The farms that are winners tomorrow will be run by farmers who are proactively understanding and defusing production problems today.
There are a number of growing issues that could be a disaster tomorrow, but growers can prevent them if they’re committed to doing the right thing now.
The best example, and the one that’s a threat to the most farms in Manitoba, is weed resistance to herbicides.
We’ve known for quite some time how resistance develops and the role that overuse of herbicides can play. Back in the 1990s, when I started as a reporter for the Co-operator it was one of the first lessons the agriculture faculty at the University of Manitoba very patiently taught me.
In each weed population, a very small proportion will be immune to any given control method, it explained. After a single application, there won’t be much difference, as the seed bank in the soil still contains plenty of susceptible seeds. After a number of years of applying a single product, however, that population turns over and you’ll have a real problem on your hands.
This is not just an issue for in-season applications, but also for the precious glyphosate that is at the foundation of zero-till farming. Farms assume the scope and shape they do because of a number of things, not least of which are the tools at the disposal of farmers.
It’s is not coincidental that farms grew dramatically in size with the advent of this new technology and system — it made field operations so much more efficient, allowing farmers to cover more ground in a more timely manner, especially during the crucial seeding season.
But consider what the farm of today will look like if some or most of these tools become ineffective. Do you think a 20,000-acre farm, sown the old way, with tillage and a press drill, would in any way be efficient?
That’s an exaggeration of course, but some of the steps growers have been forced to take in other areas are every bit as limiting. In Australia, they’re collecting and burning chaff. In the U.S. Cotton Belt they’ve been forced to hire crews to undertake the painstaking work of hand weeding glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth.
This isn’t the only case where a similar dynamic appears to be emerging. Clubroot isn’t a huge issue yet here in Manitoba, but Alberta canola growers have struggled mightily with this soil-borne disease. They’re undeniably in the forefront globally of understanding and fighting the problem. Clubroot is primarily a disease of vegetable crops that are grown on relatively small acreages. In Canada we’re growing canola, which is closely related to those vegetable crops, as an oilseed crop on millions of acres every year. We’ve introduced a susceptible host to a disease that is, in the words of University of Alberta plant pathologist Stephen Strelkov, “highly adaptable.” The result is in hindsight predictable.
Clubroot figured out canola. Then it began destroying canola. Researchers developed resistant varieties, which clubroot promptly figured out in just a couple of seasons. Despite herculean efforts on the part of the research community, extension agents and farmers themselves, the march of the disease has barely slowed, much less halted.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, because knowledgable people such as Canola Council of Canada agronomist Dan Orchard, who first discovered the disease in a canola field, point out there are farmers right in the midst of the worst of it who are proceeding on with the business of farming without any major issues.
They’re doing so by acknowledging it’s a problem and altering their management practices accordingly. They’ve lengthened canola rotations and moved to resistant varieties. They’re actively seeking out hot spots before they’ve spread throughout a field and planting them down to non-host crops.
They’re planning their field operation to work on infected areas last, lessening the risk of spreading the disease, while also limiting the amount of time-consuming equipment hygiene that is necessary.
This isn’t a question of more management just for the sake of it, it’s a fundamental question of protecting what they’re currently doing and ensuring their farms remain viable. By making small changes today, they’re avoiding having to make drastic and wholesale changes later.
It would seem other issues are starting to loom as well — fungicide resistance, for example, in some of our common crop diseases. This is a bit more of a community issue since the disease is wind-borne, but again, the solution is rotating control products and growing varieties with higher levels of resistance.
Nobody likes to make work for the sake of work, but getting this right is going to be the difference between success and failure over time.