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The need for better record keeping

Reporter's Notebook: It’s not one of agronomy’s most exciting issues, but it’s a need that’s not going away

At CanolaLAB in Vermilion in February, record-keeping kept popping up during the agronomy sessions.

Murray Hartman of Alberta Agriculture and the Canola Council’s Dan Orchard facilitated an interesting session on plant stand establishment. Target plant stand recommendations have dropped a little, but before farmers cut seeding rates, they need to know how many plants are emerging and surviving.

Knowing a five-year average for canola stand establishment would be ideal. But Orchard and Hartman were both doubtful that most farmers have that data. I asked whether it was a matter of not counting emerged plants after seeding, or not keeping records. Probably both, Orchard said.

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That’s too bad, because knowing seed survivability is the key to tweaking practices that ensure a good plant stand. Some farmers might even be able to cut their seeding rates a little, if they knew how many plants they were starting with.

Field history records come in handy other times, too. If you’re trying to diagnose plants that might have been injured by herbicide drift or residue, knowing what happened on that field last year is important. Are phosphorus levels at a critically low level on your farm? Soil test, fertilization, and yield records can all help you figure that out.

The canola industry has agreed on new labels for blackleg-resistant varieties (although it’s up to each seed company to decide when to start using those labels). The new labels will still include the current ratings from the co-op trials. But they’ll also include major gene groupings, which correspond to a specific blackleg race. For example, Resistance Group B is effective against the Rlm2 blackleg race. The idea is that a farmer will be able to switch to a variety with a different resistance group if he has a blackleg wreck.

But how do you know which blackleg races you have in your fields? There isn’t a commercial test available (yet). It may come down to good record-keeping.

Collecting, keeping, and analyzing data is probably one of the biggest obstacles when doing on-farm research. That’s not the least bit surprising when you think of how much record keeping is involved in field and greenhouse experiments. Farmers asked about all kinds of things throughout the day, from seeding date to herbicide application rate to seed size. That kind of detail is important in ag research.

Keeping the data

Of course, it’s no mystery why more farmers aren’t keeping detailed records. It’s a lot of work, and much of the data collection needs to happen during the busiest times of year.

Orchard and Hartman saw plant stand counting as a service an agronomist could offer. Ag retailers and other ag business are offering more and more data collection and analysis services. There are also apps and computer software these days — some free and some not — geared towards farms. Each farm will probably track different things, and have different ways of doing it. My friend’s mother tracked the daily precipitation on their farm for years with pen and paper.

If you find the thought of record-keeping overwhelming (or if you, like me, sometimes bite off way more than you can chew), it probably makes sense to start small. Do a couple of plant stand counts through the year to see if you’re hitting the recommended target, and whether that target works for your farm. See which apps or programs work best for that kind of data. Or ask your agronomist what it would cost to have her do it for you.

It’s unlikely that the need for record-keeping is going to diminish on farms anytime soon, especially with the growing calls for transparency from the public and food industry. If you aren’t doing it already, you might as well get started. Even better, you might as well figure out how you can use it to improve your agronomy and bottom line.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

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

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