“The old rule of thumb of equal stubble height and row spacing just doesn’t hold true.”
Old habits die hard, it’s true. Take western agriculture for example. In many ways, farmers in the Prairies still farm as if they’re in Europe or Ontario — tight row spaces and short to non-existent stubble. That works fine in the moisture-rich climates of where most pioneers came from, but for the drier areas of the Prairies, it’s time to take a new approach at farming. The answer? Seed at 12-or 14-inch spacing and leave the stubble extra tall. This combination makes for maximum moisture retention, faster harvests and lower-cost seeding.
The driver behind the seed wide/cut tall combination is efficiency, say Norbert and Cory Beaujot, a father-son team who run Seed Master and also farm in southeastern Saskatchewan. “Efficiency is the only card farmers have to play,” says Cory. “Farmers can’t change crop prices, input costs or anything else, but what they can control are their own costs.”
The Beaujots are now in their third year of seeding at 14-inch row spacing — putting seed between the stubble rows using Seed Master’s Smart Hitch — and cutting stubble at 20 to 22 inches. Norbert estimates they save between $3 and $8 per acre by using the cut tall, seed wide, seed between the rows approach.
LEAVE IT TALL
The idea of seeding between the rows was a happy accident. Norbert noticed that seed that fell in between the stubble rows achieved better seed to soil contact and seemed to germinate better. The discovery led to the development of the Smart Hitch, a mechanical means of keeping the seeder openers in between last year’s rows.
Once Norbert developed a way to keep the openers in between the rows, one of the barriers to leaving extra tall stubble was overcome. Leaving stubble at 18, 20 and even 22 inches high might bother some, but all those inches of straw diverted from going through the combine means faster harvests and lower horsepower demands, saving time and fuel.
The science behind tall stubble and its positive effects on subsequent crops is well documented. Work by Herb Cutforth at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Semiarid Prairie Agriculture Research Centre at Swift Current has established that all stubble will first trap more snow, but more interestingly, it reduces wind speed at soil level, creating a slightly warmer microclimate. Reduced wind speed means less evapotranspiration by seedlings and results in slightly warmer plants, too. In Cutforth’s studies, taller stubble leads to higher yields.
While extra tall stubble and precise seed placement between the rows did improve efficiency and water retention, the Beaujots still thought they could improve on efficiency and began to question the 12-inch stubble with 12-inch row spacing norm. “The old rule of thumb of equal stubble height and row spacing just doesn’t hold true,” Cory says. They began experiment-
ing on their farm and for the past three years have left their stubble at 20 to 22 inches while seeding at 14-inch row spacing. And they won’t necessarily stop there, either. “We’re experimenting with planting corn at 14-inch rows, but we’re just experimenting at this point,” Cory says. Manufacturing and selling seeding equipment allows them a unique glimpse into what other farmers are doing. “We tend to sell most of our seeders (more than 80 per cent) at 12-and 14-inch row spacing, so I think it’s catching on,” he says.
FEWER PLANTS, SAME YIELD
Wide seed rows may scare off some. Can fewer plants per square metre really produce the same yield? The short answer is yes. “We achieve roughly the same yield with our wider row spacing,” Cory says. “But our cost is much lower per acre. Fewer rows means fewer openers, reducing draft and therefore fuel consumption.” Seed costs are also marginally lower, as is the time spent seeding each field.
Plants themselves adjust to wide rows. “Canola can get amazingly bushy and is really aggressive in growth,” Cory says. Cereals will tiller and fill the space they’re given, so as long as optimum plant counts per square meter are maintained, yields are maintained, he says.
For those thinking about moving to tall stubble and wider rows, the Beaujots suggest changing the row spacing first. That would mean leaving stubble at the usual height this fall and changing row spacing next spring. After the rows have been widened, Cory suggests cutting stubble higher each year, say in two-inch increments, to get a feel for managing the taller stubble.
And while most farmers already have a GPS unit, the Beaujots can’t live without the technology. “A basic GPS unit is simply a must,” Cory says.
Lyndsey Smith is a staff writer based in Lumsden, Sask.