GxExM: A new approach to juggling crop production variables

Understanding how genetics, environment and management all play off each other can boost the bottom line

There are a whole bunch of variables that can affect yield — and farmers have to be constantly adjusting their plans as conditions change in their fields.

But it’s also easy to fall into the trap of assuming what you’ve always done will get you the results you want.

And that’s why some experts advocate a system with the rather clunky name of the ‘GxExM’ approach. Shorthand for ‘Genetics by Environment by Management’ interactions, the approach aims to boost the bottom line by heightening producers’ awareness of how these three factors interact with each other.

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And while the moniker is relatively new, the practice isn’t, said Jeremy Boychyn, agronomy research extension specialist with Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.

“Most producers are already doing this, even if they don’t know they’re doing it,” said Boychyn.

“This is what they’re doing when they try to find the best variety for their location or when they decide whether or not to spray a fungicide on their crop because the environment got drier.

“That’s them saying, ‘OK, my environment has changed, so how does that affect my management decisions?’”

Drilling down

The approach is designed to get you asking specific questions, he said.

“When you bring something new in, ask questions about whether what you’ve had in place is best aligned for that new tool,” Boychyn said. “The more questions you can ask around that, the more answers we can find to help producers become more aware of the impact of the decisions they’re making.”

Say, for instance, you want to bring in a new variety. Maybe you were attracted by the yield potential or a disease-resistance trait — that’s the G. Now it’s time to look at the E and M.

The environment is, of course, your farm — its soil type, typical seeding dates, average number of frost-free days, prevalent or recurring disease or pest issues, and so on.

So the E questions might centre around the trials for this new-to-your-farm variety and the environmental conditions where the trials were conducted. For a variety that’s been around for a while, you might turn to growers or agronomists in your area who have experience with that particular variety.

The M questions are a little trickier: Your customary management practices — say fertilizer application or use of fungicides — are, after all, yours. That makes it more difficult to know how they may affect this new variety.

But asking these types of questions can help you develop the right solution for your operation, Boychyn said.

“If you’re able to ask these questions and get an answer to those questions, the goal would be to get more production, more efficient input use, or more efficient management decisions,” he said. “The more you’re able to ask some of those simple questions to get the best out of the crop in this situation, with this variety, or this management, you can hopefully become more effective and efficient with what you’re doing.”

The process takes time, finding answers to your questions may not be easy and you’re not always going to be able to find a simple solution, Boychyn added.

“As much as we can ask the questions, the answers may be a little fuzzy or unclear,” he said. “You can try to find those answers with on-farm research, but it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take work — maybe multiple years of trialling a new variety to determine whether it works best with your management.

“There’s going to be some risk that you’re not going to get the results that you want or you’re not going to be able to find the answers.”

‘Moving target’

And there’s no app for this process, he added.

“This is a constantly moving target,” he said. “It’s not like there’s going to be one answer that’s going to stick and stay. There’s not one single space that’s going to find the exact answer because each producer is in a different environment with different management and different genetics. So that creates complexity around it.”

Given that, farmers will really need to dig into the way these factors interact on their own farms. And one of the best ways to do that is to call on the professionals — your seed growers, your input suppliers, your agronomist, or even researchers themselves.

“You’ll want to really dig into the research or reach out to someone who can,” he said. “I would really encourage them to look out for it or reach out to those who may be closer to the research and see what they can find.”

But developing a GxExM strategy around these interactions can help with that, Boychyn added.

“I think the benefit of formalizing a strategy is that maybe it will help spark some questions when changes need to be made on the farm,” he said. “Hopefully if you’re able to find the answers to some of these questions, you can then be more efficient with your inputs.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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