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Seed early with caution

Whether they survive or fail, these early seeding plots will provide some valuable data on seeding dates

Extension agronomist Anastasia Kubinec wasn’t heeding her own advice to farmers the first week of April. She was seeding — but not because she’s banking on pulling in a bin-buster. Rather, she’s betting on a bust.

Kubinec, Manitoba Agriculture and Rural Initiatives’ oilseed specialist, wants to demonstrate the risks of seeding too early, especially frost-sensitive plants such as canola.

But it’s risky. If canola sown in plots at the University of Manitoba Ian N. Morrison Research Farm, in early April does well, the project could have the opposite effect. Either way, the results will be on display at this year’s Crop Diagnostic School.

“It’s a calculated risk,” she said in an interview April 5. And that’s just what farmers who seed early do too. Farmers have been calling Kubinec about seeding canola early and some have gone ahead.

“I don’t necessarily agree with what they’re doing,” she said.

“But this year is totally out of whack and who knows what’s going to happen?”

Yield limits

Earlier-seeded crops generally yield more than later-seeded ones. There is a limit, but given an early spring and the inability to see the future, it’s impossible to determine exactly when it hits.

A killing frost over the next five weeks is likely, according to Kubinec. Unlike wheat, the growing point for canola is above the soil surface. A new canola crop with exposed cotyledons will die after four hours of below-zero temperatures, Kubinec said.

“Prolonged cold periods are what we don’t want,” she said. “If it’s below zero for half an hour you’ll probably lose a few leaves but not the growing point. But if it gets down there for two hours, four hours, six hours yeah, you’re toast.”

Kubinec recommends sowing canola after the soil temperature is at least 5 C throughout the day and within 10 days of when the last average frost usually occurs. For much of Manitoba that’s the first week of May.

But this is Manitoba. There are no guarantees when it comes to spring frost. Many canola fields were damaged or destroyed by frost June 9, 2009. That year crops sown in early June were still susceptible.

The soil temperature was 2 C the morning of April 5 and would likely reach 5 C or 6 C, but for only a few hours, Kubinec said.

“It’s still pretty cool.”

Delayed emergence

Cool soils can delay crop emergence, resulting in uneven stands and weak plants.

“Your flea beetle protection (on treated canola seed) is only from three weeks to four weeks and then it wears off and if your canola isn’t big enough the flea beetles are going to chow down,” Kubinec said. “And there are flea beetles out already.”

The high cost of canola seed also raises the ante when considering early seeding. And if it’s a new variety, supplies could be tight or unavailable to the farmer who has to reseed.

While there are deadlines on how late farmers can seed and qualify for crop insurance there are no rules about how early farmers can seed, said David Van Deynze, the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation’s (MASC) manager of claim services.

“We try not to dictate producers’ management practices,” he said. “If they believe it to be the right thing to do on their farm that’s up to them.”

However, when assessing claims MASC considers whether the farmer followed accepted practices. Wheat is relatively hardy and tolerates spring frost better than most crops. Canola is susceptible and soybeans more so. Therefore, a claim on wheat sown early in April probably would be approved, but one on soybeans would be closely scrutinized, Van Deynze said.

“Again, we don’t have a rule that says you can’t sow soybeans now but if you do and have a claim I’m sure the corporation would look at that situation very hard and try to evaluate whether that was the prudent thing to do,” he said.

As of early April there had been some seeding, but not a lot, Van Deynze said. There were lots of questions about early seeding in March with the snow gone and record-breaking warm temperatures.

“In many places farmers could’ve been seeding in March (because it was physically possible) and that would’ve made a guy like me very nervous,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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