Some input costs are down, but so are commodity prices. What are these Prairie farmers planning when it comes to herbicide and fertilizer rates in 2010?

This month’s Farmer Panel certainly has some varied approaches as farmers were asked how they are handling herbicides and other crop inputs this coming season. Using more, or less or about the same?

Responses varied everywhere from minor adjustments to some pretty drastic measures.

The moisture outlook — or perhaps the lack of it — relatively low crop prices, and just the overall economics of agriculture are factored into how Prairie farmers are viewing inputs and the cropping plans for 2010.

Here is what this month’s Farmer Panel had to say about how they are handling inputs this year:

TOM KIEPER RUSSELL, MAN.

After 28 years of farming, Tom and Cindy Kieper of Russell, Man. are shutting it down this year. No crops, the cattle are being sold, and the auctioneer was expected shortly to plan the farm sale.

It was a bittersweet decision for Kieper, who says he simply faced the reality that there are just no economics in agriculture.

“To answer your question, we are using zero agricultural inputs this year,” says Kieper. “We are quitting. I had an epiphany about six weeks ago that I can no longer operate a farm in this environment.

“There is no money in it and everyone wants every dime I work for. I am sick and tired of giving it away. This has been coming for a couple years now. This year grain prices are falling, the fertilizer company is still wanting $1,500 a tonne and I am no longer willing to put shoes on their kids’ feet.”

The decision to quit farming was a tough one for Kieper, 45, and the fourth generation on the 112-year-old family farm. Some of his own kids were thinking about farming, but he says his decision “may save them some heartache down the road.

“It was a very difficult decision, but I am feeling better about it every day,” he says. “You work hard, but then you have a few small losses over the years and it is very difficult to recover — drought in 2003, frost in 2004. And then you get years like 2008 and 2009 and you see these spectacular yields and prices, but in the end you say ‘this is all I get’. It is just ridiculous.”

And it just wasn’t his own farm economics that factored into the decision. He looked at the world situation too. China, the refusal of European countries to accept GMO crops, and the inability of the Canadian government to have any impact on the situation. “And these are all things beyond my control,” he says.

Kieper says if he had farmed this year he likely would have scaled back on inputs, anyway. His strategy has been to set an input dollar value per acre and then apply what he could afford. “If fertilizer was $600 per tonne and then jumped to $1,200, we would apply half as much,” he says. “My yields might be reduced, but they wouldn’t be cut in half.”

Last year he spent $52 per acre on fertilizer and harvested a “pret-

ty amazing crop,” he says. “There is always a push to apply more, but the reality is, I simply can’t afford it.”

Kieper admits he may have a different view on agriculture than others, but he also expects he is not alone in his thinking, and other producers will be getting out, too. “This may be just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “I think we will see more consolidation and corporate farms. Not just one farmer getting bigger, but non-farming corporations buying land and farming.”

FRED GREIG RESTON, MAN.

With tighter crop margins expected, Fred Greig expects himself and other southwest Manitoba farmers will be watching input costs a bit closer this year. Greig, who crops about 4,500 acres of mostly certified seed, except for canola, says some farmers may forgo seed treatments, for example, partly because crop prices are down, and also because, with drier spring conditions, they may see less risk of seedling diseases.

“I think the past couple years, with improved profit outlook, applying crop protection products were sort of a no-brainer,” says Greig who farms near Reston, southwest of Brandon. “But as a seed retailer, I expect there may be some decrease in treated-seed sales. We’ll be using them on all our own seed, but it is one area where farmers may want to cut back.”

Greig also says farmers may be watching growing conditions closer to see if some of the late-season treatments are warranted.

“For ourselves we will start out with a half-rate of Tilt applied with herbicide earlier in the season and then we apply Headline in peas,” he says. “It may not always be needed for disease, but it sure helps for standability. But in cereals it may be that later application of Folicur or the second application of Tilt that we’ll take a harder look at. We’ll assess what the disease pressure is and look at the crop yield potential before making a final decision.”

