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Are Crop Enhancement Products Worth The Cost?

At least some western Canadian farmers are viewing an ever-increasing buffet of micronutrient blends, foliar sprays and other soil and plant enhancement products with some caution, if not skepticism.

Several producers contacted at random for thoughts on new crop production aids for this issue of Farmer Panel say either they haven’t tried them, or are still researching the merits of different products.

The question about use of new products comes as more companies are appearing at trade shows, field days and other farm meetings with new ideas for improving crop yield. Most are nutrient related products that either augment or replace a portion of a standard nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur fertility program. Depending on the product, they can be applied in the soil, on the seed or as an in-crop foliar spray.

The products supposedly benefit crop production in one of three categories. There are crop nutrient products such as micronutrient packages; there are activators which trigger enzymes and hormones so the seedling or plant can make better use of the available nutrients; and there are biologicals that may supply or stimulate microbial activity in the soil to help the crop with nutrient uptake.

Do they work? The product reps have their research and farmer testimonials supporting the products, while some independent researchers say there is little real evidence these products are necessary or do what they say. What’s more, many products have yet to be evaluated by a third-party at all. It puts farmers in a tough spot, and means you have to figure it out for yourself. Here is what this issue’s Farmer Panel had to say about this new production technology.

EDWARD COOK DUGALD, MAN.

Edward Cook is conducting his own on-farm trials to see if a starter liquid phosphate product — Alpine — makes any difference in his corn and soybean crops.

There have been so many years of wet conditions on his farm, just east of Winnipeg, he says it has been difficult to draw any conclusions.

“I’m not sure if it works,” he says. “I have tried field-scale trials for the past three years and really haven’t seen any evidence that it makes a difference. But in this area we have excess moisture eight out of 10 years so that may complicate the matter.”

Alpine, which has been around for several years, is available in a range of products that can be used as an in-row seed starter product or applied later as a foliar spray. Depending on the product it can include some micronutrients, or simply supply mostly phosphate such as 7-22-4.

Cook has treated as much as 300 acres with the product, and he’s also had situations at seeding where he has run out of Alpine and switched to a conventional liquid ammonium phosphate 10-34-0 product.

“That happened last year in both corn and soybeans where I ran out of one and started using the other on the same pass with the planter, but I really couldn’t see any difference between the two treatments,” he says.

“With many of these products, it isn’t that I doubt their research, but the big question I have to ask is ‘that may be fine in one location, but how does it work in my area, on my farm, with my soil type and my moisture conditions?’, says Cook. “It is possible that something that does really well near Regina could be a disaster on my farm.”

Cook says he will do more Alpine trials again in 2011 to see if there is a response.

He is a strong advocate of inoculants such as rhizobium inoculant applied to soybeans to fix nitrogen in the soil. It didn’t appear there was any of the natural rhizobia in soils in his area but feels the population is starting to build. He says there is significant difference between crops that are inoculated or not inoculated, and even a noticeable difference between seeds that have only been inoculated once and those treated twice.

DARIN EGERT CANDO, SASK.

When thinking about new crop production aids, “snake oil” is one term that pops into Darin Egert’s mind, but he’s quick to add that not all products should be painted with this negative brush.

“I think there have been some products over the years that just don’t work,” says the northwest Saskatchewan farmer. “One that I don’t feel was ever proven to work was a pod sealer for canola. But I think when you look at the claims made by many new products you have to take them with a grain of salt.”

When considering new products he does look for any evaluation done by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Saskatchewan Ministry Agriculture. And Egert, who farms at Cando near North Battleford, also believes in on-farm product testing. He is a member of the Western Applied Research Association (WARK), a farmer-run organization that does field-scale evaluations on new products and farming practices.

“And it is important to do your own on-farm trials, too,” he says. “Different times we have tried something new, just by creating test strips in a field. You look at those and if nothing really jumps out as making a difference, you probably don’t try it any further.”

TROY JONES KINISTINO, SASK.

Troy Jones says both time and money factors have kept him from trying some of the newer crop fertility products on the market.

“First of all when I look at some of these new products I think it looks like a lot of money,” says Jones, who farms at Kinistino, between Prince Albert and Melfort, Sask. “I’m sure some of them have value, but it may take a lot of effort to get that value.

