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Overcoming ongoing challenges key to success

Farmer panel says finding solutions through trial and error moves operations forward

Farming is problem solving in action. There’s always a new challenge and there isn’t always a ready solution.

Why it matters: Farms always have challenges to face. These farmers say they looked for permanent solutions, some of which evolved over time.

What’s interesting is how every farmer chooses to deal with those challenges. At the Manitoba Agronomists Conference in Winnipeg earlier this winter, a panel of three Manitoba farmers shared some of the management practices they have implemented to help them succeed.

Co-operation

In 2000, Günter Jochum realized that their family grain farm near St. Francois Xavier was having problems with hiring seasonal help and was overequipped. After conversations with his brother-in-law, who farms but also runs a retail outlet with employees he wanted to keep year round, they decided to work together to try and solve these issues.

“We farm about the same amount of acres, about 3,200 or 3,300 each and we decided to harvest together,” said Jochum. “Since then it has morphed into where we do all our farming operations as one big farm, but I still have Blue Diamond Farms, and he still has Winter Seeds, two separate operations. We share hired help and all the equipment which is owned 50/50, and although we each own our individual farms it has helped us get around some of our challenges.”

The farm has got a lot leaner as they have gained efficiencies. “We have focused on our farm to become very efficient and to use minimal machinery investment, minimal labour and of course, we rely a lot on agronomists to pick up some of the slack where we aren’t maybe as well equipped,” said Jochum.

They can now direct seed and fertilize all their combined acres with just two people and harvest is done with three or four people. Crop rotation has also changed over the years. Since 1980 they’ve grown up to 12 different crops including strawberries, corn, peas, perennial ryegrass, soybeans, and many more. For the past five years they have been down to four crops, mainly wheat, oats, canola and soybeans.

Jochum sees some of the biggest challenges going forward being related to agricultural policy and trade issues such as ongoing minimum residue limits for glyphosate and other farm chemicals.

Erosion

Dean Toews farms with his dad and two brothers in MacGregor, and the farm’s sandy soil has presented some challenges over the years, especially in dry years when it’s prone to wind erosion.

“With drier years in the ’80s, one of the ways that we attempted to address the issue back then was shelterbelts but it wasn’t the greatest for actual residue management,” said Toews. “Then we moved into minimal till and with corn in the row crops that we were doing, it was tough to say we’re going to zero till corn or zero till wheat and canola because that still wasn’t the best fit for our land for profit.”

Toews still had challenges trying to get the fertilizer placement in his sandier soils, because of the risk of burn if the fertilizer ended up too close to the seed.

“Also, how were we going to minimize our number of passes to get fertilizer to the plants?” he said. “Those were some of the challenges.”

In the early 2000s, they started rotating with some potato growers.

“We were renting land and the potato growers were putting in a rye cover crop to help with the erosion issues and then we’d follow up with corn,” said Toews. “That in itself was a good thing, but what we struggled with was the effects of the cover crop on our new crop. If we didn’t spray it out, soon enough it would start robbing nutrients and if we sprayed it out too soon, (the soil) would still continue to erode.”

Wanting to leave the cover crop longer to protect the soil but also protect their corn yield, they decided to try strip tillage as a possible solution.

“The strip till works five inches deep and leaves a strip about eight inches wide, so if the plant goes in the middle of that it creates a short-term buffer and then we could leave the rye a little longer and spray it out later,” said Toews.

The strip till also allowed them to put all their nutrients down at the same time as they seeded, which Toews says has been a ‘game changer.’ “We’re placing our nutrients at a six- to eight-inch depth so all the nutrients are available to the plant underneath the plant,” he says. “The initial intention for the strip till was because we didn’t want to work our soybean ground at all and yet how do we get the nutrients for the corn? As things have evolved in the last six years, we’re just doing less and less tillage.”

Ron Krahn farms at Rivers, Manitoba with his brother and dad, primarily on Newdale clay loam and says it was the ’80s that finally persuaded his dad that he never wanted to till again.

“We had ditches right full of dirt. We still have a driveway that we use that we can just drive right from the road into the field and that’s all topsoil,” he said. “If you want to talk about sustainability, that’s not it. I don’t ever want to go back to that.”

They transitioned to zero till or a very minimum till in 1997, adapting their system along the way to work better for their operation, which has had five or six very wet years since.

Since 1999, they have only missed seeding one quarter section once. “We’ve stuck with our zero till and made it work, so we’ve been able to mitigate some risk,” he said.

Strict rotation

A huge factor in the success of the Krahns’ farm is their focus on rotation, which provides many benefits. They grow five grain crops each year, at a ratio of about 45 per cent wheat, 30 per cent canola and the remaining 25 per cent split between peas, soybeans and sunflowers.

Krahn sees his rotation as good risk management. “It’s the idea of the moving money ball and what’s your on-base percentage, and I feel that having a good rotation gets us on base every time,” he said. “We won’t hit a home run; we won’t have 100 per cent wheat when it goes to $15/bushel, but every year we’re going to have wheat, every year we’re going to have canola so to me that reduces risk.”

Krahn says he also doesn’t like to chase markets with acres. “I just feel it adds risk and so we’ve settled into this rotation and it seems to work very well,” he says.

Although sunflowers have been extremely profitable the last couple of years, Krahn isn’t tempted to expand them beyond his usual 300 to 500 acres for a couple of reasons. “I’m not willing to give up my rotation,” he says. “Sticking with a rotation also helps us with marketing.”

They are also conscious of herbicide-resistance issues and having a steady crop rotation allows them to also rotate their herbicides.


Being strong on the basics

Ron Krahn says he’s willing to try anything once on his farm, but believes they have to be strong on the basics and he doesn’t like to hear the sales pitch of ‘insurance,’

“I think too often we’re spending money on inputs from a fear-based marketing approach, and I really worry about that,” he said. “When we’ve had tremendous profitability, it’s easy to forget what’s actually providing value. I’m still convinced that good farm management trumps weather risk and spending money on every input under the sun, and that’s where I’ve tried to focus a lot of my time.”

Krahn says one of the most exciting things they have implemented on the farm over the past couple of years is the Crop Intelligence program. Offered through a partnership of South Country Equipment and John Deere, Crop Intelligence is an app that interprets data collected from the Field Connect hardware including soil probes and sensors that measure soil moisture, rainfall, air temperature, humidity and leaf wetness in the field, and calculates ‘crop available water’ and ‘water-driven yield potential.’

“It has a rain gauge and a 100-cm probe that goes down into the ground,” said Krahn. “It’s installed right after seeding, right in between the seed rows so it’s actually measuring what our crop is using and what’s available to the crop.”

Krahn already sees the value of the system in helping him to have more confidence in his potential crop yields.

From the agronomic side, knowing soil moisture levels and relating that to potential yield also helps to make decisions about the likely benefit to things like top dressing fertilizer of spraying fungicides.

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