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Farmers put promises to the test

New products potentially improve standability and yields

Scott Keller with daughters Lily and Macy. photo: Scott Keller

Central-Alberta farmer Scott Keller is anxious to see what his malt barley will do this year as he applies increased fertility along with a plant growth regulator (PGR).

Keller, who has pretty good success in growing barley that achieves malt quality on his farm near New Norway in Camrose County, generally holds back on applying full fertility — the higher rates of nitrogen — to reduce the risk of the crop lodging.

With Moddus, a new-to-Canada plant growth regulator from Syngenta Canada registered for use on cereals in 2021, he’s hoping he can increase fertility rates, keep the crop standing and achieve higher yields.

“With the program we have been following with reduced fertility, I’m guessing we are losing 15 to 20 bushels per acre,” says Keller. “So hopefully we can gain something like that back. There are places in Alberta where farmers are hitting 130, even up to 150, in barley yields. So higher fertility should produce higher yields.”

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Keller describes the ability to use Moddus on his malting barley as a “game changer for malt barley producers.” Farming in a region with highly productive soils is a bit of a curse, as several crops are prone to lodging. He has used another PGR (Ethrel from Bayer Crop Science) on spring wheat and malt barley grown for seed production and it was quite effective. Until Moddus, there hasn’t been a PGR he could use on malting barley that is also approved by the maltster and the brewing company. “I have checked with our malting company and it has approved the use of Moddus,” he says.

Most years, Keller dials back fertility on malt barley about 25 per cent, aiming for about 75 pounds of total nitrogen for the barley crop. “Most years, we were getting yields in the high 90 bushels per acre, sometimes over 100 bushels on the better land,” he says. “So hopefully we can push that by 15 to 20 bushels or perhaps more this year.”

Keller says a lodged crop has several negatives. “Even if it is just 10 per cent of the field that is lodged, you’re going to lose yield, it is going to be much slower to harvest, you’re going to lose quality and then if the crop starts to chit, the whole crop can be a writeoff in terms of making malt,” he says. “It is just lose, lose, lose.”

Plant growth regulators often have the effect of strengthening (thickening) and shortening the crop stem. This is a side-by-side comparison of untreated AAC Viewfield HRS wheat on the left, while at the right is a visually shorter wheat sample treated with 375 millilitres per acre of Ethrel. This picture of wheat grown on the Scott Keller farm was taken in July 2020, 14 days after application. By the end of July, the whole field had lodged, but the higher rates of the PGR kept the barley standing longer, which likely was the reason for it yielding the highest in the trial. Keller is looking forward to trying the new Moddus PGR, which appears to be quite effective on barley, with a wider window of application. photo: Scott Keller

Chitting is the premature sprouting of grain before harvest. Keller says a lodged crop with seed heads on or close to the ground is prone to chitting, and in wet years he has even seen a standing crop begin to chit. The Canadian Grain Commission says this pre-germinated barley can produce good-quality malt but timing is critical. The barley must be malted soon after harvest while the grain still retains a high level of germination energy.

Opportunity for farmers

Eric Phillips, fungicides and insecticides product lead with Syngenta Canada, says the company sees the registration of Moddus as “a significant opportunity for cereal growers in Canada.”

In some respects, it is old technology, with the molecule in Moddus available and widely used as a PGR by European farmers for about 20 years. A similar PGR product called Palisade is registered in the United States. Moddus, tested for nearly a decade in Canada, received registration for use in Canada on wheat, barley and oats in late 2020.

Moddus contains trinexapac-ethyl, an active ingredient with years of proven use to manage lodging in cereal crops around the world, says a Syngenta release. It works by redirecting the plant’s production of gibberellic acid, a hormone responsible for growth to reduce cell elongation. This results in plants with shorter, thicker stems and improved overall standability.

Phillips notes lodging can occur under both favourable, high-moisture conditions, or in severe weather, such as heavy winds. Lodging is also influenced by variety selection, soil type, fungal diseases and fertility (nitrogen) rates.

Moddus has a fairly wide window of application and can be applied between growth stages (GS) 30 to 39 — stem elongation. And it can be used in a single application as well as split application. Phillips says the most optimal window is between GS 30 to 32.

“I think of it in terms of a fishing rod,” says Phillips. “A fishing rod is thicker at the handle and tapers down towards the tip. Applying Moddus during that optimal window will thicken the lower section of stem, whereas a later application may see more thickening of the stem higher up.”

Plant growth regulators often have the effect of strengthening (thickening) and shortening the crop stem. This is a side-by-side comparison of untreated AAC Viewfield HRS wheat on the left, while at the right is a visually shorter wheat sample treated with 375 millilitres per acre of Ethrel. This picture of wheat grown on the Scott Keller farm was taken in July 2020, 14 days after application. photo: Scott Keller

A split application of the PGR may appeal to farmers if they plan to apply half the recommended rate at herbicide timing, with the other half applied at fungicide application timing.

“It just provides farmers with another option and allows them to better manage their crop fertility,” says Phillips. “It has a particularly good fit in higher-production areas where farmers are following high-input regimes.”

Sheri Strydhorst, a longtime agronomy research scientist with Alberta Agriculture, who has recently joined Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions, has researched plant growth regulators for several years.

“PGRs can certainly have a fit in helping farmers manage their fertility in cereal crops,” she says. “But farmers need to remember that PGRs are a harvest aid and are not intended to increase yield. The idea is to keep the crop standing and reduce the risk of losses due to lodging.”

She also cautions that although PGRs may be registered for all cereals, their effectiveness can vary by type of cereal, by variety and by growing-season conditions. She says using a PGR doesn’t make crops bulletproof. If the crop is exposed to severe wind and rain for example, nothing may be able to save it. “So the results can be somewhat variable and unpredictable,” she says.

Moddus is registered for wheat, oats and barley, Strydhorst says, but appears to be most effective on barley. Field research has shown that the PGR Manipulator appears to be more effective on wheats, and on AAC Brandon wheat in particular.

In a high-yield-producing region like southwestern Alberta, agronomist Craig Shand says Moddus is definitely a tool that producers will be looking at.

“We have deep, rich, high-organic-matter soil over much of the area between Innisfail and Calgary,” says Shand, owner of Chinook Agronomics. “And a lot of producers, once they get up to 60 to 65 pounds of nitrogen on their barley, begin to hold back to reduce the risk of lodging. With a product like Moddus, they are going to be able to use higher fertility and push for higher yields with reduced risk of lodging.”

Along with yield potential, with improved harvestability with a standing crop, farmers may be able to combine 25 per cent more acres per day.

Shand says over the past decade he has been involved with high-yield cereal research projects involving the use of PGRs such as Manipulator on wheat and Ethrel on barley. The research showed by being able to increase fertility, over a five-year period, wheat had an average seven-bushel yield increase while barley had an average nine-bushel yield increase. “It worked out to be up to a 3:1 return on investment by using PGRs, which is a pretty good return to producers,” he says.

Ethrel can be an effective PGR, but it has a very narrow four- to five-day window of application, whereas Manipulator and Moddus both have the wider GS 30 to 39 window if needed, along with an optimal range.

“I believe farmers are excited about the prospect of being able to push barley yields beyond that 100-bushel limit without fear of the crop falling flat,” says Shand. “With my clients, I know Manipulator will be the go-to recommendation for use on wheat and Moddus will be the go-to product for barley.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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