Seven reasons to consider controlled traffic farming

CTF benefits may make the practice worth another look

Each time you drive across your field, you’re squeezing the life out of the soil beneath your tires. Sound overdramatic? Studies show as much as 80 per cent of compaction happens during equipment’s first pass. The downsides of compaction are many and varied, and all ultimately lead to lower soil health and decreased crop yields.

Why it matters: While CTF in Western Canada has yet to produce the degree of benefits Australian farmers have realized, proponents in Alberta say benefits include improved moisture management, better structured and healthier soils and improved input efficiency, to name a few.

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To minimize compaction, some farmers are looking to controlled traffic farming (CTF) — a system where all heavy traffic travels on specific tramlines through a field, not just throughout a single season but from year to year. The idea of CTF is isolating traffic to specific lanes allows the other 80-plus per cent of the field to remain entirely non-trafficked and uncompacted. Could CTF be a fit for your farm?

From Australia to Alberta

Australia is the world leader for CTF. Studies there show enormous benefits from the system — up to 10 to 15 per cent yield increases, up to 50 per cent better yields during drought, up to 15 per cent better nutrient use efficiency, 10 to 25 per cent reduced pesticide and crop protection costs, up to 50 per cent reduced fuel usage, and more. While these statistics might have you reaching for your cellphone to contact your nearest equipment dealer, recognize that Australia and Western Canada have very different growing realities.

Peter Gamache. photo: Supplied

“Western Canada has pretty dynamic soils. They’re not as weathered as Australia’s — they probably handle equipment better than some other soils,” says Peter Gamache, project leader of Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta, a farmer-led initiative that between 2010 and 2017 aimed to evaluate and assess CTF systems in Alberta conditions. “And, we’re obviously a much more temperate climate than Australia.”

As such, CTF has fewer obvious benefits on Canada’s Prairies. Gamache led a three-year CTF study that showed minor, if any, yield benefit in Alberta fields.

“Yield-wise, we held our own with maybe a slight increase. We certainly didn’t match the benefits Australia was seeing,” says Gamache.

CTF benefits

It’s possible the three-year study simply wasn’t long enough to give Alberta’s soils adequate time to recover from long-term compaction.

“Our soils aren’t going to improve overnight,” Gamache says.

While farmers who only prioritize yield may have a long wait for CTF to produce results, Gamache points out there are a whole list of other reasons Prairie farmers might want to consider CTF, including the following:

1. Improved moisture management. One of the fastest and most obvious benefits of reducing equipment traffic across a field is improved water infiltration on non-trafficked land. The three-year CTF study very quickly showed less water pooling in spring. Better infiltration also allows soils to warm and dry more quickly in spring and optimizes moisture availability in the root zone later in the season.

2. Better structured soils. Limiting compaction allows soil to clump together rather than breaking into fine particles, reducing wind and water erosion. Better structured soils also allow roots to develop freely, more easily accessing nutrients and moisture.

3. Healthier soils. Non-compacted soil has much bigger air pores than compacted soils. This supports soil life in many forms, which contributes to better nutrient cycling and improved soil structure.

4. Improved access and equipment efficiency. Gamache says efficiency improved dramatically in various areas within their three-year study, as the compacted tramline allowed far better traction and floatation. “You’re running on a hard track, so trafficability — the ability to get out there earlier in the spring or after a rain, for example — really improves.” Speeding along a hardpacked tramline rather than slogging through mucky soil also decreased fuel usage and equipment wear.

5. Improved input efficiency. Seeding and crop protection treatments can be much more efficient under a CTF system. “You’re not fooling around doing a lot of unnecessary overlapping,” Gamache says. “It really ups your game.” Given that overlaps cost producers — on average 10 to 15 per cent more inputs — this savings can result in significant dollars. Also, obvious tramlines make crop management easier — because you know exactly where your equipment has been and where it is going, tramlines allow easier night-time operation, fewer skips and easier directing of employees.

6. Opportunities for improved on-farm research. Gamache says one of the biggest, though less immediately obvious, pluses of a CTF system is it improves a farmer’s ability to conduct accurate on-farm research. “It’s not to say you can’t do accurate on-farm research in another system, but CTF makes it way easier to replicate your experiments from year to year because you’re driving perfectly straight lines and you can pinpoint exactly where you are in a field.”

7. Ultimately, healthier crops, better yields and more returns. While Gamache’s three-year study didn’t show an obvious yield spike, he believes the plant health benefits seen in Australia could be copied in Western Canada if farmers allow fields enough time to recover from long-term compaction. Crops in non-compacted soils boast stronger root development, improved fertilizer uptake, more even emergence and more uniform growth through each growing stage.

Does Gamache recommend everyone jump on the CTF bandwagon? Interestingly, no.

“It really is farmer specific,” he says. “You have to know yourself and your priorities.”

If you think CTF might be in your future, start by taking a hard look at yourself. CTF is an effective and feasible system, but it takes effort and investment. Recognize, too, that those who pursue CTF are largely on their own, as the system currently has very low uptake across the Prairies.

Next, assess your soils to determine how significant an issue compaction is on your farm. Observe your fields regularly and with intention, searching for issues like standing water. Some tools (such as rings to test water infiltration rate) and various agronomic experts are available to help.

Then, take a well-planned, multi-year approach to transition.

“You don’t have to go out and buy everything tomorrow. When you’re considering the normal transition of equipment that you’d do anyway, maybe think about your tramlines and your equipment widths. Maybe you go with a 60-foot drill instead of a 64- or a 58-foot drill, because that’ll work with a 30-foot header,” says Gamache.

The right attitude is also important. “Have the mindset that you’re going to learn and you’re going to succeed. It’s an investment of time and planning and you need to have good management skills,” says Gamache. “If you set your mind to it, there’s not much a farmer can’t accomplish.”

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