After buying fertilizer last fall at a lower cost, Greig plans to apply most nutrients according to soil test recommendations, although he may skip potash since its cost has remained fairly high.

He will be evaluating the effectiveness of variable rate fertilizer application on about four quarter sections this coming year. Working with Farmer’s Edge consultants, Greig says he will compare full rate fertilizer treatment against variable rate treatment on two quarters with gravel strips and two quarters that have quite uniform soil types.

“As we look at using variable rate technology, it may not be as much about reducing fertilizer use, as it is about making more efficient use of the fertilizer we do apply,” he says.

CON JOHNSON BRACKEN, SASK.

Even with a spring snowstorm in mid-April, Con Johnson expects more farmers in his part of southwest Saskatchewan will be opting for more chemfallow acres this year.

“I know for ourselves we probably won’t reduce the use of inputs, but we will have fewer cropped acres,” says Johnson, who farms near Bracken, about 100 miles south of Swift Current. “It is quite dry in this area so we’ll probably be cropping about 3,600 acres,” with another 2,000 to 3,000 acres in chemfallow.

Soil moisture conditions and market prices are the two main factors that will influence Johnson’s cropping plans.

They had reasonable snow cover over winter, but there was little or no run-off. He says there will be moisture for seeding, but soil moisture reserves are low. And he says the Canadian Wheat Board durum program has been disappointing the last couple years, which will discourage farmers from producing the crop.

“The big issue is that we had a 20 per cent durum carry over in 2008 and they are talking about a 50 per cent carry over of the 2009 crop, so that becomes a huge cost when you have to build storage for that much grain,” he says. “We have grown durum in the past, but we will have fewer acres this coming year, if any at all.”

Johnson doesn’t see the cost of inputs being a major factor. Glyphosate costs have come down, and fertilizer prices are a bit lower. “At least you don’t go into shock now when you pick up a load,” he says. “Overall some prices may be up but others are down, so I don’t see it being a big issue. The per acre use will be about the same, but there will be fewer acres in annual crop.”

PETER EGGERS LA GLACE, ALTA .

Peter Eggers plans to maintain the use of inputs in 2010, but the conventional farmer/turned organic producer, has a different goal in mind, compared to many western Canadian farmers.

Eggers who produces beef and sheep on about 2,500 acres near La Glace, in Alberta’s south Peace River region is continuing with a program to add lime and micronutrients to the soil to increase productivity.

A conventional, zero-till grain and oilseed producer for many years, Eggers began a program to convert annual cropland to forages about nine years ago. For the past three years his farm has been a certified organic operation.

His main emphasis is on improving soil fertility, to optimize forage and crop yields without the use of chemical fertilizer.

“I think every farmer should be doing this whether they are organic or not,” says Eggers. “Our goal is to improve the nutrient balance in the soil; it has nothing to do per se with being organic. Because we grow legumes, such as peas and alfalfa we need to increase the calcium level in the soil to improve productivity.

“We use lime to reduce magnesium and improve calcium levels and we haul thousands of metric tonnes of calcium to the farm every year. What we are really doing, is building the infrastructure (building up the soil) and it is not an overnight process. This is a long-term project.”

With a high emphasis on forage production, Eggers is developing a 10-year rotation that includes two years of annual crops –grain and peas, before forages are reseeded. He uses an alfalfa/grass seed mix for his forage crops.

Along with lime and calcium he is also paying close attention to the need for micronutrients such as copper, boron and iron and others in optimizing yields. Along with nitrogen fixed by the legume crops, he also manages his livestock through intensive grazing, and a managed winter feeding program to maximize the use of nutrients in manure.

“If we have an area of a field, like a knoll or hilltop, which has poor soil we will concentrate our winter feeding program on that area so that all nutrients in manure and urine are going back on the land,” he says. “We get the cattle to spread manure where it is needed.”

Eggers, who has adopted holistic management as a decision-making tool, says his overall philosophy is to develop a farming system that works in harmony with the natural potential of the land.

Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

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

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