Kurt and Hans Wanner farm in northern Switzerland along the German border. They consistently produce eight tonnes of wheat per hectare. The European average is six to eight tonnes per hectare, but some produce 10. The Canadian average for 2011 was 2.9 tonnes per hectare. Why do Europeans consistently out-produce the Canadians?
Moisture and growing season
In the 1960s, the European average wasn’t much above that of Canada’s now — 3.2 to 3.6 tonnes per hectare.
Johann von Rennenkampff, who immigrated to Westlock, Alberta from Germany more than 30 years ago, attributes the increase in wheat yields in Europe to the arrival of effective fungicides in the 1970s. Much of Europe has much more precipitation than the Canadian Prairies, so disease pressure is higher.
The Wanners’ farm is in a drier corner of Europe and gets 800-900 millimetres of precipitation per year. Regina, Sask.’s average precipitation is 364 mm. Westlock, Alta., receives an average of 520 mm per year. Those numbers don’t just say something about disease pressure, but about yield potential.
“England and northern Germany have very consistent moisture,” von Rennenkampff says. Those are the areas in Europe with the highest yields. It’s not just the moisture. It’s the length of the growing season. Wanners seed their first wheat in beginning of October. “It gets a good start and can root well,” Kurt says. By the time the Swiss winter arrives in December, the crop is an even thick thatch of green. By March, it’s starting to grow again and it’s ready to harvest end of July.
Winter cereals yield higher. Wanner maintains that a winter wheat variety produces at least 20 per cent more than spring wheat.
In Alberta, Von Rennenkampff seeds his wheat at the beginning of May. The ground might still be cold. Hopefully he has good spring moisture and it rains. “The time isn’t long enough in Western Canada,” von Rennenkampff says. “We only have 100 days to grow a crop.” Most of the time, the first hard frost holds off to end of September. Sometimes it comes already end of August.
“The higher the yield, the more fungicides we use, the later the harvest,” Wanner says. It’s okay to have a later harvest in Europe. But a late harvest in western Canada can mean the crop is frozen before it’s off.
A longer growing season and more consistent moisture encourage European grain farmers to increase inputs. In Switzerland, before seeding, the Wanners will apply manure on stubble. Depending on rotations and rainfall, they may seed a green manure crop first. After the wheat emerges, when they can see the tram lines, they apply a soil-based herbicide.
At the beginning of the growing season the next spring, sometime in March, Wanners will apply a chemical fertilizer, using 50 to 60 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare. Unless the weather is too dry, they’ll apply a second top-dressing before the crop heads out, sometimes using liquid manure or another 30 to 40 kilograms of nitrogen hectare. This second top-dressing is what really makes the quality, gives that extra protein they are looking for as hog feed.
Depending on how well fall herbicides worked, Wanners may apply a second application of herbicides with a plant growth regulator in April or May. The plant growth regulator is important in heavy crops for maximum stem strength and to prevent lodging. They usually only spray a fungicide once — at the flag leaf stage — mostly to prevent fusarium and improve kernel quality. Wanner says many neighbouring farmers use more inputs than he does.
Many western Canadian farmers, especially those in higher rainfall areas, are beginning to change their agronomic practices. Von Rennenkampff produces around five to 5.5 tonnes of wheat per hectare, and probably uses more fertilizer than the average Canadian farmer. Farmers in the area have begun making consistent use of fungicides to control disease. Like Wanner says, that affects the time of harvest. Healthier crops live longer. That’s good if the season is long, but can be cutting it dangerously close to the edge in an area like Westlock.
Von Rennenkampff doesn’t top-dress his wheat. “If moisture isn’t consistent, it is lost,” he says. He’ll spray the crop with a herbicide end of May or early June, and use a fungicide at the flag leaf stage if he thinks it’s necessary.
Better agronomics and varieties are closing the gap between European and Canadian farmers. But Canadians can’t shorten winter shorter or order more rain. What’s a Prairie farmer to do? †