seedling toxicity from fertilizer or from acid soils in general. Food for thought. SL
Uniform stands key to optimum canola yieldsEvery year I crawl across thousands of canola acres during my pre and post herbicide scouts. The one thing that stands out is the lack of uniformity in plant stand densities both in furrow and across the field. We often console ourselves when we don’t achieve a uniform canola stand by saying how adaptable and plastic canola plants are. Well, what if I told you that non-uniform plant stand could be dropping your yield by 20 to 30%?
Researchers from Ag Canada released a study on the impact of uniform plant stands with sobering results. They looked at the impacts of plant stand uniformity on pod formation, seed set and yield. For the full research article click here.
Here is a quick study summary:
- At each site-year, the cultivar InVigor® 5440, a glufosinate-resistant hybrid, was sown at 100, 80, 60, 40, and 20 plants per square meter with uniform and non-uniform stands.
- Uniform plant stands optimized the use of available resources, leading to more fertile pods per plant.
- Survival rate is more important for canola seed yield than plant emergence, as the emerged seedlings do not necessarily become viable productive plants.
- Spatially uniform stands increased seed yield by up to 32% at low-yielding sites and by up to 20% at the high-yielding sites compared to non-uniform plant stands.
- This effect is mainly due to increased number of fertile pods. The yield increase was more pronounced with plant densities lower than 60 plants per square meter.
Side Dress Nitrogen Toolbar
Success in canolaIn 2013 we started the first of our side dress nitrogen toolbar trials. We took the concept of side dressing nitrogen from the corn and cotton growers who have seen increases in N use efficiency over broadcast granular or surface applied liquid nitrogen. With CTF and RTK guidance, we thought we could easily coulter in nitrogen between the rows, even on 12-inch row spacing. See the toolbar in action here. If we could reduce the risk of nitrogen immobilization from heavy residue and the need for rain to follow application, side dressing would have a better fit than streaming it on. Made sense, right?
Well, the results came back very positive this year in canola. We generated a 14% yield increase using the side dress method versus the streaming method. We applied 120 lbs N/ac using UAN on each trial and you can clearly see where we stopped and started on the yield map above. The14% yield increase worked out to a $75.50 per acre increase in revenue from side dressing for the same amount of applied nitrogen. The interesting part is that it rained 15mm, 2 days after application, which should have been more than enough to wash the streamed nitrogen into the already moist soil.
Variety: InVigor L252
Seeding date: May 15
Fertilizer: 60-30-0-20 sidebanded at seeding
Herbicide pre-seed: Chlomazone trial + glyphosate
Herbicide: 1.35 L/ac Liberty + 200 ml/ac Assure II
Fungicide: Lance 142 g/ac + Boron/Calcium
Stored soil moisture spring: 2 inches
Rainfall May-June: 5 inches
Rainfall July: zero
Rainfall Aug-Sept: 11 inches
Stored soil moisture fall: 10 inches
Total: 18 inches – 10 inches = 8 inches used
Nitrogen side dressed (120 N/ac) = 65 bu/ac or 1.5 T/ac
Nitrogen streamed (120 N/ac) = 57 bu/ac or 1.3 T/ac
Nitrogen streamed (70 N/ac) = 58 bu/ac or 1.32 T/ac
- With offset hitch, 30ft drill and 60ft side dress toolbar, we have a hard time lining up the coulters between the rows.
- In our trials, some rows were taller as the coulter injected nitrogen right beside the row while some coulters ran 10 inches away from the row.
- We need to move to 12-inch row spacing on the toolbar with a hydraulic hitch so we can inject nitrogen consistently between the rows.
- There is very little evidence of root pruning where the coulters ran.
- Soil closed behind the coulter well only to open up later on after the soil dried up in the top few inches.
Steve’s quick math
Revenue increase from toolbar: $75.50/ac
1,000 acres of canola x $75.50 = $75,500
ROI: 1 year
I understand that we’re not looking for one more thing to do in our already busy, condensed growing season. However, when you can match nitrogen use efficiency with proper timing and give yourself the ability to measure yield potential before you slap down $40 to $70 an acre in nitrogen, you have a winning combination. The icing on the cake is that it hasn’t reduced maturity in spite of 180 lbs of applied nitrogen.
