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The benefits of a controlled traffic crop

Confining equipment traffic could pay production dividends

Ten years ago Adam Gurr was surfing the Internet one evening and came across an idea that would change the way he operates — controlled traffic farming.

Just as the name sounds, it’s a farming system built around permanent wheel tracks in each field; the crop zones and traffic lanes are permanently separated.

It leaves the productive part of the field mellow and unpacked, increasing productivity and in the traffic lanes, compaction can actually mean it’s easier to get through a field in wet conditions.

Adam Gurr
photo: Gord Gilmour

“It’s a pretty common-sense thing,” Gurr, who farms north of Brandon near Rapid City, told farmers here at Ag Days. “You’re using compaction to your advantage in the traffic zones, and removing random traffic and compaction from the rest of the field.”

After reading up on the technique and carefully considering the implications, Gurr began experimenting with it in 2010, with good results.

“In 2011, we committed fully to the system,” Gurr said during his presentation. “Since then we’ve planned all of our equipment purchases for CTF.”

Gurr said he considers himself to truly have been controlled traffic farming since the 2012 season. He admits the switch was relatively easy for them since two major pieces of their equipment, the tractor and combine, already shared the same wheel track.

Water management

Western Manitoba is no stranger to wet growing and harvest conditions and Gurr said in excess water years he can really see the difference. The large equipment of today can have a huge impact on the soil profile when it is wet. The process is pretty straightforward mechanics — a heavy article passes over the surface, squashing the air out of the soil, reducing porosity and affecting productivity. The soil eventually becomes a hard-packed mass with no channels for air or water to pass through.

“I can’t stress this enough — there’s just a dramatic increase in infiltration,” Gurr said.

That means the scenario climate scientists warn of for Manitoba — dry growing seasons punctuated with high-intensity rainfall — could give the production system a leg up in productivity.

“In control traffic farming, 85 per cent of a field is not trafficked, and will capture more rainfall,” Gurr said. “It will likely be more sustainable too because of things such as less water erosion.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the system also drains and dries land better Gurr said, something that can be a benefit in wet years and make field operations more economical.

“There’s also a reduction in draft — as much as 60 per cent,” he said. “It’s definitely easier to pull a drill through dry ground than a wet field.”

He notices a clear difference when operating after a rainfall. The traffic lanes are harder and can support his equipment far better.

“If you lose your GPS and get off your tram line a bit, suddenly it’s greasy and you’re throwing muck,” he said. “Get back on it and it’s better.”

Productivity

There’s plenty of scientific evidence that the system can improve productivity once it’s up and running. Gurr pointed farmers to the work done by Harper Adams University in the United Kingdom. That institution has done wide-ranging research on the topic, which is readily available on its website (www.harper-adams.ac.uk).

Inspired by this, Gurr decided to do some research of his own and ran trials at various locations across his farm. One was on the Beresford mineral soil type, the other on Newdale clay loam. The trials ran over four growing seasons, from 2013 to 2016, and consisted of a CTF treatment and simulated random traffic applied at the start of the season. There was no in-season traffic.

I didn’t see a response on the Beresford soil,” he said. “Either the trail was not long enough to show benefits, or this soil is just not susceptible to compaction from traffic.

“But at Rapid City, on Newdale soil, I saw a numerical response,” he said. “CTF yielded 103 per cent compared to random traffic. I figure that’s $17 an acre on this field this year.”

Gurr also noted that the productivity effect showed up when it was needed most, during a challenging production year, according to other researchers.

“It’s in the extremes that they see the yield effect,” Gurr said. “If water is ideal, the plant doesn’t have to explore the soil profile.”

He also noted there appears to be significant differences in the way certain crops react to the practice.

“It really shows up in something like canola,” he said.

Early days

One thing Gurr says is very clear is that this system isn’t simple to incorporate.

One of the biggest issues is the varying wheel gauges of much of the equipment available and already in use on farms. He suggests growers who are curious about the benefits start thinking of this when making buying decisions.

“Who’s going to go out and flip millions in equipment? We just used this when making new purchases,” he said.

He also concedes the economics of adoption will likely vary by region, soil type, crops grown and pre-existing traffic intensity.

He called upon the research community to engage in CTF-based research projects to define the benefits under western Canadian growing conditions, and noted that adoption will largely be driven by the extension community’s efforts.

“It’s a very new idea still in Western Canada,” he said.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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