As of April 6 Jason Craig had combined about half the wheat that had been left out under snow all winter on his central Alberta farm. He only had about 120 acres in total of both wheat and canola left out, but it is still a considerable investment.
Combining the swathed wheat that was on the hilltops and high parts of the field on his farm near Delburne in early April, he was surprised at just how dry the grain was, but quality was another question.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” he said from the combine cab. “But we won’t know until we have it graded. There is deer and mouse (excrement) in it but I really don’t have any idea of quality. I really didn’t expect to get anything, so if someone does buy it that will be a bonus.”
That was Craig talking about his swathed crop. There was also so-called standing wheat and canola in lower and wetter areas of his fields. That “standing” wheat and canola wasn’t much more than a couple inches tall. He wasn’t very hopeful.
“The standing crop is barely up to my ankles. I don’t even think I can even pick it up,” says Craig. “I may just have to work it in so we can get at seeding.”
Craig is just one of hundreds of farmers across northern and central B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan who are all facing the challenge this spring of getting overwintered crop harvested, or worked down as the case may be, and almost at the same time looking to get the 2017 crop seeded. Some estimates peg the amount of unharvested crops to cover two to 2.5 million acres.
Farmers in many parts of the Prairies are expecting to deal with adverse conditions this spring. Either they’ve got unharvested crop to deal with before seeding, or just excessive moisture following a wet fall, topped with spring snow melt. Their 2017 field operations could be delayed.
Darwin Kells, who will be seeding his 40th crop on his east central Saskatchewan farm says he along with other producers may have to consider some different options this spring to get everything done during a much narrower seeding window. Along with farming himself, Kells also owns and operates Lambton Agra Strategies crop consulting services.
“Unless conditions change drastically in a hurry we will be looking at wet conditions this spring,” he says. “I expect more crops will be seeded in the last two weeks of May or later, than in the first two weeks of May.” That may require some different approaches.
Options to consider
Here are a few thoughts from Kells on options to consider this spring:
1. More soil disturbance at seeding. He’s expecting farmers will be replacing narrow low disturbance openers on air seeding equipment with sweeps or some other type of opener that will cause more soil disturbance. The sweeps will help saturated soils to dry out and will also fill in some of the ruts left behind after harvest on wet soils.
2. Stabilized nitrogen. Kells expects to see more farmers turning to some form of stabilized nitrogen this spring because of the wet conditions. Products such as Agrotain and SuperU, urease inhibitors, and ESN a polymer coated slow release urea will be in demand he expects.
3. Adjust nitrogen rates. Particularly with late-seeded crops — late May early June — producers may want to reduce fertilizer rates. He says with later seeding, yield expectation is reduced. Fertilize according to yield forecast.
4. Top-up applications. If there is only so much time to get fertilizer applied at seeding, or farmers want to wait to see what the growing season brings, a top-up fertilizer application can work with some crops, says Kells. Top-up treatments may not be practical with cereal crops such as barley, he says. As yield is determined and nutrient demands are highest by the three- to four-leaf stage any top-up application would have to be made by the two-leaf stage. Canola offers a bit more latitude for an in-crop top-up fertilizer application. Fertilizer can be applied up to the stem elongation or bolting stage. If a top-up fertilizer is applied, it needs to be followed by at least 10 mm of rain to move it into the soil.
5. Don’t forget phosphorus. As soil-available phosphorus is declining in some parts of Western Canada, producers need to make sure they are applying enough to meet yield expectations. “Some of the older agronomy information was based on lower yield expectations,” says Kells. “So 25 to 30 pounds of seed-placed phosphorus was enough.” But he points out that a 50-bushel canola crop will use about 50 pounds of phosphorus. On his farm Kells plans to apply 15 to 20 pounds of phosphorus with the seed and then place another 30 to 35 pounds about an inch to the side and one inch below the seed row.
6. Keep seeding rates up. With a later, wetter spring and later-seeding season it is important to keep seeding rates up and higher than usual. Kells suggest targeting a seeding rate that will produce 28 to 30 plants per square foot for barley, about 35 plants per square foot for wheat and 40 to 45 plants per square foot for flax. The higher plant stands will reduce tillering. Long-standing research shows higher plant density can shorten crop maturity by a week. He points out under wetter seeding conditions seed mortality increases.
7. Disease pressure. Under wetter conditions he says producers should be prepared for and manage as possible for higher disease pressure, such as higher levels of fusarium head blight. Some bin run seed might be carrying the disease and there is likely just more disease present in the field. Use a good seed treatment and seed fusarium resistant varieties or crops.
8. Rotation options. Kells follows and always recommends producers follow at least a one-in-three year rotation with canola. It helps to reduce disease risk. He is one of the “crazy few” in his area who aim to produce malt barley. With reasonably good luck in the past, he’ll be seeding barley again this year. But he says he applies proper agronomic practices in the hopes of achieving malt quality — “I treat it as a super special crop, and it seems to pay off,” says Kells. He also plans to include brown flax and gold flax in his rotation this year. While flax doesn’t have a particular reputation for handling wet conditions, crops over the past three years have “exceeded expectations” even with wetter growing seasons. With wet conditions, he’s not optimistic about peas. Last year he saw some exceptional crops at the start of the season, but then with three inches or more rain in some areas in later July the crops were decimated, falling from 60 bushel yield potential to about 35 bushel yield. While he is cautious about soybeans in his part of Saskatchewan, he has seen fields of a new Syngenta variety, M2, that performed very well under fairly wet growing conditions. “In this area having the crop reach maturity on time is the big issue,” he says. But some of the newer varieties are showing promise. He notes that soybeans are prone to sclerotinia, which can put canola crops at risk. Faba beans seem to grow fairly well under conditions, but they can be later maturing. Last year people were battling to get them harvested in November. This fall he’s also planning to seed some acres to a newer hybrid fall rye. With proper agronomics, they can be high-yielding, high-value crops.