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Managing longer crop rotations

In Part 3 of a three-part series, these farmers with long rotations catch a few breaks in a tough year

This article is the last in a series looking at how three farmers manage longer crop rotations through the growing season. The original plan was to interview all three once they’d finished harvest.

But, unsurprisingly, western Canadian weather has no respect for deadlines. All three farmers saw a wet September and two were still harvesting when reached for an interview.

Bernie McClean

Medstead, Northwest Sask.

Reached on October 11, Bernie McClean laughed when asked whether he was in the middle of harvest. The answer was yes. He was a little less than half done at that time.

“It’s been a struggle. Nothing I’ve taken has come off dry.” The barley came in at 16.8 to 18.9 per cent moisture, he added.

McClean had not been optimistic about the long-term forecast back in early September. The weather had been wet throughout haying season. He decided he’d better have a bit of a safeguard and started phoning around for a grain dryer. A salesman told him he could have one in his yard by mid- to late-October. McClean decided to buy the dryer and immediately lined up propane.

He had been planning to buy a grain dryer for several years for his malt barley. In fact, he’d upgraded the electrical in his yard this year. The goal was to have that dryer in place in two years.

“It was in the budget, just not necessarily for this year.”

McClean hoped to have the tanks hooked up and the system inspected by the end of October so he could dry his damp barley. He also planned to dry his canola.

McClean thought the smoke from forest fires slowed crop maturity in his area. There’s been some debate about the smoke’s effects, as one agronomist pointed out the crop should still have matured if the growing degree days were there. But McClean didn’t think there was much heat in August.

“When it got smoky it got cool in this country, too.”

Other plans are falling into place. McClean’s grass was well-established and he expected bison to be grazing his land by March. Most of the fencing was done, but McClean was waiting for frosty weather before pounding posts in a few wet spots. He also had a few gates left to install.

The number one change McClean is considering for next year’s rotation is adding an annual pulse back onto the cropland. Root rot, particularly aphanomyces, has left him nervous about field peas. He does have a couple of fields that haven’t seen peas in seven years, but he’s heard stories from other farmers who had wrecks even with a 10-year break in the rotation. McClean has talked to his local ag retailer and hopes to pick the brains of pathologists such as Syama Chatterton this winter.

While there is continuity to agriculture, McClean said one thing he enjoys is that the challenges and the job are different every year. This year certainly proved him right.

Rodney Volk

Burdett, Southeast Alta.

Rodney Volk planned to be done harvest much earlier than mid-October. But when Grainews reached him on October 19, he was still combining spring wheat.

“I’m actually dumping a truck right now,” he said.

Volk said the smoke in August slowed harvest, stalling out his spring wheat. Weather in September wasn’t conducive to harvest, either. Two light dustings of snow fell on the Burdett area, along with “just enough rain that you couldn’t go.”

“It caught everybody off guard down here.”

Still, it wasn’t all bad news for farmers in Volk’s area. Any crop that was still up stayed standing.

At interview time, there was a break in the weather in Volk’s area. “Pretty much everyone’s going on the combines again.”

Volk said there was lots of beans, spring wheat and seed canola left to harvest. He had just finished under-rodding the beans in mid-October (a process that fluffs the soil to prevent dirt tag during combining).

Despite the dry summer, Volk’s dryland durum exceeded earlier estimates, hitting just over 22 bushels. Volk’s peas also yielded better than he thought they would.

“I was expecting 10 (bushels), and I think I almost did 20.”

Volk’s spring wheat was a little bleached, but the bushel weight seemed to be there. He hadn’t had it protein tested or graded at interview time. He didn’t expect any better than a No. 2 due to the bleaching.

While farmers in the area have aeration, the only ones with grain dryers are those growing high-moisture corn. Volk said people in his area are viewing this year’s harvest weather as more of an aberration than a trend, and he didn’t think anyone would be looking for grain dryers.

