There may not be any more important decision on the farm each year than choosing what to plant.
Grain prices, agronomic factors and rotation are the key factors, although chasing price trends often wins out. Farmers seem to always want to stick with last year’s home-run money-making crop instead of trying to determine what will be a winner next year.
Looking ahead is a better strategy than chasing last year’s winner, but it’s got to be more than just gut instinct. Often you’ll go to town and hear people say something such as, “There was a glut of durum (or lentils or whatever) last year, so everyone will be avoiding it this year. But that means there’ll be short supplies a year from now, so I’m going plant some anyway.” That’s just guessing. A proper analysis has to be based on what’s actually happening in specific markets in terms of quantity and quality.
Of course, forecasting markets is difficult and things often take an unexpected turn, so many farmers let agronomic factors and their crop rotation schedule dictate their planting choices.
But here again, there’s a tendency to follow the crowd. On our farm, we’ve taken a hard look at the agronomic factors and what works in terms of crop rotation and, as a result, we haven’t grown much for pulses for the past three years, even though we live in prime pulse-growing country. I’d like to share some thoughts on why we’ve gone this route and why it is fine to go against the grain, even when that means backing away from traditional crop rotation strategies.
At this point, I am sure that most people reading this article will either think I’m crazy or under the influence of some wacky idea that was fed to me in university.
After all, pulses are considered an essential part of any crop rotation in the brown soil zone. In our corner of southwest Saskatchewan, drought tolerance and soil nutrition are paramount considerations. In this part of the world, the view is that pulses add so much back into the soil in the form of nutrients, structure and organic material that taking them out of your rotation borders on blasphemy.
But there are other factors to consider. Sure, pulses add nitrogen, but chem-fallow has its own benefits in this regard. Resting the land for a year replenishes soil moisture and allows for a breakdown of organic material that doesn’t occur in continuous cropping scenarios. There are pluses and minuses on each side. However, if you do chemfallow the land and soil tests show you need to add nutrients, you can precisely tailor your fertilizer application to set up next year’s crop.
Taking land out of production for a year also allows you to focus on weeds and ensure the field will be clean in the following year. Control of grasses, thistles and all other annoying weeds is much easier to accomplish on fallow land. And although you might have to make the same number of applications, you can use a straightforward 2,4- D/ glyphosate mix instead of more expensive tank mixes needed for in-crop applications.
Farming is a business, so eventually every decision comes down to dollars and cents, or at least it should. Let’s look at production dollars first and then marketing dollars.
One of the biggest factors that influenced our decision to take pulses out of rotation was the cost of getting into a heavy pulse rotation. We didn’t have a large stock of seed and the price of good seed has really escalated over the last three years. That made pulses a break-even proposition for us.
Of course, if seed costs were lower and projected prices were higher, we might have seeded pulses. But that’s the point — our decision was based on a lot of specifics, not just the cost of seed and expected return but also moisture replenishment, residue breakdown, weed control factors and expected fertilizer costs under both scenarios. Someone who had been growing, say, lentils and had done well with them and had a good stock of quality seed might have come to the opposite conclusion. And that’s fine — this is a case where two opposing strategies can both be correct, depending on the specifics.
THE MARKET FACTOR
The market factor is the second major financial factor that can influence a crop rotation decision. In the past two years, we’ve seen some record-high market prices. But farmers were responding to those high prices, so there was a good chance that the market could have been flooded with high-quality product, prompting a price collapse.
Of course, we got flooding of a different kind this year as the rains came and never stopped. Moisture replenishment quickly ceased to be a goal. But when you have a year like this one, pretty much all your plans get chucked out the window, anyway. In our situation, we didn’t want to be spending a lot to put a pulse crop in the ground and then having to sell into an over-supplied market with sharply falling prices. It was the right choice for our situation at the time.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
So while not planting pulses initially seems like a crazy idea, it really isn’t so clear-cut. A lot of factors come into play.
Over the last three years, we’ve monitored the agronomic situation closely to ensure soil nutrition was maintained at a very high level. All the dollar factors fit into place for our situation. What was a successful marketing strategy for some was a risky one for us. We stuck with what we knew, what was profitable, and avoided overextending our operation.
This can easily change if any of these factors change. That’s why it’s important to make these decisions based on what fits you and your operation, and not just because it’s worked for someone else.