In dry years, every little bit of water in the soil helps — and that’s tough to find in heavily compacted soils.
That’s where controlled traffic farming comes in.
“The idea was to address the detrimental effects of compaction. We know our equipment keeps getting heavier and heavier, and we know we cover a fair amount of our field,” said Peter Gamache, project leader with Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta.
“Depending on soil moisture conditions, about 80 per cent of the damage from compaction occurs in the first pass.”
With controlled traffic farming, farmers can “permanently separate crop and traffic zones,” said Gamache, who spoke at the Tactical Farming conference in mid-February.
“There’s places where we drive, and we don’t drive on the rest of the field,” he said.
“And it’s permanent. We’re always going back to the same tracks with every implement we go into the field with.”
Controlled traffic farming launched in 2011 with five farmers who wanted to “improve growing conditions and ultimately soil health,” said Gamache. Using machinery with matching axle widths, farmers run their equipment on permanent “tramlines” that keep soil compaction to the traffic zones and away from the crops.
The idea is to reduce compaction and solve the problems that come with it, like delayed emergence and maturity of the crop in wheel tracks, said Gamache.
“Once you start looking, it’s pretty easy to see the damage from wheel tracks,” he said.
“It’s one of those random things that may impact yield.”
In Australia, where controlled traffic farming is more common, farmers have seen yield increases of between 10 to 15 per cent, as well as reduced fuel consumption, improved water infiltration, and increased water use efficiency.
And so far in Alberta, controlled traffic farming has opened up “a lot of opportunities” for the eight farmers across Alberta who are now working with it.
“We’ve certainly seen a trend. Infiltration has been better almost all the time on the controlled traffic sites,” said Gamache.
But despite some of the benefits Gamache has seen with controlled traffic farming in Alberta, the practice hasn’t caught on among producers, largely due to the amount of work it takes to set the system up.
“Initially, the guys had a lot of work in terms of management and development of controlled traffic farming. It was a pile of work,” said Gamache.
“But once they got rolling, the system works great.”
And though controlled traffic farming is “a fairly rigid system,” it’s also “very resilient,” he said.
“It reduces randomness. We don’t often have a lot of random things that happen. So it’s given us a way to sort of manage risks,” said Gamache.
“We’re not saying you can’t do that in a random traffic system. What we’re saying is that controlled traffic makes it that much easier and more accurate to do for best crop management.”