“You’re farming a fair number of acres, you need to move fast, you’re in high gear for hard production, so I really don’t have time to stop and figure out how this works on my farm,” he says. “If you have a product representative or a local dealer who can show you how this fits with our system, that is great, but for the average person it is a lot of work.”

Jones says it isn’t a question of believing the product research and claims, “but sometimes it looks like you have to spend $3 to make $4 and if the weather doesn’t co-operate then you have spent $3 for nothing. I use a lot of seed treatments to control disease and insects in the crop and that has had a benefit, but with some of these other products you have to have the right year and the if the crop looks good, it may be worth a try, but then it’s a matter of finding the time.”

KRIS MAYERLE TISDALE, SASKATCHEWAN

Kris Mayerle is interested in trying new products on his northeast Saskatchewan farm, as long as the product appears to have some value, and also if it has received some type of third-party, independent endorsement.

Mayerle, who along with family members, crops about 16,000 acres near Tisdale, says they do use seed treatments to protect seedlings against disease and insects, as well as fungicides to control disease in-crop.

“We’ve seen the value in these types of products,” he says. “This past year was a good example of where we used fungicides on part of the crop, and it would probably have been a good year to do the whole farm.

“When it comes to something like micronutrients we rely mostly on the soil test. If the soil test shows a field it short of some micronutrient, like boron or copper, we do apply it but then it is also important to leave a check strip to see if it works.”

With other products he feels it important to talk to a local agrologist about whether the treatment would have some value, and then perhaps try it on a small scale to make an evaluation.

While the Mayerles have been some of the first in their area to try new products, he does like to see a third-party evaluation by the federal or provincial government, “or even just talk to another farmer who has used the product for their opinion.”

“There are definitely more of these new products on the market, and sometimes the company is willing to come out and set up a demonstration which helps to reduce costs, while giving you a better idea of how it works.”

NEIL BOYD FAIRVIEW, ALTA.

Neil Boyd follows somewhat of an “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” type of attitude when he looks at new products or treatments for his Alberta Peace River region farm.

“I probably look at things a bit different than most,” says Boyd who produces peas, wheat, barley and oats on his farm southwest of Fairview. “I use a lot of legumes in rotation, and I don’t use a lot of extra products. Some probably do have value, which then makes you ask, ‘well then, why don’t you use them?’” I guess I just don’t see the need.”

By using pulse crops and following a proper rotation, Boyd says he is able to reduce fertilizer costs and reduce the need for fungicides and insecticides.

“I listen to the presentations on these new products and I am fairly confident they do work, to an extent,” he says. “One is going to increase yields by 10 percent and another by 15 percent, so it sounds as if you used all of them pretty soon your yields would be 150 per cent.

“I follow a program now where my yields are fairly stable, so if I added some different products to improve yields, that just adds to my cost and increases my risk. I stick with what I am doing because it brings my risk down. If I don’t spend the money my risk is less.”

DON BOLES THREE HILLS, ALTA.

Don Boles agrees there is more of these new products being demonstrated at trade shows and field days, but admits “I take all with a large grain of salt,” he says.

“I do my own research into these products and check to see if they have some value, but generally I don’t try them. If it see something that makes sense and appears to work, I would try it. But I do my own research first.”

Boles, who produces grains and oilseeds at Three Hills, Alta., north of Calgary, says he likes to see new products or farming practices evaluated by an independent body such as Alberta Agriculture or Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. And unfortunately with government cutbacks in recent years, he says, much less of this basic research and evaluation is being done.

“It is along the lines of the regional canola trials,” he says. “At one time new varieties would come along and you could look at several years of station data before making a decision. We don’t have these regional trials anymore, and it wasn’t long ago there was a new canola variety registered and it only had one or two years of station data. This particular variety ended up being a dud, but it got registered with very little information to support it.”

“These new products come along and often the research seems pretty selective, and farmer testimonials are based on some isolated data or experience. Some of these new products seem to align themselves with certain companies that supply agronomic services and when I see that I have to wonder does the product really work, or it is just another product they can make money from.

“As farmers we have to really check into these products and not just use them blindly, “ says Boles. “It is really a loss to farmers not to have that independent, public evaluation.”

LeeHartisafieldeditorforGrainewsin Calgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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