For Prairie farmers who measure land in hundreds or thousands of acres, how much does it really matter if you drive your equipment a handful of inches this way or that way? A whole lot, says Adam Gurr, a Manitoba producer who completed a master’s degree in agronomy focused on controlled traffic farming (CTF) and president and researcher at Agritruth Research. He has also been practicing CTF on his own farm since 2011.
Why it matters: CTF is a management system where all equipment drives along the same tramlines, leaving 80 per cent of a field untrafficked. It’s said the system reduces soil compaction, allows easier and earlier access to a field in wet conditions, improves crop uniformity and pest, disease and weed management and can help increase yields.
Though Gurr is one of only a handful of Canadian Prairie farmers using CTF, he believes the system can prove both practical and beneficial for many more producers, even if they only step partway toward controlling their in-field equipment traffic.
CTF is a management system in which all equipment drives along the same tramlines in a field, leaving the remaining 80 per cent of the field entirely untrafficked. The system, which is widely used in Australia and, increasingly, in Europe, drastically reduces soil compaction, allows easier and earlier access to a field in wet conditions, improves crop uniformity and pest, disease and weed management and can help maximize yields.
Gurr says his belief in the system is about more than immediate economic return.
“It’s tough to say exactly how much overall short-term (financial) benefit producers can expect from CTF. I wouldn’t recommend that as the motivating factor to move to CTF. I think it’s fair to say you can expect modest economic benefit, as well as fuel savings,” he says.
However, there are other advantages. “CTF also offers the benefit of streamlining an on-farm research program. And there are also soil health benefits that are difficult to put a dollar value on, like you should have reduced water erosion because infiltration rates are a lot higher.”
Soil compaction worsens over many years of ongoing traffic and remediation takes years. Therefore, researchers often report challenges quantifying CTF’s total yield benefits in the short term. That said, Gurr has observed the most obvious source of compaction-related yield loss is a result of in-season traffic, most notably any seeding prep, seeding and sprayer traffic that occurs on wet ground.
“About one year in four, the ground is wet enough in spring in my area to cause really significant in-season compaction and yield loss. Some years there can be yield loss that’s visible — the crop will be six inches shorter (in all the tire tracks),” he says.
“If you random-traffic your field, you’ll cover about 50 per cent of your land in tracks inside of a single season. In bad years, you can see a 50 per cent yield drop on trafficked areas.” That can translate to as much as a 25 per cent total yield loss across a crop.
In comparison, driving all equipment on the same tramlines all season long drops the portion of land trafficked on Gurr’s farm to approximately 10 per cent, he estimates. In a wet year, he expects to see a 30 per cent yield drop on trafficked land compared with non-trafficked, which translates to a much more manageable three per cent overall yield loss.
“You won’t see big benefit every year, but if by using CTF I’m reducing crop loss by even just a couple of per cent, that quickly pays for itself,” he says.
Small changes are better than no changes
Since more than 80 per cent of soil compaction happens the very first time a producer drives across a piece of land, “every time we can stay on tramlines instead of driving randomly, we’re improving our yield,” Gurr says.
However, he recommends any CTF system be practical, and making small changes is better than making no changes.
“Some people get turned off by the rigidity of CTF, but it doesn’t have to be rigid. You don’t have to jump to full-blown CTF. Each small change you make will be an improvement. If you can even just start by controlling sprayer traffic, you’re a big step ahead.”
Many producers believe that once tramlines are designated in a CTF system, equipment may never leave those tramlines. Gurr doesn’t agree.
“We do the best we can within reason. Should I drive my grain cart two miles out of the way just so I can stay on tramlines? No. If a grain cart has to skip across the field, that’s the way it is. If we don’t want to straight cut canola, we swath on 35 feet. On those years, we’d be off our tramlines. That’s okay. It needs to work with your operation, not cause extra stress.”
Some producers are also daunted by what they assume must be high start-up costs. Gurr recommends planning a CTF program over a timeline with a longer term and based as much as is possible on one’s existing equipment. For example, when he started considering CTF, he already owned a 60-foot seeder and 120-foot sprayer. When it came time to replace his 35-foot header, he opted for a 40-foot one to best align tramlines.
With increasing discussion at ag field days, through extension programs and across fence lines about the cost of compaction, Gurr encourages others to consider CTF.
“It seems everyone’s talking about soil compaction. It’s suddenly a hot topic. And yet, CTF is a permanent solution that seems really simple to me. Sure, you can look at other solutions like cover crops, but even if they work, if you just go out there and drive all over the field randomly again, you’re just resetting the problem and you’re going to have to deal with it again. If you stay on your tramlines, compaction just isn’t a thing you have to worry about anymore.”