Row cropping potatoes may be headed over the hill

While potato growers in other regions have seen bed planting come into fashion over the past few years, it’s very early days here in Manitoba.

In fact there’s just one operation in the province using the system, the Berry family, at their Glenboro-area Over and Under the Hill Farms. Chad Berry says this is the second season they’ll be using it, and that roughly 10 per cent of the operation’s potato acres are bed planted.

He says the system appears to have a number of advantages, but cautions that it’s definitely a learning process, since local growing conditions are much different than the Pacific Northwest region where more potato acres are being grown in beds.

“When we went into this we were hoping to increase our water and nitrogen efficiency, get more evenly sized tubers and generally become more efficient,” Berry said during a recent interview. “I would say we’re seeing about a 10 per cent efficiency gain in water and nitrogen, and we’re saving an operation by not hilling.”

Garry Sloik, general manager of the Keystone Potato Producers’ Association (KPPA), says there are compelling reasons for Manitoba growers to look for every efficiency these days, and that’s part of the reason KPPA and the province’s processors are funding some bed-planting trial plots at the Canada-Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre in Carberry and at Berry’s farm this summer.

“In an era of a par dollar, we have to become as efficient as we possibly can,” Sloik said. “Frankly we need to improve our yields if we want to stay in the business.”

To give some sense of the scale of the challenge, the Pacific Northwest region averages yields of about 800 cwt/acre. Manitoba’s 10-year average is about 250 cwt/acre — although Sloik points out that if you take just the last five years, the average climbs to 280 cwt/acre.

“We know we need to move in this direction,” Sloik said.

Part of KPPA’s commitment to improving productivity for the potato sector can be seen in the recent hiring of a staff agronomist, Andrew Ronald, who joined the KPPA after a stint at one of the major processors. One of the opportunities that Ronald is focusing on is looking at the fit for a bed-planting system in the province.

He says it’s too early to tell for sure, but senses there might be some opportunities to incorporate it. For example it may let growers get the same plant populations per acre while increasing the linear spacing of the plants within the row, by sneaking an additional row into the bed. In the bed-planting configuration that the Berrys are using, five rows are planted in the same space that four rows would occupy in a conventional row system.

“I’m a big believer in the role of plant populations in our production system,” Ronald said. “At the end of the day, we’re simply capturing sunlight and this system should let us do that more efficiently spatially within the field.”

However, he also stresses that this won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution and that a big part of the challenge is going to be identifying exactly how and where it might work best. For example, he says there may be a fit for some of the varieties that tend to produce oversize potatoes, since the system seems to encourage more evenly sized tubers. There also may be a fit for end uses that require very specific sizes of potatoes — for example seed potatoes, speciality-type potatoes for the table market, seed potatoes or even a smaller-size processing potato for a speciality use.

“I certainly think that bed planting will prove to be advantageous for some of these uses,” Ronald said.

Back at Glenboro, Chad Berry says he has developed a bit of a feel for the system over the past season, and suspects that it will fit on sandier land, where water conservation is a concern, rather than drainage being the big issue. He also suspects it will be used on newer varieties like Innovator and Russet Ranger, since the widely grown Russet Burbank variety doesn’t seem to benefit much from it.

“I certainly wouldn’t see this taking over the whole farm — not as long as we’re growing Russet Burbank, that’s for sure,” he said. “But I do think there are applications for it, especially with some of the other varieties.”

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Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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