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Adopt, adapt, improve to help ensure crop success

Your management strategy will likely only last until your first brush with Mother Nature

Planning ahead will help your farm, but part of that planning should be for the unknown and unexpected.

Farming is all about adapting the plan of attack in the face of ever-changing conditions.

The right mix of equipment and new fertilizer technologies can help when it comes to making these on-the-fly adjustments, according to two Manitoba agronomists.

Brunel Sabourin, owner of Antara Agronomy Services and Taralea Simpson, of Shur-Gro Farm Services, explained how they are helping producers build resilience into their farm planning. They spoke during a panel discussion at the Manitoba Agronomist Conference in Winnipeg earlier this winter.

Fertility choices

New fertilizer technologies are one of the biggest and most important building blocks in any farm resiliency strategy.

High-clearance sprayers have provided many producers more options about what product they want to use, including enhanced efficiency fertilizers.

There are risks with top dressing later in the season because if it rains too much, and producers can’t get on the field, they can shortchange the crop in terms of fertilizer, or if it’s too dry, the fertilizer gets stranded on the surface. “That’s where maybe enhanced efficiency fertilizers are another risk management tool to get us through that early rainy season in May or June,” said Sabourin.

Why it matters: Being able to adapt your farm operations more quickly to changing conditions will give you better results season after season.

A lot of Simpson’s customers broadcast fertilizer.

“We have a lot of dry beans that go on with Edge and potatoes with a lot of urea put on in the spring,” she said. Last year it was so dry producers didn’t want to broadcast and work the ground, so some tried SUPERU (a granular, urea-based N fertilizer with urease and a nitrification inhibitor to help prevent N losses due to denitrification, leaching or volatilization). Other applied some liquid N later in the season.

“These are more of a short-term solution, but once producers have the equipment (to apply these products), they’re available in the future, but they’re not planning for those things and having all of those types of equipment available at one time; it happens over time as they need it,” she said.

Moisture challenges

Sabourin’s clients are located in the Red River Valley and are most typically dealing with excess moisture in their heavy clay soils.

“In terms of building resiliency, a lot of our producers are overequipped for the size of their farms because we’ve got such a short window where we can either put the crop in or take the crop off,” said Sabourin.

“As they’re replacing their drills, they’re buying new ones, but they’re not getting rid of their old ones. They are going to planters because they have shifted into soybeans and corn. This gives them options so they can put the crop in fast.”

A lot of producers are also buying grain dryers and more bin capacity so they get their crops off, he added.

Simpson, who works in the Portage la Prairie area, has seen a lot of changes over the past 25 years, and says excess moisture has been a more consistent theme than dry conditions, although she has started to see a bit of a drying trend over the last couple of seasons.

“We are building relationships with growers to talk through different situations and about how they’re doing things, how we can do things differently, and how we can be there to help them when things change quickly,” she said.

“Some of that comes from advising them on what equipment to have on hand. Some of it comes from us having that equipment available to help them in those situations where they need it. It used to be a large potato area, and I think resiliency comes from having the tile drainage, irrigation, and all those things that can help in weather-related situations.”

Choosing equipment

As equipment emerges as a big part of the solution to the resiliency challenge, it may pay to ask more questions.

Simpson wishes more producers would come to their agronomist for advice before they buy.

“With seeding equipment, producers want the option to put fertilizer down but they might buy a piece of equipment that can’t handle the amount of fertilizer that they need for canola,” she said, by way of example.

“We could have a conversation and see what it is that they want to accomplish and then they can go see the equipment dealers.”

She also said having the equipment on hand can at times lead to less than ideal outcomes.

“We have producers who buy disc rippers to do some headlands, to look after compaction and things like that,” she said. “Once they’ve bought them, they want to use them all the time because they cost a lot of money, but that’s not always the right thing to do.”

She also cited vertical-tillage implements as another problem area.

“Last season we saw where they used them it dried the soil out a lot and the crop was behind in those areas and didn’t do as well,” she said.

More trial, less error

Agronomists have access to a lot of plot research and other data, but increasingly they are getting involved with producers in on-farm trials that provide them with more local solutions.

Sabourin’s company manages a research network of 20 producer clients who do replicated, on-farm field trials. The network evolved as a result of producers asking questions that require local answers.

Farmers want to know how something will perform on their farm, using their equipment, in their growing environment. There are too many variables when it comes to predicting yield and they’re all interlinked, said Sabourin.

“We can change the variety or seeding rates, but there’s a daisy chain effect throughout the season,” he said. “What we found this year in a lot of our trials is at the higher seeding rates that we’re typically pushing because we’re drier, it hurt us. So it’s getting the producers to try it at their own local level. It’s been a very positive experience for everybody involved.”

Simpson is involved with the Crop Research Organization of Portage la Prairie, which also involves growers doing some on-farm trials, and because Shur-Gro has 13 branches across the province, they try to replicate the trials by doing it at more locations. “We have that network of people to speak to, to find out if it’s something that we should try or not,” she said. “It’s really about building the relationships with your growers, working to find out what they want, what they need, what you know, and then helping them implement a plan.”

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