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Alfalfa In Rotation Cuts Costs

It’s been my experience over the last 35 years that an increase in crop prices is usually followed by an increase in input costs, specifically fuel and fertilizer,” says Lindsay Coulthard, manager of the Manitoba Zero Till Research Association (MZTRA). The association’s board decided several years ago that evaluating ways to decrease dependency on both of these inputs would require a long-term commitment to a change in crop rotations.

The addition of short-term alfalfa stands to a six-year crop rotation introduces a livestock component to grain-only systems, adds nitrogen back into the soil and increases soil organic matter, to name only a few benefits. But MZTRA, based at Brandon, Man., wanted to quantify non-monetary benefits in addition to determining economic differences between annual cropping and perennial plus annual cropping systems.

“We’re looking at the sustain-ability of different cropping systems, the effects on the soil and profitability,” Coulthard says.

THE TRIAL

The MZTRA trial took place over eight 40-acre fields, each with a hayed and grazed replication of the alfalfa. The three years of alfalfa, either hayed or grazed, were followed by oats, flax and canola under-seeded to alfalfa. Then the cycle starts again. The annual cropping rotation begins with canola, then a cereal, peas, a different cereal, and finally flax.

When seeding canola and alfalfa together in year six, both seed types go through the same tube and opener. Coulthard says each field they used this practice on, the alfalfa established well and the canola crop didn’t seem to suffer one bit from growing with the alfalfa.

Annual crops were managed according to typical practices in the area. The only difference Coulthard can think of is that they soil test every year and only apply nutrients to match the projected productivity of the land. “That might mean we under-applied typical rates of nitrogen or phosphorus versus farmers doing blanket applications or using averages,” he says.

With the alfalfa split into a hayed and grazed trials, returns from both were averaged out to determine profitability. Coulthard says that profits were always the goal, so they cut the alfalfa a little earlier than most farmers might, trying to capture the highest quality possible. They also spent the first few years fine-tuning the rotational grazing system to maximize gains per acre and reduce bloat risk.

CATTLE ON THE MOVE

Maximizing gains on pasture and avoiding bloat means moving cattle — a lot. Coulthard says that while some assume that having a portion of your acres in pasture lessens labour demands, they found they got the best gains when they moved the cattle daily. “We found that adding grazing or haying into a cropping system does spread out the workload, but doesn’t necessarily decrease total hours of work,” he says.

The trial used price and cost averages — not real time numbers — when determining average input costs and commodity prices. The trial used numbers based on analysis done by Mohammad Khakbazan, agriculture economist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, based at Brandon. Khakbazan has published a paper regarding the

— KEVIN SPEER

“Fertilizer that used to be sold in bags is now sold in mini-bulk totes. Chemicals that used to be sold in five-gallon pails are now sold in 115-litre barrels.” Canola seed will likely follow.

Western Canadian farmers seeded 80 million pounds of canola in 2008 and almost as much in 2009 If all growers used standard 50-pound bags, and almost all of them did, then each year 1.6 million bags are packaged, hauled, and then unpackaged and seeded by Canadian farmers. Would ditching the 50-pound bag in favour of distributing canola seed in bulk be more efficient? Some farmers and retailers in say yes. Others say no.

Distributing canola seed by the truckload is not on the horizon. The quantities of seed required at this time are much too small. Andy Teslia, crop input manager with Providence Grain Solutions outside of Fort Saskatchewan Alta., says that even their biggest client buys just 300 bags or 7.5 tonnes of seed. Brian Knull, Northern Alberta sales rep for Canterra Seeds, agrees it would be a huge challenge logistically because growers order numerous varieties and seed treatments. Knull is aware that some seed companies are working out a way to deliver three to five tonnes of canola seed at a time, but he thinks it will work only if seed companies develop an efficient system for storing and treating seed on-farm as needed.

Currently most seed retailers offer their clients mini-bulk totes that hold 454 kg (1,000 pounds) of canola seed. There is no cost saving and the quality of the seed is not affected either way. Most retailers concur that there isn’t much of a demand for the totes. Kevin Speer, an agronomist with Sturgeon Valley Fertilizers near St. Albert, Alta., thinks the mini-bulk bags are slightly more popular now than when they were first introduced, but the majority of his clients still order by the bag.

