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Friendly Acres 2018 year in review

Changes are in store for Friendly Acres, but soil health will still be the top priority

The family at Friendly Acres Seed Farm. Kevin Elmy and his wife Christina, Kevin’s parents, Robert and Verene, and Kevin and Christina’s daughters, Kennedy and Haley.

One of the challenges of farming in a continental climate is weather. That is why farmers talk about it, complain about it, and want to either get good forecasts for it or control over it.

Looks like the excess water issue that we had for eight years solved itself. Two years of below-normal moisture has dried up water holes and sloughs. May looked alright, seeding started relatively early and we got to seed many of the acres that in the past few years we haven’t been able to get to. After some late May and early June rains, conditions looked really good. Then the tap turned off again.

We seeded pedigree Mahony R2 and Barron R2X soybeans, pedigree AAC Delight spring triticale, grazing corn, cover crops and pedigree perennial ryegrass. We have two fields of alfalfa for hay, and sainfoin for seed production in. Our goal with the hay is to have a short forage stand, leaving it in for three to four years, taking a cut early and leaving the regrowth.

For product trials on the farm, we used EcoTea seed dressing, Magnetar, Wapaw Bay Humates and a few new cover crop species in our demonstration cover crop plots.

Mid-June, the rains stopped and temperatures rose. I had broadcast some subterranean clover into the triticale after herbicide application. It germinated and died. That is the risk of broadcasting cover crop seed. There were a few areas where salinity was starting to show up in the spring triticale, so I seeded a mix of radish, turnip/rape hybrid, safflower, sunflower, and sugar beet into it. In short order, the soil was covered by green plants. As Jay Fuhrer, a soil health specialist with the USDA in North Dakota, says, “We need to learn how to transpire water from the plant instead of evaporating it from the soil.”

Our crop walk was on the last Sunday of July. One of the demonstrations was a drone that flew and took NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetative Index) photographs of three of our quarters. NDVI records near-infrared light that is reflected by plants and red light that the vegetation absorbs. This shows actively growing plants. The interesting thing we saw was that the spring triticale field was red, showing low plant activity, while the alfalfa, soybeans and grass sloughs were green. This stresses how important the use of cover crops, intercrops and relay crops are for soil health. In the triticale field, because the plants slowed down photosynthesis, we started starving our soils starting in the middle of July. If we’d had a relay cover crop underneath, it would have remained green, feeding our soil microbes. We would have gained an extra 90 days of sugars being pushed into our soils, allowing the microbes to build aggregation and fix more carbon.

I found a site that archived NDVI maps from the growing season, and could find where I did the high biology seed dressings, EcoTea, Magnetar, and humates, with positive results. With the dry season, the biology was less of a limiting factor than the rainfall we received. In 2018, I spent more money on biologicals than I did on synthetic fertilizer. My average fertilizer cost per acre was $4.25.

The harvest

Once harvest started, our AAC Delight averaged just under 70 bushels per acre, using a 5-27-27 blend. The Mahony R2 yielded just under 30 bushels per acre. The Barron R2X were hit hard with Iron Deficiency Chlorosis (IDC) and yielded around 10 bushels per acre. The Barron were seeded on cover crop ground that frost-terminated in the fall. With the trash cover, they were slower to establish. By that time, the residue started to rot, releasing nitrogen to the soil. High-nitrogen soil will induce an IDC response, and the plants were not able to recover. I should have had a spring cereal seeded with the soybeans to absorb the free nitrogen. We would terminate the cereal crop with herbicide, or have it intercropped and harvest both in the fall. Another year, another trial. Density of the cereal would be low, 20 to 30 per cent of a normal seeding rate.

The mid-harvest snow was not what we needed or wanted, but we did have half of our spring triticale off before it came. Our soybeans did not lodge through the snowy weather, nor did any pods pop open. The triticale we had out was swathed, and we eventually harvested it a bit tough, aerated it down to dry.

Changes ahead

For 2019 there will be some significant changes at Friendly Acres. My father is retiring, so is selling four of our nine quarters of land. Our equipment rentals will come to an end as I will not have any extra time to maintain and track our corn planters and Valmar.

Three quarters of our five quarters will get seeded down to pasture, and we intend to work with a local bison producer who will come in to harvest the forage. We’ll look at soil health using livestock on these quarters. Our home half will still have some grain production, but it will be a seven-year rotation, without any canola: soybean/full-season legume cover crop underseeded to perennial ryegrass intended for seed production/perennial ryegrass/alfalfa/alfalfa cover crop/spring triticale. From what we have seen, all the acres will receive EcoTea, Magnetar and humates. I will be dropping all synthetic fertilizer from my budget unless the results from the biology test I’ve sent to the Chinook Applied Research Soil Health Lab tells me different.

Change can either be feared or embraced. The most dangerous phrase is “we do it this way because that is the way it has always been done.” It is encouraging to see more soil health topics showing up in the media and at meetings. It looks like more people are looking at changing how they are looking at the agricultural system they are working with.

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