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A risky business

Moisture extremes are just one of the realities that make farming in Manitoba a real challenge and can affect trade

In recent years grain production in Manitoba has been batted from one weather extreme to another.

There have been cool, wet seasons and hot, dry seasons. And each leave effects that linger far after the last bushel is harvested that can have big and unpredictable effects like a trade crisis because of an unexpected herbicide residue.

Why it matters: Weather patterns and other production issues can have an impact long after harvest and you need to know how to manage them.

That was the message Pam de Rocquigny, general manager of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association, brought to the recent Manitoba Agronomists Conference.

Pam de Rocquigny.
photo: File

“One of the obvious risks that we can’t control is weather and the extremes of weather,” de Rocquigny told agronomists in her presentation.

De Rocquigny was referring specifically to the dry conditions across much of southern Manitoba this past growing season, which caused a number of production issues for growers and generally lower yields. But she cautioned the agronomists to also remember those lingering effects.

“We see things such as residues in the soil that can impact following crops,” she said, showing a slide of herbicide carry-over in corn from 2012, which was also an issue with dry conditions in 2018. “Dry conditions can have an impact on subsequent years of production that may impact the profitability of your producers.”

Developing strategies

When it comes to mitigating the risk of moisture extremes, especially in a highly variable environment like Manitoba, there’s a lot of work being done to try and develop effective water management strategies.

The MWBGA is partnering with the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers (MPSG) and Manitoba Canola Growers Association on a funding application to examine different water management strategies and produce a comprehensive report on how to better manage moisture extremes.

For example, a lot of growers are investing in tile drainage, and that’s leading to the need for research to determine optimum tile installation protocols on a range of Manitoba soils. Assessing what the risk level actually is requires some improvements in soil moisture modelling using existing infrastructure.

Optimizing nitrogen (N) management is another important adaptive strategy that could save producers undue costs.

“In terms of nitrogen management, how can we deal with that moisture uncertainty so that we are creating a system that has resiliency to either low moisture or high moisture?” said de Rocquigny.

There is also a lot of current research into tillage, said de Rocquigny, and more farmers are implementing different types of tillage systems on their farms like strip tillage and vertical tillage.

“You as agronomists need to be up to date on the latest information and research in order to help your clients become more familiar with how those different tillage operations could have a fit on your clients’ farms,” she said.

Genetics also play a huge part in mitigating against moisture risk, and the Manitoba Crop Variety Evaluation Trials (MCVET) evaluates cereal varieties in terms of resiliencies. “Some varieties definitely perform better under drier conditions and others under wet conditions and then there’s varieties that perform on average no matter what the conditions are,” said de Rocquigny. “That’s valuable information in terms of knowing what your risk level is.”

The Manitoba Corn Growers Association and MPSG are also doing some work into genetic resiliency and using phytoglobin (a type of plant protein) as a genetic marker which has been identified as conferring moisture resiliency within some corn and some soybean hybrids or varieties. The aim is to create a genetic tool for breeders that they can incorporate into future varieties to help producers and agronomists cope with extreme moisture conditions, said de Rocquigny.

Pest problems

The emergence or spread of new pests or diseases is always a huge production risk that agronomists and growers need to be aware of and take measures to prevent, such as ensuring they have good crop rotations.

In corn, Goss’s wilt has gone from being a new disease in Manitoba 10 years ago to being a widespread issue across southern Manitoba today. Northern corn rootworm is another relatively new pest that has been identified in only a few locations in Manitoba so far, but is another good example of new pests that emerge largely due to poor crop rotations.

“You’re selecting for higher risk level when you’re not practising good crop rotation,” said de Rocquigny.

Herbicide-resistant weeds are also on the rise, including glyphosate-resistant kochia. “This is something new on the radar as well and agronomists need to be aware of its distribution, and be prepared to answer your clients’ questions about, ‘How do I manage something like glyphosate-resistant kochia?’ when it appears on their farm.”

It’s just as important to be proactive about pests that aren’t here yet but are knocking on the door, like waterhemp (which has already been found in Manitoba) and Palmer amaranth.

“These are new and emerging, and we assume that the risk level is on the lower end, but once here, the risk is going to skyrocket. How do we develop a plan to mitigate those when some of these new pests come forward and start being problematic for your producers’ profitability?” said de Rocquigny.

Crop protection tools

Ongoing access to crop protection tools is vital to growers, but with a lot of scrutiny falling on practices like pre-harvest applications of glyphosate, what can be done to ensure growers still have these tools at hand?

Pre-harvest application of glyphosate has come under increased scrutiny not only by our end-users but also by the public’s increased interest in the production practices that farmers are using on their farm that could cause those residues to end up in the food that they eat, according to de Rocquigny.

“Don’t apply glyphosate to cereals when kernels are 30 per cent moisture or greater because it can lead to residues that are actually greater than that maximum residue limit (MRL),” she said.

Timing of that application is difficult in a field that is extremely variable but producers should always err on the side of too late than too early, she added.

“For farmers who have multiple acres of spring wheat and can’t apply it all at the optimum time, they still want to be erring on the side of too late in order to protect our markets by not exceeding those MRLs or having residues that are going to cause concerns for our end-users,” she said, advising agronomists to make sure their clients are applying fall glyphosate in a proper manner and following the label.

Some end-users or buyers also have contract limitations on fall applications of the glyphosate. As an example, one oat buyer and some malt barley buyers will not take product that has been treated with pre-harvest glyphosate. Italy is refusing to buy Canadian durum wheat because of the same concerns.

The “Keep It Clean” program, a collaborative effort between many commodity organizations on a national level provides information about what products could be a concern to end markets.

“A lot of the products grown on our farms are exported, so we need to be careful that we are protecting those export markets,” said de Rocquigny.

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