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Controlled traffic farming

As machinery gets bigger, that extra weight seems to take a toll on crop growth. Controlled traffic farming may offer a solution

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From Grainews, Feb. 4, 2014, page 8: Controlled traffic farming uses tramlines to separate crop production zones and traffic lanes, Peter Gamache explains. “In practice, that means all implements have a particular span or multiples of (the tramline) and all wheel tracks are confined to specific traffic lanes.”

Gamache led a three-year project examining the effects and economics of tramlines on five different sites. The project was set to wrap in December 2013, but Gamache hopes to continue the research to get a wider range of weather conditions and study longer-term effects on soil.

Benefits of controlled traffic farming

Gamache says they’re seeing consistent signs of better water infiltration rates, and he thinks soils will keep responding to traffic removal and compaction. “So that’s a plus because it can handle some of those extremes better. And over time we hope to see even just an ability to hold water better as well.”

Tramlines cut overlaps and increase field efficiencies, Gamache says. Farmers that have more than one seeder or combine have an easier time when they move to another field because the data is already in the guidance and yield maps.

“So you move into the field, and — Bang! — you’re up and running because everyone really knows what they need to do. They know what swath to take, what direction to travel, all those kinds of things.”

Traction is better on tramlines as well, helping farmers deal with adverse conditions. Some farmers have been able to get into the field a day or two earlier than neighbours during spring seeding, Gamache says.

The farmers working with Gamache are using Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS. The system’s enhanced accuracy opens the door to more reliable on-farm research. “You know you’re not sort of missing a foot or two or three here because you’re wandering around the field or whatever. Plus you don’t have the unknown effect of random traffic.”

Gamache isn’t the only one who sees benefits for on-farm research.

“They make on-farm research a breeze because then you just know which tramline your plots are in. You just follow them out and then you can get your protein sample or whatever you want to do on that plot,” says Josh Fankhauser, who has a mixed farm near Claresholm, Alta.

Fankhauser and his family had about 7,000 acres of dryland and irrigation under controlled traffic this year. He’s used a penetrometer to test for soil compaction and compaction isn’t a problem on his farm. Fankhauser attributes this to regular Chinooks. “So we get a lot of frost action in the shadow of the foothills here where in a lot of other regions they might not.”

Fankhauser was inspired by his European brother-in-law, who has been using tramlines for years to avoid crop trampling. Crop trampling was an issue on Fankhauser’s farm, too.

“On one pivot, I was on a field… eight times last year and eight times again this year. Now I’m always driving in the same track and I never worry about (crop loss).”

Tramlines also allow Fankhauser to do inter-row seeding and to continue spraying even if the GPS goes down.

Fankhauser stuck with a John Deere 2600 display this year, which uses WAAS and GLONASS signals for guidance. Overall the system works well, especially for spraying. “(Readjusting) doesn’t seem to be a big deal unless you come back two or three days later. Then it matters. It seems you adjust once, then you do the field, then you leave.”

Fankhauser doesn’t have his yield maps back yet, but he thinks he’s getting more yield because he’s applying the right rates at the right time, and cutting crop damage.

He adds it makes decision making easier. “If you’re wondering about a fungicide application or whatever, you used to have to pencil in the cost of trampling into that.”

Gamache’s project analyzed the economics of controlled traffic farming, based on entire plot yields. Plots ranged from 40 acres to over 300 acres, and included a check. Gamache and his team used the present value of gross margins to measure the net benefits of controlled traffic farming.

In 2012, three out of five sites showed a net economic benefit to the tramlines. One site was a negative, and in one, they didn’t have a check, so there was no way to compare. The net benefit ranges from $25 to $80 per acre.

In the site with the negative response, Gamache later realized they had unintentionally placed the check in a high-yielding part of the field. He expects to see more negative values from that field, but he wants to see if the controlled traffic zone of the field improves relative to the high-yielding check.

Practical considerations

Fankhauser says machinery operators needed a little bit of training, but it worked well once they were trained.

He also had to keep an eye on the tramline kits to keep them running. “There’s little motors and little moving doo-dads that you’re always trying to keep clean. Tramlines don’t like peas. I learned that. The tramline kit, it just seizes up as soon as you start running peas through.”

Tramlines up the management and pre-planning, Gamache says. Matching equipment widths to the tramline width is one aspect of that. “You need ratios of either two to one or three to one,” says Gamache.

Gamache says the biggest concern he hears from farmers is that they might be stuck with a 30-foot drill. In Gamache’s project, one farmer now uses a 60-foot drill, while another will purchase an 80-foot drill to go with his 40-foot header.

Gamache cautions that although implements might be advertised as a specific width, they do sometimes come up short. “Part of the thing is you’ve got to go out and actually measure rather than taking the dealer’s or the manufacturer’s word for it.”

For farmers new to tramlining, Fankhauser suggests starting with the sprayer because it does the most applications.

If sprayers or seeders aren’t calibrated properly, they won’t drive perfectly straight, making the tramlines less effective, Fankhauser adds.

In the planning stage, farmers should also think about water drainage and how to travel most efficiently through the field, Gamache says.

Residue management is also a challenge.

“When you’re in a tramline system, it kind of ups the ante more because for the most part you’re always traveling in exactly the same place, you’re spreading exactly the same way every year. You’re not going to be harrowing at a 45 degree angle,” says Gamache.

Thirty-foot header widths are usually manageable when it comes to residue management, Gamache says, but 40 feet is more difficult.

Farmers are also concerned about pulling large machinery without dual tires on tractors, Gamache says. In his project, three out of five farmers have switched to tracked machines.

Fankhauser uses wide tires in the spring while seeding, and switches to narrow tires later in the year.

When setting guidance lines, Fankhauser likes to use A-plus headings, such as A-plus zero or A-plus 90, straight north-south or east-west. “Because then, if something happens and your AB lines that you have saved in your computer gets lost or something doesn’t transfer right, all you have to do is pull into the field, park your machine on your tramline… and tell it to make new lines from wherever you’re sitting at either zero or 90 degrees, and you go.”

Farmers also ask Gamache how well the tramlines hold up under all the traffic. The tramlines the sprayer travels in are more likely to punch out or rut. “It’s usually that wet spot or low area. So we know we’re going to have to come in and renovate those.”

Farmers can phase in to controlled traffic systems. And if farmers partially transition to a controlled traffic system, they can still function with the same equipment in a random system, Gamache says.

Guidance systems are already moving farmers towards controlled traffic systems, Gamache points out. “The step into controlled traffic isn’t that huge.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.



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