When Lee Moats’ grandfather began farming in 1910, near Riceton, Sask., the soil was rich and fertile, and required little more than occasional summerfallow to produce bountiful crops of wheat and other cereal grains.
Moats’ father was a wheat grower too, although by the 1960s, the soil’s fertility was running low.
Today, as the third generation to farm these 2,660 acres, Moats and wife Laurie have changed the way they farm and put their focus on restoring soil fertility.
“My parents and my grandparents lived off that inherent soil fertility,” Moats said in a presentation at the recent Canadian Wheat Symposium in Winnipeg.
“That’s quite a change from the farm we have now. Now it’s all about nitrogen. My dad ran out and he had to look at building his soil back up. And we’ve spent considerable effort trying to do the same thing. Much of what we do seems to reflect where the fertility is coming from. It’s one of the key limiting factors.”
The Moats have been zero-tillage farmers for over 20 years and employ a much more diversified rotation of grains, oilseeds and pulse crops. The latter now make up anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent of their annual acreage. The other big change on their farm is that they no longer grow hard red spring wheat. A wheat midge infestation in 1990 was the “tipping point” on their decision to quit growing it, said Moats. Wheat was simply no longer profitable to grow.
“We felt we had to go a different direction,” he said.
That new direction was winter wheat, which they had first grown about five years earlier. Now a mainstay and a profitable one, its long-term yield averages 47 bushels per acre.
“We grow winter wheat for a whole bunch of reasons that are profitability oriented, and for reasons that aren’t,” said Moats.
For example, the couple has found winter wheat mitigates their weather risk.
“It’s been great in wet years when we can get it in the ground in the fall, because then we’re not out there in the spring struggling to plant those acres,” Moats said.
This past year, he saw winter wheat again play an important hedge against weather. After an August 6 hailstorm decimated what little crop they’d managed to get sown after spring flooding, Moats decided to seed winter wheat directly into their sodden hail-damaged canola. It proved to be the silver lining in one of their worst farming years in memory, as their winter wheat flourished in the near record-warm September that followed.
“It gave us one of the best establishment years we’ve had on wheat,” he said. “This year it was exceptional.”
They’re now hoping for an insulating snow cover to help the winter wheat successfully overwinter.
Time management is also key for the Moats, who only recently began farming full time after working off farm for nearly 30 years.
“At 2,660 acres, our farm is not big by today’s standards, but when you’re working full time you have to make time everywhere you can,” he said. “Winter wheat has played a big role in that for us.”
Moats said he believes winter wheat has a bright future.
“Winter wheat has the potential to be a much more significant player for the wheat business than it is,” he said. “It manages production risk. And that’s about profitability.”