Steve Larocque is using his precision farming system to get to the root of improved crop emergence, which in the last few seasons appears to be getting about 80 to 90 per cent of the seeds coming out the ground.
The word root is used both literally and figuratively for the central Alberta farmer and crop consultant who for the past few years has been pioneering, in Canada, a system called Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF).
By limiting all field operations to specific and permanent tramlines across the field, Larocque relies on guidance equipment to precisely place this year’s seed immediately adjacent to the standing stubble of the previous year’s crop — right next to the old roots.
“Placing the seed adjacent to the old seed row appears to be an excellent environment for the seed,” says Larocque, who farms about 620 acres at Morin, about an hour northeast of Calgary. “It is a good seed bed, usually good moisture, the seed can also make use of any residual nutrients from the previous crop, and it is protected. I am seeing probably 80 to 90 per cent seed emergence. And I am doing it with a 27-year-old Concorde drill so it’s not about having the latest seeding equipment in the field.”
With Controlled Traffic Farming Larocque is actually trying to focus all crop inputs on the 17 per cent of his field that really matters — the seed row furrow. With the more precise RTK (Real Time Kinematic) guidance system and permanent tramlines he can be very precise on where all crop inputs are placed.
“I can place seed right next to last year’s seed row, and I can place fertilizer with the seed or just beside the seedrow,” says Larocque. “When it comes to spraying I can adjust nozzle spacing to treat areas between seed rows with herbicide, if that’s what I want, and I can apply a fungicide directly on the crop. So the whole system gives me a lot of control and increased efficiency when applying inputs.”
Lacrocque, who also owns Beyond Agronomy, a crop consulting service has introduced CTF to his farm over the past six years. “I know I don’t have the largest farm in the country, but in providing consulting services to my clients I like to have first hand experience of how different treatments work,” he says. “So I am always testing inputs, or new production practices on my own crops, which helps with the recommendations I can give others.”
The CTF System
Larocque first heard of CTF in Australia as part of his travels under a Nuffield Scholarship. While there are only a handful of farmers in Western Canada trying out CTF today, it is actually a cropping system used by about 20 per cent of Australian producers. Last year Larocque was in France explaining controlled traffic farming in a talk to French producers.
The concept behind CTF is to limit field traffic only to designated tramlines and ultimately improve overall crop production efficiency and eventually improved yields. The wheel widths of all field equipment is modified to same width so all operations — seeding, spraying, swathing, combining — all use the same tramlines. By limiting field traffic, soil compaction is reduced and eventually reversed, and overall cropping efficiency is improved. In Larocque’s case he adjusted all equipment to run on 10′ 3″ centres.
Studies show that with conventional tillage and random field traffic about 82 per cent of the field is affected by traffic. Under a straight no-till system that is reduced to about 46 per cent, and with no-till plus CTF the actual machinery footprint in a field is reduced to 14 per cent.
Larocque is part of Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta (CTFA), a farmer-led initiative evaluating controlled traffic farming. In 2015 eight Alberta farmers were involved in the association, managing all or part of their farms under the CTF system. All are conducting proper research trials on their farms to evaluate CTF compared to their conventional farming practices. The University of Alberta is also involved in soil quality analysis. Larocque says several other farmers across Western Canada are also doing their own private evaluation of controlled traffic farming.
While improved yield is one of the eventual goals, it isn’t necessarily the first benefit to emerge, says Larocque.
“But if you look back 25 years ago to when direct seeding and zero till was first being tried out, there was a learning curve and in many cases it took time to get the system in place before all benefits, such as increased yield was realized,” he says.
The benefits of CTF
While Peter Gamache, project leader of CTFA, says overall the initiative hasn’t produced any significant yield increases for farmers yet — some minor increases but not statistically significant — he says many are seeing improved efficiencies.
And that is where Larocque says he is seeing differences on his farm. With RTK guidance and tramlines, he can be more efficient with seed placement and other input applications — put the products where you want them and eliminate overlap.
There is also improved field operations efficiency. “The permanent tramlines also allow you to be out doing field operations at times when others can’t be on their fields,” says Larocque. He can travel for seeding and combining operations, for example, at times when the ground in another field might be too soft and wet. Travelling on the tramline surface has also increased fuel-use efficiency by 10 per cent.
While yields may not be increasing yet, Larocque and other producers are seeing improved moisture infiltration after just a few seasons of CTF. Depending on soil type, Larocque says there has been a dramatic improvement in the time it takes water to infiltrate into the soil — an indication of reduced soil bulk density, reduced compaction.
“On our farm the system has also increased harvest efficiency,” says Larocque. By being able to seed beside the standing stubble of the previous crop, he is able to leave taller stubble. “We don’t have to worry about dealing with tall stubble with our drill,” he says. On average he can leave cereal and canola stubble at 14 inches in height. He says if he left a six-inch stubble he could combine about 40 tonnes per hour, compared to a 14- to 16-inch stubble that increases to about 60 tonnes per hour. By putting much less straw through the combine, he estimates he has increased harvest efficiency by about $4,800 per hour — more acres harvested in a day.
“For us the whole system just gives us much more control and improved efficiency,” he says. “It does take time to get set up and it takes some getting use to, but it doesn’t have to involve a lot of expense and after a couple seasons you find it actually makes the whole cropping operation go much faster.”