To date, we have three of the four R’s down for nitrogen application. We have the right time, the right place and the right form. What we need to do now is figure out the right rate, which we intend to match using our GreenSeeker. From there the sky is the limit. To date, our nitrogen rates have been high but still economically viable when you spend $42 an acre more on side dressed UAN and still generate $75.50 in additional yield. We’ll fine-tune our nitrogen rates over time but for now, we have the ability to adjust our nitrogen rates base on yield potential and commodity prices. We’re back in the driver seat and I feel that side dressing nitrogen will give us the advantage we’re looking for. SL
What separates you from the rest?As commodity prices look poised to slip downward in 2014-15 and margins get tighter it’s important to keep costs in check. So what operations are poised to continue with good profitability in spite of the potential downturn? I was re-reading a 10-year study from Kansas State University that looked at the differences between high, medium and low profit wheat producers. In spite of many uncontrollable variables that impact farm profitability, there are some within the farm manager's control. The study looked at these variables and outlined what separated the high profit farmers from their peers. To read more on the study, go here.
Economies of scale
High-profit farms farmed 10% more acres than mid-profit farms and twice as many acres than low-profit farms (i.e. there are financial benefits from economies of scale and the advantage is growing).
Cost of production
Machinery costs had the biggest impact on profitability. Machinery costs were 33% lower for the high-profit farms relative to the low-profit farms. The second greatest influence on farm profitability was the ability to buy crop inputs with fertilizer and herbicide in the top two. High-profit farms spent $18 an acre less on fertilizer and herbicide than the bottom third.
Price and yield
The average yield difference plays a larger role in explaining income differences than the average price difference. Yield and grain prices contributed the least to overall profitability. There's little evidence indicating that producers can consistently get higher prices than the average (i.e., the fact that they get a high price one year is somewhat of a random occurrence).
What this study revealed was that farm managers should stay focused on building economies of scale. I think it’s important to note that high profit wheat farmers were 10% larger than the norm, not 100%. Economies of scale can lead to dis-economies of scale as well where efficiency gains are lost due to un-timely applications.
Next, controlling equipment costs is paramount with high profit farmers having 33% less equipment costs than low profit farmers. It is especially true to re-evaluate equipment costs after a bull run on commodities and good yields the last few years. I’ve personally seen $120 an acre differences in fixed costs on producers with the same acreage and yield potential.
Crop inputs and timely fertilizer and chemical purchasing also separated the high profit farmers from the low profit farmers to the tune of $18.00 acre. Knowing your herbicide plan well in advance and allowing for a few in-season changes can save you money. Also, there have been $100+ a tonne swings in fertilizer prices the last few years, which can add over $10.00 per acre to fertilizer costs.
High-profit farms had the highest income, lowest cost, and highest acreage of the three groups leading to a difference in returns of approximately $120 per acre. The differences in profitability were primarily driven by cost and yield differences with cost being number one. As we move into lower commodity prices it is so important to give ourselves a reality check to make sure our costs are in line. This study from Kansas State was a good reminder. SL.
Residue cover generates big yield gainsThere is always a delicate balance between too much residue and not enough in a direct seeding system. On one hand, residue cover can negatively impact germination and emergence by keeping soils cold and wet in the spring. On the other hand, poor residue cover can allow soils to dry out, reduce tillering and grain fill. A study published this week from Ag Canada confirms the importance of residue cover and serves as a reminder for many who are busy “preparing” their fields with shallow tillage.
The study looked at soil temperature, soil moisture, root length and final yield of wheat, canola and peas between two residue treatments: No surface residue with short standing stubble and heavy residue. The varieties used were InVigor 5440 canola, AC Vista CPS wheat and CDC Meadow peas. Here are the key points:
- High surface residue increased wheat yield by 8%, canola yield by 33% and 8% in peas compared to the no surface residue treatment.
- There was no significant difference in emergence or plant population between the two treatments.
- The heavy residue treatment had higher soil moisture all season at 0-10cm for all three crops compared to the no residue treatment.
- The heavy residue treatment had greater total root length at the 0-50cm than the no residue treatment in most of the growing season for wheat and canola but not for peas.
- High surface residue increased straw yield by 20% in wheat, 50% in canola and 7% in peas compared to the no surface residue treatment.
- High surface residue increased the height of all crops compared to no residue. Wheat was 7cm taller, canola 5cm, and peas 7.5cm taller than no surface residue treatment.
Source: Can surface residue alleviate water and heat stress? Hong Wang, Y. Gan, Yong He, Kelsey Brandt, Xiaobo Qin, Zhiguo Li, DOI: 10.4141/CJPS-2014-269
These are the top two studies on the impact of residue on yields in Western Canada:
Long-term impact of no-till on soil properties and crop productivity on the Canadian prairies
Tillage and root heat stress in wheat in central Alberta