In farming, just as in any other industry, career, or lifestyle, it is easy to fall into a rut. You want to do what works, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? You find a pattern, a method of doing things that works well for you, and you stick with it. While this can be effective, it sometimes stops you from trying something new.
The pace of change in agriculture is continually astounding. New technologies like drones and robotics will change the way we farm in the very near future. Data-logging and advanced computer programming has revolutionized how we look at our fields, and how we grow our crops. Every year, you have to step up and try some new ideas, or you risk falling into obselescence.
For the very first time in our farm’s history this year, we tried straight-cutting canola and planting a cover crop. We also stepped out and bought a weather station, the first of its kind on our farm. While these ideas may not necessarily work out for us, and yes, they can be expensive, how do you know unless you try?
Perhaps I should start by explaining just what “straight-cutting” is. In the old days, the only way to kill a crop and dry it down was to swath it. As shown in the photo, you basically just cut the stems and lay the crop into a row. Later, after the swath has dried out, you pick up the swath with the combine and thresh and separate it. The disadvantages of swathing are numerous, but take a look at the swath in the photo. See how bulky and fluffy it is? A strong wind will begin to lift and spread it, which can lead to substantial losses. And, once the swath has been spread out, how do you pick it up? It can become a total nightmare. Moreover, it is yet another pass through the field, which increases fuel consumption, repairs, et cetera.
Roundup revolutionized this process. Farmers were able to spray the crop to finish it off instead of swathing it, which is a much safer and faster operation. So why swath canola? Well, unlike our other crops, canola is still not fully “domesticated”, per say. As soon as canola dries down, it immediately begins dropping pods. It wants to reproduce, so this is a natural process. Thousands of years of breeding have selected against that in wheat, corn and soybeans, but canola has not had that long of a breeding effort. To prevent excess losses, conventional wisdom was to swath it and have it dry down in the swath, where that process could be withheld.
There is a huge push to develop varieties resistant to pod drop and shatter, and that is finally beginning to pay off. New varieties are now available that hold onto their seeds until they can be harvested. So, armed with these new varieties, we decided to try straight-cutting this year. We were far from first; some farmers have been doing it for years, even without pod-shatter resistant varieties. You just have to time it right and ensure you have a clean, weed-free field, or that you dessicate it at the proper time. While things didn’t quite go the way I hoped they would (I learned patience is a virtue in waiting for proper dry-down) and we had to deal with a very plugged combine (4 hours inside a combine pulling stems out by hand is not a pleasurable way to spend an evening), with all of it now in the bin, I can confidently say we will try more acres next year. It may be a little slower than picking up swaths, but if I can avoid sitting in that stupid swather, it’s all worth it.
The Weather Station
In the winter of 2014, we spent some time looking at these John Deere Field Connect Weather Stations. The data they were generating was fascinating; imagine always knowing exactly what your soil moisture level is. Knowing what the soil temperature is. Knowing the exact details of each spring frost event, from the lowest temperature to how long it stayed below freezing. Imagine knowing what the humidity is within the crop canopy, and how it changes throughout the day. All of these things, and more, are possible with a 3G-connected weather station. While technical issues kept it out of our fields in 2014, we got one installed this year.
We planted it in a durum field a few miles from our home farm, way out in the middle of the field. There, it gave us rain totals far more accurate than the plastic rain gauge we have at home, without the usual “did I empty that before that last rain?” Throughout the entire season, I knew how much moisture the crop was using, and how badly that summer heat was hurting the crop. It gave me somewhere to start in the decision of whether the crop humidity was high enough to consider a fungicide. It really has been a valuable tool, and as we learn more about how our crops respond to varying weather, these data from 2015 will be usable going forward to create trendlines.
For as long as Leguees have been farming in this area, we have fought with hardpan soil. Roots, unable to penetrate the near-impermeable soil mere inches beneath the surface, are forced to move laterally, thereby competing much more intensely with their neighbours. There’s a reason some of these soils are called “burn-out soils”. Without regular rainfall, roots burn up what moisture is in the topsoil and then run out. Conversely, heavy rainfall creates pools of water on these spots and the crop drowns out. We have tried many different crops with different rooting styles to try and find something that would punch through, but to no avail. The only option remaining is to deep rip it mechanically, which is expensive, time-consuming, and not really the best fit for our no-till strategies. That is, until I heard about tillage radish.
This amazing plant builds a tuber-root so powerful, it exerts hundreds of pounds of pressure on each square inch of soil. I seeded it just about two weeks ago now. The strategy is to plant it in late summer and force it to focus on its root system. When a killing frost comes along in mid-to late September, the radishes die, and (supposedly) decompose in time for spring seeding. My hope is that these incredibly powerful plants have enough strength to punch through these hardpan zones and create pathways for next years’ crop roots.
All of these ideas could someday prove to have been a waste of time and money. You never really know how these things will work out. Straight-cutting canola may be a short-term idea, and we may very well go back to swathing. The weather station’s data may prove too complex to be usable for anything more than an expensive rain gauge. The Tillage Radish may fail to hammer through our hardpan soil.
If humans thought like that, we would never have landed on the moon. We would never have fed 7 billion people. We would never have tried democracy. At heart, we are all pioneers, striving to continually find new and better ways to do things. To make life better. Farmers were the original prairie pioneers, and we are in an industry uniquely suited to always try and improve on ourselves. Why stop now?