Hemp and corn aren’t necessarily brand new crops in Western Canada, but both have the makings to offer farmers some viable cropping options, say researchers.
Jan Slaski, researcher with Alberta Innovates in Vegreville says industrial hemp —used for both food and fibre products — grows very well in most regions across the prairies.
The crop has been legal to grow in Canada, with Health Canada approvals and restrictions, for nearly 20 years. A number of varieties have proved successful in Western Canada and markets for both food and fibre products continue to develop.
Meanwhile, Ken Coles, general manager with Farming Smarter (applied research association) in southern Alberta says field trial results are still preliminary but it appears dryland grain corn may be a profitable option for prairie producers.
The two researchers made their comments at a recent tour of Farming Smarter research plots near Lethbridge, AB.
LEARN TO GROW HEMP, MARKETS WILL COME
With about 90,000 acres of hemp seeded in Canada — most grown in Eastern Canada, Alberta produces about 40 per cent — it is still a niche market, but Slaski says the crop has yet to hit its stride.
Several European and Canadian-developed varieties appear to be suitable to Canadian growing conditions and more are on the way. In Alberta, for example, Slaski is evaluating 14 new varieties at various locations in 2017.
On the grain side there are shorter stature varieties suitable for producing grain used in such food products at hemp hearts. There is also another line developed in Finland, called Finola, suitable for producing a hemp vegetable oil product. With a wide range in yields (averaging 750 to 800 pounds per acre) there is a relatively strong and steady market for the grain and oilseed crops, which depending on the year, can generate $900 to $1,100 return per acre.
There are also a number of taller varieties particularly well suited for the hemp fibre market. While hemp fibre can be used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products most growers are still waiting for processing markets to establish. They are close.
Slaski urges growers to learn to grow hemp. Variety maturity ranges from 90 days with a crop such as Finola to 100 to 115 days, it requires a proper fertility package, and harvesting the crop presents its own challenges. “Don’t start with 900 acres”, he says. “Start with perhaps 40 to 60 acres for two or three years to get a handle on agronomic and production practices.”
For more information on hemp visit the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance website at: www.hemptrade.ca. And for a first hand look at hemp and varieties plan to attend a field day at the Alberta Innovates research centre near Vegreville, AB July 20 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
DRYLAND CORN HAS RESPECTABLE START
Dryland grain corn with an 80-bushel yield is far from record setting, but that kind of production from early Farming Smarter plot trials, suggests as production practices improve, yields will improve as well.
It’s a strong enough yield to warrant further field trials, says Ken Coles, Farming Smarter general manager. Coles says when they planted the first plots in 2015 he knew nothing about corn. “Many farmers are in the same situation,” he says. “How do you grow this crop? With improved varieties, we’ve seen silage and grazing corn acres increase across Western Canada. Some seed companies see potential for eight to nine million acres of dryland grain corn. If we are going to head in that direction we need to learn how to grow it.”
Coles says the first couple years of dryland corn trials produced some interesting observations.
Farming Smarter used a plot-scale Monosem vacuum-type row planter for its trials. They compared 20 and 30-inch row spacing
and applied a number of seeding rates from 15,000 to 35,000 seeds per acre.
While, again, it is preliminary data it appeared the 20-inch row spacing produced the highest yields. That was attributed to the fact that with narrower spacing and a dense crop, the crop canopy closed faster and provided more leaf area to capture solar energy and heat. And while yields increased as seeding-rates increased, Coles say it appears targeting a seeding rate in that 15,000 to 25,000 seeds per acre range provided the highest economic return per acre.
The Monosem planter was equipped with a double chute fertilizing system that allowed Farming Smarter to apply liquid phosphorus with the seed and sideband nitrogen.
“One of the things we learned is that corn is fairly efficient and isn’t dependent on a lot of added nitrogen,” says Coles. In fact, in their five-site years of data they found no yield response to added nitrogen. Corn needs about 1.1 to 1.2 pounds of nitrogen per bushel of yield.
“In our plots we compared everything from zero to 150 pounds of added nitrogen and really saw no yield increase regardless of the amount of nitrogen applied,” says Coles. “I believe one of the misconceptions about corn is that it really goes after the nitrogen. But in our experience dryland corn is fairly efficient of making use of soil-available nitrogen.”
Overall on research plots, corn yields ranged from 80 to 120 bushels per acre but they found none of the yield differences could be attributed to added nitrogen.
The Farmer Smarter trial is also looking at crop sequencing — where does corn best fit in rotation? Perhaps as no surprise, the crop had its poorest performance when seeded after canola, mustard and wheat and best when seeded after peas, soybeans and lentils.
“Wheat and oilseeds are non-mycorrhizal crops,” says Coles. “It appears from a nutrient uptake standpoint, corn performs better after mycorrhizal crops such as legumes and pulses, which appear to improve the uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients.”
And when comparing corn yields under tillage and no-till systems they found actually a slight yield increase (about five bushels per acre) under no till systems.
In 2017 field trails again are being conducted in four southern Alberta locations —plots at Lethbridge, Vauxhall, Bow Island and Medicine Hat. Funding for the project is provided in part by the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, and Dupont Pioneer, with co-operation from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada and Alberta Crop Diversification Centre at Brooks.
“There are still questions to be answered, but without high rates of added fertility and under fairly dry conditions at times, we were still able to achieve at least an 80 bushel yield, which is pretty respectable,” says Coles. “We’ll look at the data over the next couple seasons and hopefully we can continue the project but it appears grain corn has potential under dryland farming.”
Lee Hart is a field editor with Grainews based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]