Volk has enough forage for his cattle. He noted that he’s surrounded by irrigation. Some producers harvested four cuts of alfalfa in his area. Silage yields have been above average, from what he’d heard. Grain corn was still standing, so the numbers weren’t in yet, but based on the crop height and heat units, he expected people to be pleased with the harvest.

Sometimes Volk and a neighbour switch land. Volk sows wheat on the neighbour’s land and the neighbour grows sugar beets or potatoes. That decision likely won’t be made until the spring, he added.

Beyond the land switch, Volk wasn’t sure if he’d be changing his rotation next year.

“I’m always looking to change my rotation, but plans right now are to stay with the status quo. I need some infrastructure changes before I start changing rotations,” he said. That includes a different seed drill and grain storage, he added.

Shaun Cory

Nesbitt, Southwest Man.

Reached on October 26, Shaun Cory and his family had wrapped harvest some time ago.

“Basically, all of September and into October was pretty wet and miserable,” said Cory. That moisture was good for the pastures and the cover crops the Corys had sown earlier in the year.

“They were sitting in dust until it started to rain.”

The Corys had soybeans to finish when the wet weather came, but they caught a few breaks. “It would sort of clear up for a couple of days and we’d get out there and get a fair bit done.”

For the most part, Cory and his neighbours saw better yields than expected, given the moisture deficit, he said. The Cory’s wheat was in the 60-bushel neighbourhood, he said. Canola seeded on their poorest land was still a little over 40 bushels, he added, and got up to about 55 bushels.

A field with some of their poorest soil produced one of their best canola crops this year. Last year it grew some of the best wheat they’ve ever grown, Cory said. He thinks the faba beans that grew on it two years ago might be responsible, but he can’t say for sure as there are “always 40 different factors that come into play.”

Cory tends to think more diverse rotations confer benefits such as climbing yields. “But there can also be some difficulties and train wrecks on the way.”

The Corys broadcast rye and hairy vetch into standing soybeans while the leaves were starting to drop. The vetch and rye were emerging by the time the soybeans were harvested.
photo: Courtesy of Shaun Cory

The Corys grew 4010 forage peas and Clearfield canola together for the first time this year. Cory said they yielded about 30 bushels per acre of peas and 10 bushels of canola.

“I don’t think it’s going to pencil out to be quite as good as our straight canola,” he said. But, he added, they save money on fertilizer and should have some nitrogen in the bank for next year.

This was their second year harvesting hairy vetch, which they grow with rye. Between now and May, they’ll decide whether to fence and graze it, use it as a cover crop and kill it off, or take it to seed. It will depend partly on the sale of what they already have on hand.

A local seed plant tried to clean the vetch and rye last year. Cory said they were able to get most of the vetch out, but couldn’t get a completely clean sample of either. This year he’s made a deal with a company that wants to buy the rye and has a colour sorter.

Cory’s son grew hemp a couple of years ago and they’re looking at it for next year. “The hemp market’s been very poor but we’re kind of wondering if it might turn around.”

The Corys are also trying to increase their cattle herd and have them on the fields more to reap soil health benefits. This year they planted corn for the cattle as well.

“It’s going to be their first year of actual, real winter grazing.”


Last cover story from Lisa Guenther

At Grainews, we are torn between being sorry to see Lisa Guenther move on, and happy to see her installed in a new position with Glacier FarmMedia. Lisa is now the new associate editor at Canadian Cattlemen, and we know she’ll do a fantastic job.

In recent years, Lisa has written great stories like this one about crop rotation. She has an interest in herbicide resistance, and has covered that especially well for Grainews. She has been on the scene at all kinds of crop production meetings, and is always interested in covering soil health and plant disease.

You might not know that Lisa Guenther is a novelist as well as a journalist. If you are not a rancher, but want to read more from Lisa Guenther, check out her debut novel, Friendly Fire, published by newestpress.com. Friendly Fire is about small-town life on the Prairies, and a family’s secret history.

A sequel is in the works.

— Leeann Minogue, Grainews editor

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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