When it comes to getting cereals into the ground Manitoba seems to be coming up short.
Provincial specialists say at least half a farm’s arable acres should be planted to these crops, but that’s rarely the case these days.
According to MASC data, less than 40 per cent of crop acres in Manitoba were planted to cereals (including corn) in 2017, compared to nearly 60 per cent planted to oilseeds or pulses.
Rejean Picard, a farm production adviser with Manitoba Agriculture noted that’s a huge shift when compared to earlier years. In 1993 for example, the grassy crops had a banner year, with about 75 per cent of Manitoba acres going to them, he said.
“That’s a significant change or shift,” Picard said. “Now we’ve kind of gone back way past to the other side.”
It’s a concerning trend for people like Picard, who argue that cereals should still make up 50 per cent of a crop rotation.
Manitoba’s embrace of soybeans has been among the reasons for the decline in cereal acres. With about 2.15 million acres planted last year (although acreage has slipped in 2018) soybeans were among the most popular crops last year and, before this year, saw a steady upwards rise in the last decade.
But while soybeans have become more attractive for producers pursuing their perceived profit, Picard argued that wheat should not be ignored, either for agronomy or profit.
“It’s an early crop that can be planted. It’s tolerant to frost. It’s a very competitive crop in the spring. We have issues with weeds every year, so it’s one of the places where a grower can actually help control weeds,” he said.
At the same time, he argued, cereal crops leave behind more biomass and residue, something that fights erosion and protects precious topsoil.
Provincial experts, the Canola Council of Canada, and private agronomists have also cited cereals for their role in systems-based fertility.
During this year’s CanoLAB, an annual education and networking event put on by the national canola growers’ group, agronomists urged producers to consider building up soil phosphorus during a cereal year, as it is less vulnerable to seed toxicity and the nutrient is less mobile in the soil than nitrogen.
At the time, both Nutrien’s senior agronomy specialist, Ray Dowbenko, and provincial crop nutrition expert John Heard argued that building phosphorus during a cereal year might benefit a three-year rotation of wheat, soybeans and canola.
“Two of those crops have challenges with putting on enough phosphorus with them in order to match the removal amounts, and that’s with canola and soybeans,” Heard said at the event. “You can’t put all that phosphorus, generally, with the seed, so we need to find another way to do that. Many farmers have side row banded or maybe mid-row banded, so they’ve got flexibility to do that, but those who are limited to seed placement, they need to find a different way and one of those ways, within that rotation, is simply to bank more in the wheat year.”
Picard was among the presenters during a July 25 field day at the Parkland Crop Diversification Foundation (PCDF) in Roblin. The site examined various intensified wheat production methods, including increased nitrogen fertilizer, seeding rate and the use of growth regulators for a shorter, thicker-stemmed wheat plant less prone to lodging.
“What we’re hoping to be able to do is show, statistically, some of the best management practices, ultimately, that can be reformatted and shared with producers so they’re not left asking that question for themselves on a 1,000-acre scale,” said James Frey, PCDF manager and provincial crop diversification specialist.
Attendees took a hard look at the implications of an extra 50 pounds per acre of nitrogen to chase yield, something that would increase lodging risk, although Picard says a split application might mitigate that risk, while shorter varieties or a growth regulator may offer another option to reduce lodging.
“There’s a cost to apply some of those products, so a grower needs to assess, ‘Should I go once or twice?’ That costs more when you go more times on the field,” he said.
Frey also stressed that the continued argument for cereals must make economic sense for the producer, and that the cost of intensified production can’t overshadow actual yield or grain quality gains.