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Les Henry: Where will Prairie agriculture be in 2030?

Les Henry predicts eight changes coming to agriculture in the next decade

At the start of a new decade it is time to take stock and think ahead to what our industry might be like at the end of this decade. The last time I tried such an exercise was in December 1979, looking ahead to what the 1980s would bring.

I predicted that at the end of the 1980s:

  • Wheat would still be King – it was;
  • Soil salinity would be better understood – it was;
  • Summerfallow would be greatly reduced – it was not;
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  • Nitrogen fertilizer use would shoot up – it did;
  • Irrigation in Saskatchewan would include the west side of South Saskatchewan River – it did not;
  • Cropping systems would include a lot more legumes – this partly came to pass but lentils were yet to come.
  • Family farms would still be viable but would become larger – they were, and they did.

I have no crystal ball or detailed statistics, but I will go out on a limb and make the following prognostications for the next decade.

1. Climate

The climate emergency being stuffed down our throats will no longer be a significant factor. Based on historical facts we have much more to fear from too cold than from too hot. Much of the hype being generated is based on mathematical models that pretend to be able to predict climate 50 years from now. Those same models fail to predict the weather more than a few days into the future so I have little faith in projections for decades from now. Later this winter I will present more facts to support that statement.

2. Family farms

Family farms will still be viable. Some current very large farms based primarily on rented acres at unsustainable high rents will not be here. Outside investors that have paid too high a price for land will get out and the land will be bought back at a much-reduced price. In the clay belt where I was raised, farms sales in recent years have prices as high as $3,400 dollars/acre. At a five per cent return on investment that means $170/acre for land cost. That is not sustainable.

3. Prescription farming

Prescription farming will have matured with a much higher uptake. There have been many false starts, but the kinks are being worked out with enough successes to broaden the market.

There will be many more applications of digital information to make information more accessible to drive farm decisions. The best example I am familiar with is the use of soil capacitance probes to provide soil moisture data to a depth to one metre. The data is accessible via cell phone from anywhere.

4. Autonomy

Autonomous machines that are now being developed will be more sophisticated but they will still not be used on a significant acreage, Especially for an operation like combining, I think the human brain will still be required for a long time to come.

5. Feeding the world

Feeding the nine billion will no longer be a big concern, if it ever was. As countries mature and their economic circumstances improve, populations decline naturally. And, when have farmers ever failed to respond to a suitable profit motive by growing more crop? The experience of the past decade proves that in spades.

6. Cropping systems

Cropping Systems will advance, particularly with respect to intercropping. The practice of cover cropping after the main crop is off will be sustainable only in areas where Mother Nature provides sufficient rainfall in most years to support that extra length of plant water use.

Crop rotations have now developed into a much more sustainable practice with viable choices of cereals, oilseed and pulse crops. The science and art of crop rotations will continue to develop as new crops and new markets are developed.

7. Soil health

Soil health concepts will mature. Much of the current regenerative farming concepts will involve some use of livestock. That is really a return to the mixed farm model but at a much larger scale and more sophisticated. In some instances, this will involve business arrangements between stubble jumpers and cowboys. It is encouraging to see that is already happening in a few cases.

I am of the opinion that detailed testing to determine if the soil is “healthy” is not necessary. The “eagles” of the soil biological system are earthworms. If you pull the seeder out of the ground and the openers are dripping with earthworms, that, by definition, is a “healthy” soil.

8. Wheat grading

In the past few years, my personal experience with such issues as chitting in barley, falling number and DON in wheat, has convinced me that our wheat grading system needs a complete overhaul. I hope that will happen in the coming decade.

Happy new year!

That is enough food for thought for now. That was the intention in penning this piece – just to open up some thinking and discussion. Anyone who thinks they are smart enough to actually predict where we will be a decade from now is dreaming in technicolor. Good farming to all for the 2020s.


Winter combining: not a new chore

As prairie farmers struggle from fall to winter with crop still in the field this winter, many young folk may think it has never happened before. I remember 2002 and 1951 as examples.

A recent edition of the weekly Rosetown Eagle published the picture at the top of this page of three combines with snow on the wheels in late 1935. It was on N1/2 26 Tp30 R14W3 – about five miles southwest of Zealandia, Sask. I did an office tour of that half section just for fun. Later this winter I’ll show Grainews readers what information can be obtained on a given piece of land before you ever set eyes on it.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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