Should more farmers consult with their agronomist before they make equipment decisions?
That was the topic posed to a panel at the Manitoba Agronomists Conference in Winnipeg last December that included a Manitoba farmer, a consulting agronomist and an agronomist with an equipment manufacturer.
Jeff Strukoff, a professional agrologist with Bourgault Industries in Saskatchewan, said in his experience some farmers involve their agronomist in equipment decisions and others seem to be more secretive about their choices.
“But the whole system actually works quite a bit better if everybody is involved in the decision-making process,” says Strukoff. “Not just what kind of drill they’re going to purchase in the future but for fertilizer recommendations and all sorts of things.”
Questions for agronomists are often most likely to be about fertilizer and how best to apply it, said Kevin Thompson, an agronomist with 360 Ag Consulting based in Dauphin.
“If we start talking about 80-bushel wheat and 60-bushel canola and throw soybeans in the mix, our removals are incredible, and even if we are in maintenance ranges, we’re just not keeping them there,” says Thompson. “In my area, it’s not just phosphate, it’s potash as well, so we start looking at salt ratings on potash with the seed, and it becomes really a tough issue.”
“I do think that agronomists can add a lot for equipment decisions, but I think it’s important for farmers to know what they can add to that conversation,” said Nicolea Dow, a third-generation grain farmer from Portage la Prairie, who is also a trained agronomist. “I work with some very good agronomists. Most of them are not equipment experts, many of them have no idea what the differences are on air seeders. Ultimately that’s not really their job, but I do think it is their job to understand what equipment their clients have and what the capabilities are. Things like the setup, how many chutes they have, how many tanks are on their cart.”
That holds true just as much for the farmer as the agronomist, adds Dow.
“In my opinion, seeding equipment is not only very expensive, but it’s probably the piece of equipment on your farm that you need to understand the best,” she says. “It’s a critical time of year and we have one chance to do that right, so it needs to be with something that we can not only fix quickly when it breaks but also that we understand what’s going on.”
Strukoff agrees that agronomists need to have those conversations with their farm clients.
“What I have learned since joining Bourgault would have really benefited me a lot (in the past) knowing what the limitations are and what you can do with the various tools. You have to understand what a farmer’s equipment can do,” he says. “You can’t just give them a recommendation, here’s your prescription, you go and figure it out on your own. We could actually help them achieve a higher goal if we’re included in these decisions along the way.”
One of the key things about equipment, that a year like 2019 certainly demonstrated, is the need to try and maintain as much flexibility as possible to be able to deal with different environmental conditions and changing crops.
“I think long-term plans for farmers when it comes to purchasing new equipment or upgrading old equipment is to get themselves to a position where they have the most flexible drill that they can have, that they can use in all sorts of conditions, whether it’s wet or dry,” says Thompson.
Strukoff says he’s had the opportunity of seeding with most seeding equipment and there is a lot of new planting and singulation technology coming out, but that also means it’s vitally important to keep up with what is new and what different systems or technologies can offer.
“It’s exciting to see the differences and how you can manipulate these different seeding systems to maximize their potential,” he says. “As an agronomist, you want to get up to speed as to what are the pros and cons, so when a producer comes to you and asks, ‘What kind of drill should I get?’, we can answer some of these questions.”
Use what you have
It’s not always about changing equipment, says Dow, but rather maintaining a flexible approach that looks at the full potential of equipment a farmer already has. “Rather than being reactionary, and saying spring 2020 is going to be tough, I don’t know if my drill I have, which works great for my farm on most years is going to be a good thing, being flexible, and maybe thinking about how can I improve what I have rather than completely changing it, is often a better perspective,” said Dow.
What’s critical is to have these conversations, said Dow, during the winter, well in advance of spring, so that farmers have a chance to adapt.
“Now is the time that farmers are going to be coming in and having conversations about booking fertilizer, so it’s a great time to be talking about how they are going to put it down,” she said. “If those conversations happen now, it gives us time to adapt and to make something work because otherwise we’re going to hit spring, and if you add difficult conditions to that, and we haven’t planned ahead, we’re going to do things poorly.”
Changing crop types on Prairie farms is also pushing a need for a different mindset on equipment choices, and driving the need to adapt and innovate. Dow illustrated this point with an experience from her own farm.
Four years ago, they started growing corn. The farm has an air seeder and a planter, and Dow said the air seeder is a flexible piece of equipment that generally does a good job. What they found as they prepared to seed their first year of corn, however, was an issue about how to get their fertilizer down.
“I’ve never been a fan of broadcasting, so we put an old Elmer’s cultivator on and hooked an old cart up to it and used that to band down our fertilizer for corn, so that was the first hurdle crossed,” she said.
After harvest another issue was dealing with the high corn residue. “We used a chopping corn head, and disked a couple of times, and it looked like we had a good seedbed,” said Dow. “But we quickly discovered that our air seeder is really intended for zero till and when you bring it into soft soil with high residue, you start to have problems.”
Dow was growing canola after corn and couldn’t achieve the seed placement she wanted. “There were cornstalks and everything had been pulled up that was worked underneath, so we quickly realized that although we had thought through these fertilizer questions, and even though our seeder had good placement, and we kind of had a one-pass system, when we changed the crops that we were growing on our farm, we had a fairly expensive seeding implement that only puts wheat in the ground.”
Spring 2020 will likely bring some unusual challenges for farmers, which may drive them to think about how they can make changes and adapt their equipment to be more conducive to the conditions they face and the crops they want to grow.
“In a year like this it could be as easy as just adding mid-row banders or taking the single-chute disk drill and splitting out some runs,” says Dow. “Maybe it’s hooking up a fertilizer cart with some mid-rows to a planter, maybe it’s taking an old cultivator that has a different style of shank that’s going to work well this year, so we can put fertilizer down if we’re cultivating. Those are not really outside-of-the-box ideas; those are all very easy things to be doing.”