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Farmer Panel: Tillage creeps back in to repair water damage

Farmers haven’t gone wild buying new equipment for the 2012 cropping season, according to those contacted for this January farmer panel.

There have been some new purchases to improve farm efficiencies. And depending on the success of the 2011 crop, some purchases have been delayed, or are still under consideration. But all farmers contacted have had to use some degree of tillage to repair damage caused to fields during two or three successive years of wet seeding and growing conditions. One farmer was able to get back to conventional full-tillage treatments as fields dried out, and a long-time zero-till farmer had to drag long-retired tillage equipment out to the field to repair damaged caused by standing water.

Here’s what the farmer panel members had to say:

Edward Cook Dugald, Man.

With an overall below average crop in 2011, Edward Cook shelved plans to upgrade one of the tractors on his Manitoba farm this past fall. The volatile weather over the past growing seasons emphasized the need for tillage.

“I don’t know if we did anything different, tillage wise. All we did was more of it,” says Cook, who farms at Dugald, Man., east of Winnipeg. “It was actually dry enough this fall that we could get our tillage done. In the past two or three years it’s been so wet in the fall that we haven’t done as much as we’d like.”

Cook, who farms in an area where moisture creates a different kind of problem than many other parts of the prairies, says their main goal with tillage is to get rid of as much moisture as possible.

“I would love to be able to direct seed my crop. I’m sure my fuel bill would change drastically,” says Cook who produces grains, oilseeds, pulse crops and corn. “But in this area there’s almost a 90 per cent certainty that if you left standing stubble over winter, that would be a field you couldn’t seed next spring.”

Cook’s usual practice is to make two deep tillage passes and one heavy harrow pass after harvest to work in crop residue and help soil dry out. In a couple of previous years, field conditions were such that often only one tillage pass was possible.

“We weren’t able to get the fields worked the way they should have been those years,” he says. “The 2011 spring started out wet, and then it turned dry — it just stopped raining. I don’t think the crop ever ran out of moisture. In fact in mid-August the surface was dry, but there was plenty of moisture just four inches down.”

The dry conditions allowed him to work fields with a John Deere 680 deep tillage tool, on 12-inch spacings, which can be outfitted with anywhere from four- to 12-inch wide shovels, depending on soil type and the job.

“We wanted to dry out the soil and level things up,” he says. “On our soybean fields, for example, it was too wet to get them rolled in the spring so the field had all these two-inch deep pockets where mud had balled up during seeding operations. We wanted to level those all out.”

And on some timothy grass seed land he broke up, it took seven tillage passes to get the field ready for seeding and level out some 12-inch deep ruts that had been created over the past couple of seasons.

Cook wrapped up the 2011 cropping season with 45 per cent of his land already seeded to winter wheat and fall rye. He usually grows some winter wheat but hasn’t had fall rye in rotation for some time. He planted it on spring wheat stubble because it is less susceptible to fusarium head blight. Seeding winter crops helps spread out his risk.

Brad Crammond Sidney, Man.

Brad Crammond did some tillage on his southern Manitoba farm this past fall. “Not because we wanted to,” but because it was necessary to clean up weeds in some wet areas that didn’t get seeded last spring, and he has a new air seeding system on his wish list for later in 2012.

Crammond, who crops about 1,200 acres east of Brandon, says switching to the new air seeding system will move him into a direct seeding operation and away from the minimum till system he has now.

“With our current system we knife in anhydrous ammonia in the fall,” says Crammond. “We try to minimize the soil disturbance but there is some. I think over the next couple years I’ll also be cropping more acres as family members retire, so I want to move to a one-pass system that’s more efficient and easier to manage.”

Unlike farmers in some parts of Manitoba, most years Crammond’s limiting factor on yields is the lack of moisture, so anything he can do to conserve moisture is a benefit. “We’re usually dry here, but the last three years have been really wet. The other reason I want to go to a one-pass seeding system is because in these wet years, I feel we’ve had an unacceptable amount of nitrogen loss due to leaching. So with a one-pass system, using a granular herbicide, everything goes on with the seed, reducing the risk of nitrogen leaching in the fall and winter.”

He’s looking for a new air seeding system either with mid-row banders or fertilizer sidebanding, that is also equipped with variable rate fertilizer and seeding technology.

“I do my own version of variable rate fertilizer application now just by adjusting the controller when applying anhydrous ammonia,” he says. “It’s not very accurate but I apply more or less where I think it will do the most good. It certainly doesn’t give you the confidence you’d get with an actual computer controlled prescription.

“I farm just on the edge of a potato growing region. Those guys have been using variable rate for the past six or seven years and it is a no-brainer. I believe in the value of variable rate application. It may not save you fertilizer dollars but it should improve yields. Why put 80 pounds of nitrogen on an area of a field you know will only produce 20 bushels of wheat? The idea is to put the fertilizer where it will do the most good.”

Crammond plans to use his Bourgault air seeding system one more season this spring. And he still has some anhydrous ammonia to apply this spring on flax fields that were just too dry and hard for fertilizer application last fall.

Craig Shaw Lacombe, Alta.