Theo Thirsk of Thirsk Seed Farms in Kelsey, Alta., doesn’t know anyone who gets canola seed in mini-bulk totes. He’s not surprised because “canola goes so far per acre. Sixteen bags do a whole quarter.” Richard Mueller of Rick’s Pedigreed Seed in Barrhead, Alta., concurs: “There just isn’t the volume in an area where the average farm is 1,200 to 1,700 acres and that is divided between wheat, oats, canola, and peas.” Kevin Speer guesses that, “If a guy had a 2,000-acre farm, probably 600 acres would be in canola. Then you’d need to see if you want to plant 200 acres of one variety.”

BULK A BIG COMMITMENT

This is a big question for Mike Kalisvaart, who farms about 5,000 acres near Gibbons, Alta., about half of them canola. His seed retailers have never offered him the option of buying bulk canola seed, but he prefers the 50-pound bags anyway. He feels they are more versatile and allow him “to switch things up more easily,” which is important because he plants several different varieties. Buying a bulk tote of canola seed would mean committing to at least 200 acres of the same variety.

Karla Barker, a Viterra sales rep in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., says growers shy away from ordering seed in the mini-bulk totes because they can’t be as precise. A bag represents 10 acres; a tote seeds 200. When 50-pounds bags of seed aren’t used, they can be returned. Producers don’t want to hold on to leftover bulk seed from year to year. Richard Mueller says 50-pound bags enable farmers to coordinate their seeding down to the last acre. For him, a combination of totes and bags might work.

Tim Milligan and his father farm 2,000 acres in the Bon Accord

area. They plant about a third of it to canola. He hasn’t ever bought canola seed in bulk, but is open to trying it. His main concern would be calibrating his equipment, something he usually does with a couple of bags. He thinks calibration might not be a problem for growers with newer equipment. For him, buying a mini-tote along with a couple of 50-pound bags might be a way to get around it.

Calibration is a big problem according to Brad Ewankiw, oilseeds marketing manager with Bayer CropScience. An incorrect setting using up two to three small bags isn’t a huge problem, but “if you throw in a mini-bulk bag and then find out after that you were off by one pound per acre, it’s a big deal.” Ewankiw thinks that even when farmers have equipment that allows them to stop and check the setting, they still find it reassuring to be able to physically see how far three or four bags of seed have gone.

NEW TOTE DESIGN NEEDED

Transporting mini-bulk totes is another issue. Richard Mueller finds that pallets of 50-pounds bags are easier to ship. In the past, he’s had problems with spillage on bulk shipments of grains because the totes have shifted en route. Brad Ewankiw agrees that

mini-bulk bags need to be better designed for secure transport and for stacking at least two high. Currently they do not stack well.

Opinions on handling mini-bulk totes are mixed. On the one hand, some feel it’s easier because farmers don’t have to haul and open so many bags and deal with nuisance strings. But it also comes with challenges. Farmers need the appropriate equipment and Ewankiw thinks this is a big limiting factor: Growers won’t buy mini-bulk totes because they aren’t set up for them. Some farmers opt to auger the seed into the cart because if they pull the string on the tote, the full amount goes in. So then, as Barker says, “putting it through the auger means handling it more anyway.” Teslia expressed concern that augers can crack the seed.

The problem, Teslia says, is that the current design of totes is not ideal. According to him, a new “user-friendly” tote is in development and it will solve the problem of having to empty out the tote all at once. The newly designed tote will be easier to handle, to pick up, and to empty. It’ll be hoppered and have a slide to shut off the flow. It’ll also be re-usable. Even so, the producer will still need a forklift to raise the tote high enough. Kevin Speers thinks that farmers whose fields are close together and who are able to refill their drill in their yard, may prefer using totes, but producers with land “here, there, and everywhere” may find hauling the additional equipment around pretty inconvenient. Karla Barker is clear about it: “It’s a lot easier to throw a 50-pound bag onto the tank.”

Bulk canola seed will come, eventually. Everything in agriculture is being upsized. Farms are bigger, equipment is bigger, and products are bigger. “Fertilizer that used to be sold in bags is now sold in mini-bulk totes,” Speer says. “Chemicals that used to be sold in five-gallon pails are now sold in 115-litre barrels.” Canola seed will likely follow. Once growers have the equipment, then, he feels, the handling is easier. The producers who are set up for mini-bulk totes are the ones who prefer them. And according to Mike Kalisvaart, that’s not a bad thing because “the more options farmers have, the better.”

Patty Milligan lives on a farm near Bon Accord, Alta.

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