Remember the mouldboard plough? There was a time when it was the fall tillage implement of choice in many parts of the Canadian Prairies. It buried trash. It worked even when the soil was on the wet side. It left the soil “black” so that it would warm up faster in the spring and emerging crops got the benefit of a bit more retained heat on cold May and early June nights when the mercury dipped below freezing.
Well, grain producers aren’t yet pulling their parents’ ploughs out of shelterbelts or even putting in orders for fancy new ones at their local implement dealers. However, there are pockets — like in the eastern Prairies, from the Manitoba/ Ontario border through to northeastern Saskatchewan — where some farmers are giving increased fall tillage a second look, especially in light of a series of wet springs that have amplified the need to get on the land as early as possible.
Bernie Wiens farms with his brothers David and Gerry, just south of St. Adolphe, a small community along the 75 highway that follows the Red River from Winnipeg to the U. S. border. They manage about 3,000 acres of canola, soybeans, wheat, barley and corn. A couple of years ago, they picked up a 30-foot Salford Residue Tillage Specialist (RTS), mostly to help them deal with the residue from their corn fields.
The RTS is not a primary tillage implement. It is not dragged through the soil so much as it rolls over it. It has four rows of 20-inch wavy or corrugated coulters followed by three rows of 20-inch coil tine harrows. The last component of the RTS is a 14-inch rolling basket that pulverizes the heavy clay soils of the Red River Valley and leaves what Wiens says is as “close to a perfect seedbed as we can get.”
As a result, the RTS is getting a lot more use on the Wiens’ farm than originally planned.
“We want the RTS to be the final pass we make over all of our acres in the fall,” Wiens says. “Moisture is not a concern here and we’re not trying to trap snow over the winter. And we don’t want to be doing any tillage in the spring either. With the RTS, our fields warm up more quickly in the spring and we get excellent soil-to-seed contact.”
THE LEARNING CURVE
Wiens says, however, that the jury is still out on how to best use the RTS in their particular situation.
“There are three of us,” he says, referring to himself and his two brothers, “and each of us has a different take on how to get the most value from this implement.”
For example, they have found that the RTS does a really good job as a first pass on cereal stubble where the straw has been chopped, especially in wet conditions. A heavy harrow, Wiens says, works fine when the weather is hot and dry, but in the cool, moist conditions they are often dealing with in the fall, the RTS does a much better job of breaking down residue by aggressively tossing dirt around and mixing it with the straw and stubble. This also means that the RTS can be used on fall mornings when the stubble is wet with dew and the farm is waiting for the crops to dry.
“For the RTS to do its job properly, you need to be going fast enough to really throw some dirt,” Wiens explains. “The optimum speed is about 10 miles per hour. It’s not a hard pull but you still need about 10 horsepower per foot of implement.”
So while they have no plans of parting with their heavy harrows just yet, Wiens does foresee that there will be years — like the fall of 2009 — when they do not leave the yard and the RTS is not only the last pass they make in the fall but also the first, at least on land where there is a fair amount of residue. In that case, they would probably end up going with three passes: a first one with the RTS, a second with a deep tiller or heavy-duty cultivator to incorporate the crop residue, followed by a final pass with the RTS.
INTEREST ON THE RISE
Interest in implements like the Salford RTS is on the rise, according to Jake Driedger at Altona Farm Service, on the southern fringe of the Red River Valley. He knows of farmers like the Wiens brothers who are using it as a fall-tillage implement, especially in corn, and others who will run it over their land in the spring. The cost of a new RTS, he says, is about $85,000 for a 41-foot unit.
In northeastern Saskatchewan, farmers are contemplating a move away from the zero-till system that had become the norm. The events of the past several years are certainly giving pause to Dwayne Anderson, who farms about 3,300 acres in the Rose Valley area. This past spring he only managed to plant about one-fifth of his total land base. This comes on the heels of the 2006 crop year where about 20 per cent of his acres went unseeded. Even 2007 proved to be a challenge, he recounts — many fields that were only chemfallowed and that were never opened up with tillage in 2006 ended up going unseeded again the following year.
“We’re seeing the same pattern this year,” Anderson says, “I have neighbours who are doing some fall tillage to apply anhydrous. That land seemed to be ready just a little bit earlier and that enabled them to get more of their land seeded.”
It is no wonder, then, that Anderson is preoccupied with getting all of his unseeded land worked at some point before freeze-up something he has been unable to do so far. As well, he is considering doing more fall tillage on his seeded land and not just heavy-harrowing as he has done in the past.
He is also concerned with having a bit more black ground around emerging canola plants in the spring. He has seen a marked difference in the ability of fledgling canola crops to survive sub-zero temperatures when the stubble from the previous year’s crop has been eliminated to a greater extent than what zero till practices will normally provide.
Anderson says that if more fall tillage happens on his farm, it probably won’t be with tandem disks or some of the new residue management implements that are being used elsewhere. “The implement of choice,” he says, “is the heavy-duty cultivator. We have some pockets that are quite stony around here. So it’s probably best-suited for the job.”
Choice of shovels is another important consideration. While wider shovels provide more mixing action, spikes will enable greater penetration and make it possible to go in wetter conditions.
Either way, Anderson fully expects to see more cultivators this fall and in the future, especially if Mother Nature continues to plague his area and the rest of the Eastern Prairies with too much moisture. While zero till remains desirable from many points of view, grain producers have to adapt, as they always have, to changing conditions.