Even though he is a long time direct seeding operator, Craig Shaw had to pull out some tillage equipment this fall to repair ruts in several of his fields after another wet growing season.

And he also applied anhydrous ammonia this fall to fields that will be seeded to canola next spring, for a couple of reasons. On one hand, it takes some of the pressure off the spring seeding window, which seems to have been getting narrower the last few years. And that soil disturbance in the fall blackens a bit of the soil, and helps it warm up a little faster in the spring.

“We seem to be having more open falls and cooler springs, which means seeding is running a bit later in recent years,” says Shaw. “So we felt if we got some of the fertilizer on in the fall it lightens up the spring workload and prepares the soil a bit.”

He is considering a new seeding system, which could get him back to a one-pass seeding operation, particularly for canola and perhaps pulses.

“I’ve been grappling with the idea of getting a corn planter for canola,” says Shaw. “I have talked to some farmers who have used them and along with being very accurate in seed placement, they can really help to reduce seeding costs.”

Shaw says with the accuracy of a corn planter, he’s heard the canola seeding rate can be reduced to two pounds per acre, on 15-inch row spacing. With a more conventional precision placement air seeder, that rate might be 3.5 pounds per acre, and with a conventional air seeding system like he has, it is more like five pounds per acre.

“If canola seed is $10 per pound, and you can cut the seeding rate by three pounds per acre, that’s a $30 savings per acre, which can quickly cover the cost of the planter,” he says. “With the accuracy of planting and better germination, I’ve heard even at the lower rate you can get a four to six bushel yield advantage too.

“It is something I have to investigate further, but the numbers make it sound worth considering.” While Shaw would use the corn planter primarily for canola, it could also be used to seed pulse crops such as peas and fababeans, and there may also be an opportunity to rent it out or do custom corn seeding.

Not only is Shaw interested in the efficiencies of a zero-till seeding system, he’s also keen on reducing soil compaction on his farm. In 2011 he participated in the first year of a three-year provincial study looking at the benefits of controlled traffic farming (CTF).

He has devoted 160 acres of his farm as a CTF research plot — half of the land is farmed with all field traffic for seeding, spraying and harvesting restricted to the same wheel marks (tramlines) on 30-foot spacing, and the other 80 acres of the field being farmed conventionally.

“That is the study area, but since we already had equipment configured on 10-foot wheel centres and 30-foot wide increments in width, we decided we might as well use it other fields too,” he says. So he is farming another 350 acres of his 2,600 acre farm with the CTF method as well.

The idea is to restrict all field operations to the same wheel tramlines. The tractor and drill have a 10-foot wide wheel base, the drill is 30-feet wide, the combine has a 30-foot header and 10-foot wheel base, and the sprayer has a 10-foot wheel base and a 90-foot boom.

He uses the same wheel tracks for each operation and at harvest, the combine empties into trucks at the headlands. The idea of restricting traffic to these tramlines is to reduce the soil compaction caused by random traffic over a field. And, the hard surface of the tramline tracks improves operation efficiency.

“One year is not enough to draw firm conclusions, but I could certainly tell in a year like this when field conditions were so wet, that on those fields where we were using CTF we were creating the ruts like we did on other parts of the farm,” says Shaw.

Dallas Leduc Glentworth, Sask.

Dallas Leduc upgraded his seeding equipment in 2011 with a new Seed Master air drill which nearly doubled the width of his previous drill, and last fall he bought a pull-type land leveler blade to help repair erosion damage on his south-central Saskatchewan farm.

Leduc switched from a 48-foot wide Seed Hawk drill to a 70-foot Seed Master drill with one-half inch wide, low disturbance openers. “We’re farming more acres and I needed more capacity,” says Leduc. “Price was one factor, but I also liked the ultra-pro canola metering system, which is very accurate. I can reduce my seeding rate by 1.5 pounds per acre which is about a $15 per acre savings.”

He is using the 16-foot wide leveler blade to repair erosion ditches which have appeared in some fields on his 7,000 acre farm over the past couple years.

“We are a zero-till operation and we leave all stubble on the field, but some of this land just can’t handle 40 inches of rain over a couple years, especially when you get three to four inches over a few days,” says Leduc.

“The worst seemed to happen right after seeding, before the crop really got growing. We would even double seed these areas just to ensure there would be a good root system to hold the soil. But then we’d get these heavy downpours and there would be a small stretch of erosion, but then with each heavy rain it got worse.”

Leduc says he has several fields where the erosion trenches are about one foot wide and two feet deep and they stretch for about half a mile. The trenches are too deep to work through. He plans to use the leveler to fill the washouts and contour the land and get it re-seeded.

He also added a third semi to the operation for hauling grain and other chores. Particularly at seeding, the third truck comes in handy as a water service truck for the field sprayer.

“We have two semis already but I find they are kept busy hauling seed and fertilizer to the field, so the third truck carries a tank and hauls water for the field spraying,” he says.

During the wet 2011 seeding season he only managed to get 5,300 acres seeded, with the remaining 1,700 acres unseeded and chemfallowed during the year. Field conditions have dried out this fall, so he is hoping to be able to get everything seeded in 2012. †

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

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

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