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Southwestern Manitoba — semi-arid to semi-fluid

Dedicated minimum- and zero-till farmers are now dragging out tillage 
equipment that’s been in store for years

When Ryan and Wade Flannery began working on the drilling rigs to supplement grain farming, they did not imagine that several years later they would be working for oil companies year round.

“We (initially) went to the drilling rigs for something to do for the winter and now it’s turned into a full-time deal,” said Wade.

The Flannery brothers and many other farmers in southwestern Manitoba are developing strategies to cope with poor yields and drowned crops after consecutive wet seasons.

Southwestern Manitoba is traditionally recognized as part of the Palliser Triangle, the broad area of Western Canada that early explorer John Palliser declared as too dry to farm. He was wrong about that, but farming success in the area has historically depended on moisture-conserving practices, and farmers were among the first to develop minimum and zero till.

These days, the tillage equipment is being pulled out of the weeds. Troy Mayes, a grain farmer from Pierson, said his fields are so wet the sandy clay loam swallows his equipment. In the spring he tried to harrow with a small four-wheel-drive tractor with triples.

Troy Mayes used a deep-tillage cultivator this year for the first time since he was a kid.

Troy Mayes used a deep-tillage cultivator this year for the first time since he was a kid.
photo: Meghan Mast

“It just sunk out of sight,” he said. When he tried to rescue the machine with his larger four-wheel drive, it got stuck as well. By the end of that night there was a five-vehicle pileup — including a neighbour’s backhoe that tried to excavate the submerged machines.

The next morning he borrowed another neighbour’s tractor and managed to pull everything out.

Later in the season he dug out his dad’s deep-tillage cultivator. “I haven’t used it since I was a kid,” he said.

He added some new shovels, cylinders and hydraulic hoses and cultivated deeper than he ever had. “My dad thought we were going too deep but I thought if I was going to go over it, I’d sink it in good and get it aerated.”

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Mayes is reluctant to alter his farming practices too much based on a few wet years, but has made some changes. He added triples on his tractor for better flotation, and he is considering burning for weed control.

Balancing act

Today the Flannery brothers work at the rig during the day and in the evenings farm what they can on their fields near Pipestone. They alternate working weekends so someone is around to tend to the land.

This year they sowed 1,500 acres but had to make a crop insurance claim for 3,200 acres which were too wet to seed. Weeds have taken over much of it.

“That’s our field,” Ryan said while on a tour of the area in his pickup, pointing to a field overgrown with cattails. “We sowed this end to end last year and now it’s…”

Invasions of weeds like this field of foxtail are prompting some farmers to consider burning for weed control.

Invasions of weeds like this field of foxtail are prompting some farmers to consider burning for weed control.
photo: Meghan Mast

He trailed off. “If we had a market for cattails we’d be on our way,” he laughed.

While the Mayes brothers managed to seed some of their canola and wheat, they are not sure how well their wheat will sell as fusarium levels are high.

They seeded fewer acres this year, so they won’t have the lost investment they had last year when they seeded everything and then watched everything wash away with heavy rains, hail and even a tornado.

Having a second job helps cushion the financial blow. But juggling two jobs is not easy. Most days the brothers leave the house before their wives or children are awake. Around seeding and harvest time, once they finish in the fields and return home, everyone is in bed again.

“I told the boss that we’re one good crop away from quitting (oil) and we’re still looking for that good crop,” said Ryan.

The business is a family legacy. Their grandfather settled the farm in 1944 after moving from Ireland. And their father, nearly 80, continues to help out. The brothers are not ready to give up on farming yet. They hold on, hoping for better conditions in the future.

“I guess in the good years it seems worth it,” said Ryan.

Wade chipped in from the back seat. “I think it’s the lifestyle you want. It’s the lifestyle you’re trying to get.”

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