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Western Canadian agronomy extension

Working together could go a long way to benefit both farmers and agronomists

Where do you go for reliable, unbiased, up-to-date agronomy advice? It’s difficult to keep up with and evaluate the latest agronomic opportunities, innovations, research and technologies that might benefit the bottom line of your farming operation.

To further complicate things, information different sources can be contradictory. Different companies often have conflicting information or recommendations.

How can extension providers do a better job to provide unbiased, sound agronomy information, in a way that farmers can access easily?

Synergy among governments

A good place to start would be for the three Prairie provinces to improve synergy among their agriculture extension staff. Many staff interact informally, but this interaction should be made essential, promoted and encouraged by the three provincial governments.

There is considerable duplication of information among the provinces. Each has its own web site with fact sheets and booklets, etc. with similar information. Why not just have one tri-provincial website for all agronomic information, jointly maintained, with jointly-produced information? With a team approach among the three provinces, it would be easier and more efficient for provincial extension staff to keep all agronomic information up-to-date and current. There could be significant cost saving doing this, too! And it would be easy for all prairie farmers and agronomists to simply go to one website for all agronomy information.

Various agencies conduct agronomic research including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the U of A, U of S, U of M, applied research associations, private companies and producer organizations. Synergy among all these groups is essential to extend research information to farmers. With one inter-provincially coordinated website, all groups could post their research results and recommendations in one place. To ensure information and recommendations were current, accurate and unbiased, all information could be posted by provincial specialists in a peer reviewed format.

Synergy among agronomists

Provincial extension staff are important but they are few in number. In Alberta, there is almost no staff left to make farm visits, organize agronomy meetings or field days. In most regions of the Prairies, industry agronomists have taken the lead in providing farmers with agronomic advice. There are real opportunities for government agronomists and industry agronomists to work co-operatively to develop a prairie wide agronomy network to exchange and share information. For example, during the growing season, provincial and industry agronomists are scouting fields for disease, insects and other problems. As issues develop, all members of a prairie wide agronomy network can keep each other informed and aware of developing regional problems. Co-ordinated management recommendations could be developed among network members. This could provide farmers with quick access to current information and recommendations. A well co-ordinated, inter-provincial agronomy network would benefit farmers and agronomists.

This synergy could be expanded to include a range of extension activities. For example, as I mentioned in my last column, having about 16 agronomy research centres across the Prairies would be a great target for conducting co-ordinated research across the Prairies in the various agro-ecological regions. If this could be achieved, these research centres could be used every year or every other year to run diagnostic field schools, focusing on a wide range of agronomic issues within each region. These field schools could be co-operatively planned, run by the local agronomy researchers jointly with provincial and industry agronomists, in a team effort. Diagnostic field schools are an excellent “hands-on” way for farmers to learn. Many farmers are very visual in the way they learn. Seeing agronomy lessons in the field can be very effective.

The teams that organize the diagnostic field schools in the summer could also organize winter agronomy update meetings.

Future Directions?

Improving agronomy research and extension will take incredible vision and effort by governments, universities, producer organizations, applied research associations and industry.

Developing synergy among the three provincial agriculture departments and with industry agronomists would go a long way to improving agronomy extension. The first step would be for senior managers of the three provincial departments of agriculture to put mechanisms in place for provincial specialists to formally work together. There could be significant cost saving doing this, too! Can the three bureaucracies make this happen? Time will tell.

About the author

Columnist

Ross H. McKenzie, PhD, P. Ag., is a former agronomy research scientist. He conducted soil and crop research with Alberta Agriculture for 38 years. He has also been an adjunct professor at the University of Lethbridge since 1993, teaching four-year soil management and irrigation science courses.

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