Scott Day, diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), didn’t seed an acre on his own farm in 2011 at Deloraine, Man. He wasn’t alone. Many others in southwest Manitoba didn’t seed many acres, and many of those who did manage to get a few acres in the ground under wet conditions wished they hadn’t, because it wasn’t worth the effort.
“(It was) one of those years that the lessons we learned, we hope we’ll never have to use again,” says Day. “It was an exceptional year through this part of North America because many farmers in North Dakota went through the same ordeal we did and certainly in southeast Saskatchewan, too.”
Day says one of the first things farmers discovered was weeds. Lots of them. They were a stark reminder that the weed seed bank never disappears. “If a weed seed can fly like a dandelion or a thistle or this Northern willow herb that has become a real problem, it’s most likely found in an unseeded field in a fallow situation,” says Day. “You have to re-think weed control. If you’re going to have weeds anyway, it may not hurt to leave a few weeds once in a while because the seed bank is there anyway.”
Day and his neighbours also found that it took extra effort to kill some of the unfamiliar weeds that showed up on their unseeded acres. One weed in particular that hadn’t been seen before was a Northern willow herb. This little shrub was very difficult to kill.
“We learned it’s necessary to mix something with your glyphosate to make it work well,” Day says. “Some of the products used in the past were not very effective when you had Roundup Ready canola volunteers flowering, or hard to kill weeds unfamiliar to us until this last year.”
Mixing a half litre of 2,4-D in with the glyphosate worked the best for killing Roundup Ready, hard to kill plants. These are normally easy to kill when they are small, but not when they’re large and flowering.
Once farmers realized seeding season would be a total loss, the next question, Day says, was what to do next. “Do you let the weeds grow? Or try and keep them under control? In the end, people who let things grow and suck up moisture and maybe build up a little bit of organic matter, were just as well off as people that sprayed by plane. It was well into July before farmers had sprayed most of the land for the first time, and lots of the weeds had flowered or even gone to seed. The weed kill was excellent because the growing conditions were good for the chemical to work well.”
For most farmers who took that approach, it took only two sprays and the land was clean for winter.
“In the future we would be more patient and let those weeds grow if it is exceptionally wet because they weren’t really doing any harm to the land,” says Day. In fact, they helped suck up some of the moisture.
The second lesson has to do with when to work the fields. In 2011, once the water disappeared, the weeds appeared and seeding deadlines came and went.
“If you can’t get on the field to harrow it, you shouldn’t be doing anything with it, is lesson two,” says Day. “The way things turned out, the land remained totally saturated and some could float on seed or by plane. It was still too wet to get on with the harrow, then the crop was a loss anyway.” Day says when it’s too wet for any sort of light harrowing or travelling across the field, farmers should wait. There’s no getting around it.
Many farmers found using a vertical tillage piece of equipment worked exceptionally well in some of these fields with incredible weed growth. No cultivator would go through it, but a vertical till system worked quite well. The most effective vertical till unit was the one with the straight up and down coulter units. Farmers using these are not tilling to control weeds, simply disturbing the land to help dry it out and chop up residue.
“You’d have volunteer crop along with buckwheat and curl dock, cattails. You’d kill it with the glyphosate, and go through it with the vertical till unit,” Day says. “Cut it up in one direction and then the second pass, at a right angle to the previous pass, would chop it up nicely into four to six-inch chunks. It was amazing how well it prepared the land for next year’s seeding.”
A Tandem disc worked well too, but these use much more power and leave the field much rougher. Farmers found it next to impossible to use the cultivator in most fields.
In the unprecedented wet weather of 2011 farmers and resource people alike worked in uncharted territory. Farmers shared some of the equipment and expenses to work the fields as they best they could. On November 7, the soil was still wet. Day says, “Do you light it on fire and burn it off? Do you tandem disc it twice? There was no set example or rules on how to deal with this and get it ready for next year.”
So, many farmers shared equipment, buying some in partnership because they don’t anticipate needing it a lot in the future, and didn’t want to invest too much in new tillage equipment, specifically for these extreme conditions.
“There was a lot shared equipment because sprayers needed duals with a tremendous amount of flotation to get through some of these fields.” As well, Day says, “Companies renting equipment came in very handy.”
Day has never seen so many acres of winter wheat go in the ground. In his area, a lot was planted into unseeded land, some with not much stubble to protect it.
“It got off to a great start with all the crops looking very good. Hopefully we’ll have the right snow cover to keep it through the winter despite inadequate stubble or trash cover,” Day says. “On our farm, we had a lot of volunteer canola that didn’t die the first time around. The second time around it made for an excellent winter wheat habitat.” †