Australian farmers who have adopted controlled traffic farming (CTF) claim to save 30 to 50 per cent in fuel costs. Does the concept work in Western Canada? One Alberta farmer used 2010 as his launch of CTF. Even though the strategy seems to shine in dry years, Steve Larocque still saw benefits this year when enough moisture was not a problem.
An agricultural consultant and farmer, Larocque spent several months researching CTF through a Nuffield Farming Scholarship on farms in Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Seeing positive results across a number of different soil and climate zones led him to try it out on his own 640 acres near Morrin, Alta., where he is setting himself up as the guinea pig for CTF in the province.
Controlled traffic farming is a system that establishes a permanent set of tracks or tramlines across the field upon which all equipment is driven; the crop is seeded only in the rows in between. The payoff for doing so seems to be significant, however there are a few things that have to happen to make it work, including significant adjustments to machinery so they all run on a set wheel spacing. Sophisticated autosteer is not entirely necessary, but a GPS system (the more accurate the better) sure does make it easier.
The reasons for adding significantly more tramlines to a field are decreased fuel consumption and eliminated or decreased overlap and decreased, or at least confined, compaction leading.
CTF is being made all the more feasible thanks to the adoption of precision agriculture using GPS guidance systems that already allow farmers more accuracy in seeding and applying inputs. Proponents of CTF believe that adding set, unseeded pathways as part of the precision farming system gives even more accuracy and helps accrue greater economic and agronomic benefits.
“Our approach is that we think by integrating controlled traffic farming into a no-till, precision seeding system, things like inter-row seeding will lead to less soil compaction, improve soil health, and ultimately result in higher net returns,” says Peter Gamache, project leader for Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta.
Trying to prove the validity of that statement is what Larocque’s on-farm trial is all about. Although this is the first year, he feels he has already seen some benefits from going to CTF.
Larocque feels the savings for him have come from the virtual elimination of overlap, and increases in fuel, seeding and harvesting efficiencies. “Because we are using RTK (Real Time Kinematic advanced satellite navigation), we also have sub-inch accuracy running our equipment all season long, and so there is zero overlap pass to pass, whereas most people might be overlapping one to three per cent even with their current technology,” he says. “For most inputs that could be $3 to $5 an acre.”
The fuel efficiency is one saving that becomes obvious almost immediately. “There is an increase in fuel efficiency because you are essentially driving on cement. So the resistance on your wheels from driving on soft soil, as compared to hard-packed ground, is a lot different and requires a lot less horsepower,” says Larocque. “It’s like riding a bicycle on a dirt road versus riding on the pavement. It takes a lot less energy.”
Larocque is also expecting an increase in yield thanks to better aeration of the soil, which isn’t compacted in the growing areas, and he believes his harvesting efficiency will pencil out to a 20 to 30 per cent improvement ment thanks to the fact that he is running the combine at 100 per cent capacity with a full cut width on every pass.
RESIDUE MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
“One of the limiting factors in setting up a CTF system is the amount of residue you can spread across the width of your combine,” says Larocque. “Let’s say you have a 40-foot header on your combine, so it’s a really big cut, but you are typically only spreading residue across 30 or 35 feet. And that changes the whole biological system because there may be 10 feet out of that 40-foot strip that doesn’t see any residue. After three or four years those areas will start starving, so you won’t see the same level of nutrient cycling. Whereas the areas that received plenty of residue will have more nutrients because you are adding more back to the soil.”
For that reason Larocque used a 30-foot header on his combine to maximize his harvest efficiency and adapted all his equipment from the seeder to the sprayer, to align the wheel spacings so they can run down the tramlines, which are spaced 30 feet apart. The cost to modify the equipment was only around $5,000, although the RTK autosteer controls can run to $15,000, although that level of technology isn’t necessary to achieve results with CTF.
Larocque will have a more definite idea of actual cost benefits next year, as this year he was basically establishing a baseline from which to draw comparisons. Ironically, the unusually wet conditions this year, in what is generally a fairly dry region, has shown the immediate impact of CTF on the soil structure of the farm.
“In a year like this when it is so wet we are not damaging any of our soil because we are driving our seeding, spraying and harvesting equipment down the tramlines,” says Larocque. “Our soil type actually cracks when it’s dry. Cracks in the soil destroys soil structure because that soil is so tight that when it dries out it breaks apart. If you were a root it would take a lot of energy to push through that sort of layer. The only place this year that we are seeing cracks in the soil is in the tramlines where we have driven our equipment. So that’s kind of like the canary in the coal mine. We know for sure now where we are driving our equipment and where we are not and all of a sudden we are seeing huge cracks in the soil in the tramlines and nothing outside.”
Obviously better suited for larger fields that don’t have trees, bushes or other obstacles, Larocque does believe that most farmers can benefit by using CTF, if only on a portion of their land.
“Just seeing the water use efficiency and the nutrient use efficiency increases on some of the farms I visited was staggering,” he says. “You would see three or four years of drought, and the farm under CTF after eight years is pulling off 25-bushel-per-acre canola and the neighbours aren’t even pulling out the harvester. It’s that dramatic a difference, especially in dry years.”
It’s like riding a bicycle on a dirt road versus on the pavement. It takes a lot less energy