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A Flooded Out Year Adds Challenges, Flexibility To 2012 Seeding Plans

This was not exactly a banner year at Crow Lake Farm. Instead of seeding 4,000 acres as planned, my husband Brad Barlow managed to seed the driest 4.8 acres (no, that s not a typo) before he got stuck on top of a hill and had to call a neighbour to pull him out.

Our pedigreed seed farm is twenty-five miles southeast of Weyburn, Sask., squarely in the 2011 flood zone. It rained this spring. And rained. And rained. Now, with our sloughs still overfull and the ground saturated, it s hard to be too optimistic about 2012. With the moisture we have now, if the year brings normal snowfall and spring conditions, our best case scenario will be to seed about 75 per cent of our acres next year. Any above-average snowfall or rain will mean a really big problem.

Even though it s hard to look on the bright side and easy for Brad to make jokes like tell the readers we re seeding the whole thing to wild rice, farmers are eternal optimists. We re forging ahead and making plans for the 2012 spring season.

OPPORTUNITY AMIDST DISASTER BRINGS

There are some upsides to not growing a crop. One is that, when it comes to rotations, we re only limited by the future and not held back by the past. Normally, we run a zero-till operation, so it s important to consider what happened the previous year when choosing a crop. But with an entire farm full of summerfallow this year we won t be constrained by last year s crops, and we ll have fewer worries about disease. The only reason to consider rotations at all is to make sure we re set up nicely for 2013 and beyond.

Another upside to not seeding is not fertilizing. We have enough fertilizer on hand to look after the whole farm at normal rates, so, considering that we re not likely to seed more than three-quarters of our acres, we have plenty of room to increase fertilizer rates if necessary. Because opportunistic weeds sucked up some of the nitrogen that was already in the soil, and because excess moisture can cause denitrification and leaching, we ll take soil samples before we make a final decision, but having the bins full of product will make it much less stressful to decide to use heavier rates.

WHAT TO GROW?

Late-year price swings might mean some last-minute adjustments, but most of our cropping plans are based on what grows well on our land. We ll be growing mostly canola and durum, with a quarter-section of soybeans, just to keep things interesting. Especially for pedigreed seed growers, weed control is a major concern when it comes to agronomic and cropping decisions. For example, the main reason we won t plant lentils or peas this year is that we ve finally managed to get good control of kochia. We don t want to give them any chance to gain traction. Spring wheat also doesn t make the crop-planning cut, as it will volunteer as a weed in future durum crops and usually doesn t pay as well.

We may not be locked in by rotation constraints, but we are locked into some seed variety decisions we made last year. Some of our canola retailers took our 2011 seed back and gave us a credit that we can use any way we like. Others took the seed back for re-testing, but require us to take that same variety in 2012. We ve also had to pre-pay the Technical Use Agreement for the Roundup Ready seed we d hoped to seed in 2011. Of course, we re grateful that the retailers took returns at all, but this does give us a bit less flexibility than usual when it comes to variety selection.

This flood problem has caused another snag when it comes to choosing varieties. Usually we can talk to the neighbours about how new varieties are performing and watch new varieties grow in fields right next to ours. This year, with barely any crops worth looking at within 25 miles of our farm, we ll have to rely more on test results and experiences further away, where soil and weather conditions might be quite different.

We hope to be seeding three newer varieties of durum in the spring of 2012, all to be sold as pedigreed seed. Farmers are always optimistic: While I was wondering how to write an article about seeding into a potential flood and Brad was joking about wild rice, two tridem truckloads of AC Eurostar durum were being unloaded in the bins at the back of our yard.

Soybeans are still relatively new in our area of Saskatchewan. We had a mediocre experience with a small field of soybeans three years ago (cool summer weather lowered yields). We had (again, with optimism) planned to give soybeans another try in 2011. Several of our neighbours had the same idea, but the rain kept them out of the field too. Since we have a credit with our retailer and since Brad believes that, in a normal year (if such a year exists), the newer varieties of Roundup Ready soybeans should make a good agronomic fit in our area, we re planning to seed soybeans in 2012.

LAND MANAGEMENT

With all the standing water in our area, by the time it was possible for anyone to get into their fields, the weeds had a good head start. We re seeing all kinds of approaches to weed management. Spraying, cultivating, discing, new vertical tillage machines and even sheer denial.

All of this excess moisture has forced Brad into a whole new mindset. He says I fought to get the land in shape for zero-till to conserve moisture. Now I m trying to dry the land out. Continuous cropping has worked so well, I really don t want to work everything up, but I don t want to leave standing stubble to catch even more snow over the winter.

Brad s taking a three-step approach. He s sprayed everything and used a tandem-disc. The third step included purchasing a new Degelman heavy harrow. It s bigger than the cultivator (82 feet) so won t need as many passes and we won t have to worry about high-priced cultivator shovels. Harrowing should leave the ground ready for shallow-seeded crops next spring. The current plan is to get every field into shape with the heavy harrow before the end of October.

This change of mindset when it comes to weed management has given us a new attitude towards long-term commitments. After this experience, we would have to think twice before we signed a Carbon Tax Credit program that paid us to zero-till. If we d been locked into a contract that paid a relatively small amount but meant that we couldn t dry out our fields as much as possible, this one-year moisture problem (we hope!) could be stretched out into two years, or possibly a court case.

STAY FLEXIBLE

The 2011 flood gave us a good chance to find water runs we didn t know existed, to see all sorts of new weed varieties, to canoe in our backyard, and to hear people say things like you d never believe it, but I saw water running uphill this year. But the most important thing it s taught us is that long term plans are always meant to be revised.

We never could have foreseen that a heavy harrow bar would suddenly leap to the top of our machinery purchase plan. Our cash flow forecasts definitely didn t include $0.00 for 2011 crop sales, and we never would have guessed that we d be so quick to abandon zero-till practices. We aren t going to give up on long-term plans; it s hard to get anywhere without a destination in mind. But sometimes, the only choice is to throw the map out the window and take the best looking road.

LeeannMinoguewritesfromGriffin,Sask., andshouldbegivenanall-inclusivevacation forsmilingthroughwhathastobeoneofthe toughestgrowingseasonsever

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