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Wheat &Chaff – for Jan. 10, 2011

YOUR FRIENDS BELOW GROUND

Way back in my university days (I’d like to think it wasn’tthatlong ago), the soil science classes were not the popular ones. For me, however, my first glimpse into what lies beneath sucked me in and hasn’t failed to fascinate me since. While fellow students’ eyes glazed over in regards to cation exchange capacity, electrical conductivity and the like, I sat riveted.

Then I started to learn about microbes — both good and bad — and our friend the earthworm and the role that flora and fauna play in the many and complex soil processes. Of course, my bit of knowledge gleaned from a few soil science courses is nothing compared to the volumes of scientific research into soil science. Which is what keeps this job interesting, because just recently I had the chance to chat with a soil scientist about the fascinating world of soil microbe populations.

What’s perhaps most interesting to me is that, while we understand many aspects of soil and soil characteristics, we’re only now scratching the surface (pun intended) of chronicling all that lives below ground and all the jobs and interactions taking place.

Farmers and agronomists both tend to focus above ground when looking for problems — is the crop healthy and green? If not, what do we do about it? We also tend to look above ground for solutions, when in fact, nearly all that is happening above is because of what is happening below as a result of soil and soil microbe interactions.

At the cutting edge of this research is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s research scientist Chantal Hamel, based at Swift Current, Sask. She’s been chronicling the adventures of dark septate endophytes and how they help plants. “Several endophytes play a role in plant nutrition. We’re trying to figure out which ones are involved,” she says.

The theories of what each microbe does in the soil ranges from aiding in drought stress to disease fighting and nutrient uptake, but the real meat of the matter is how this can help farmers. Hamel says that the hope is to build a database of microbes, their role and what crop practices encourage their growth. If say, the presence of a certain microbe helped in phosphorus uptake by the plant, could you apply less phosphorus? Perhaps. The idea is that, eventually, agronomists and farmers may take into account the soil microbe population when making fertilizer rates or deciding on other crop practices.

The other side of the coin is to identify those soil organisms that are not our friends. This too could predict what disease pressures you may need to tackle even before you see signs in the field. For now, however, Hamel is staying focused on the potential of exploited the help of the good guys.

“It could mean that eventually we understand which plant varieties work best in a symbiotic relationship with certain endophytes. What is in the soil could play a role in the variety you choose to plant,” she says.

See? Fascinating.

A FRESH LOOK AT SOYBEANS

I get a lot of information flowing across my desktop on any given day. At the end of November, Statistics Canada released its latest crop production numbers for 2010, and the estimates confirmed something I’d been hearing for quite some time. In 2010, soybean production in Manitoba alone (estimated at 435,000 tonnes) surpassed total Canadian flax production (estimated at 423,000 tonnes). Seeing as soybeans have not been grown in the West for all that long, I found the number staggering. Yes, the flax industry has been through a rough year, but from the intelligence gathering I’ve done, this soybean production trend is just going to keep climbing.

In light of this, I thought it appropriate to run a thorough discussion on growing soybeans. Brunel Sabourin has taken up a two-part article on the crop — one on the cover of this issue that outlines the basics of soybean production, and a second to run in the next issue with tips and advice for the more seasoned soybean grower. I can’t take full credit of course, it was Brunel’s idea in the first place, but he’s right — soybeans fared well despite a challenging growing season, and new, shorter-season varieties are making this a crop choice for more farmers every year.

Manitoba is by far the largest soybean producer in the West, but given time, I can see this crop creeping into many other growing areas. Of course, for those that read Grainewson a regular basis this isn’t news as you’ll be familiar with Kevin Elmy who farms at Saltcoats, Sask., and the variety trials he runs on his farm.

Despite the ridiculous weather of 2010, which for Elmy included hail and excess water and then more water, soybeans still managed a decent yield. What’s more, Elmy outlines how his soybean-soybeancanola- winter cereal rotation adds significant, slow-release nitrogen for his canola crop. Read more about how soybean and canola did this year on his farm on page 12.

TILLAGE AND TIRES

You’d think that my love of soil structure and organisms would keep me from discussing something like tillage, but not all tillage is a bad thing. Tillage, in various forms, is still very much a part of several farms’ fall or spring field passes and, no, not just in Ontario.

As Les Henry put it, everything old is new again, and so it is with tillage. Now, don’t get me wrong; the benefits of zero till or reduced tillage are many and well documented, but there are times when tillage is warranted or the most appropriate option, such as when breaking up forages and pasture or to get rid of hardpan. There’s also times when dealing with excessive biomass is best done with an implement, and after a year of rain and more rain, areas that don’t typically deal with tillage passes are thinking they may. In this issue ofGrainews, Scott Garvey highlights a couple made-on-the-farm pieces of equipment, and Les Henry talks tillage in his column on page 35, to offer up some insight into choosing to till.

Along these same lines and hot on the heels of a discussion on controlled traffic farming and compaction, we’ve included an article from our friends at profi magazine ( www.profi.com) talking about tires and the importance of choosing the right tire. Scott continues on the topic on page 27 to help you wade through the choices out there.

And we couldn’t let all the feedback we had on our November cover story ( “The case for controlled traffic farming” by Angela Lovell) go un-answered, and so Angela is back highlighting what some experts have to say about the practice here in Western Canada. Read all about it on page 6.

FARM SHOWS AND FULL MAILBOXES

It’s January and that means the beginning of two things: an inappropriate amount of farm shows and even moreGrainewsissues for you to enjoy. This month, I’ll be at Crop Production Week at Saskatoon, Sask., and the week after will take in the sights and sounds of Ag Days at Brandon, Man. Soon after that, you’ll get to read about all that I see and hear there in the multiple issues that come out in February and March. Be sure to check your mailbox often.

And I’m not the only editor out and about. Scott Garvey, our fearless machinery editor and shopkeeper, is heading south for AgConnect Expo held in Atlanta, Georgia, and will return will oodles of machinery and equipment features for you to enjoy. Not to be outdone, Mr. Lee Hart will be strolling the booths at Lethbridge’s FarmTech. Be sure to ask him to buy you a coffee if you see him.

That about does it for me for this issue. I do want to send a thank you out to the many of you that have been calling, writing and emailing with feedback about what you like (or don’t) about the magazine and what you’d like to see in these pages. Keep it coming. Lyndsey

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