It could have been a wreck, but no-till saved the day

Rain-soaked fields caused endless worry in spring but if you got a crop in, those moisture reserves were a godsend

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The growing conditions Alberta producers experienced this past summer were a little like a man with one foot in hot water and the other in cold — neither is very comfortable, but overall it’s OK.

Harry Brook

“That’s kind of what we saw this year across the province,” said provincial crop specialist Harry Brook. “In the far south, they had around 75 per cent of a normal crop because it was extremely dry down there. But the farther north you went, the better the moisture conditions were.”

And overall, a year that many feared would be bad, and maybe even a wreck, turned out surprisingly well.

Province-wide, spring wheat yields were 2-1/2 bushels better than the average of the previous five years — a period which includes the three best crops ever grown in Alberta. Canola did even better, averaging 2.8 bushels higher than the previous five years and ensuring this province played a part in the production of the all-time Prairie record.

Durum yields were poor (down more than 10 bushels an acre) but barley and oats (by a whopping eight bushels) also beat the average for 2012 to 2016. And while pea yields were down, it wasn’t as bad as you might expect for that crop.

But averages, of course, don’t help those with poor yields or who couldn’t seed all their fields (about 600,000 acres weren’t seeded in spring — nearly eight times the previous five-year average).

On the other hand, there were a lot of producers in central Alberta who were smiling — that region was the “sweet spot” despite having long dry spells throughout the summer, said Brook.

“The crops were as good as they were there due to the fact that we had really good moisture conditions in the subsoil going into the summer,” he said, noting yields there were about 15 per cent above average.

“The success we had for a lot of the province that was dry was due directly to the amount of stored moisture in the soil.”

But the timing of those meagre rains were also key for many producers, including Ryan Kuefler, who farms near Forestburg.

“We had some moisture when we were going in at seeding, but we basically didn’t get any rain from May 10 to September. We had 2.5 inches in that time,” said the mixed grain farmer, who also farms near Alliance and Galahad.

“But our yields were way above average. It’s a mystery.”

Kuefler harvested 77 bushels per acre of No. 1 hard red spring wheat, and his canola yielded between 49 to 56 bushels per acre on his fields near Forestburg. At Galahad, canola yielded around 49 bushels per acre but his wheat — which got an extra three-quarters of an inch of rain — shot up to 84 bushels an acre. And around Alliance, where the ground is harder and received less rain, Kuefler was expecting wheat yields of 45 bushels per acre. He got 64.

“We had insane amounts of rain last year, and we didn’t even make these yields then,” he said. “We just got the right rains. It’s kind of a crapshoot.”

It was a similar story at Jason Lenz’s farm near Rimbey — a traditionally wet region that saw less moisture this year, but with good results.

Jason Lenz. photo: File

“We were definitely happy with the yields we had this year,” he said. “We were at about 14.5 inches of rain this year, which is still lots, but not compared to some years when we get up into the low 20s.

“Whenever we do get lower rainfalls, that’s usually where we get our best crops. A lot of the times when we have our wrecks are the years where we get too much rain.”

Lenz’s barley yielded around 100 bushels, while his CPS wheat was in the mid-90s and hard red spring wheat was in the low-70-bushel-per-acre range. But canola performed best, hitting around 50 bushels per acre on a large portion of his crop — which he’s never got before.

And, again, moisture came at the right time.

“We only had one real big downpour — one wet week in particular, around June 10,” said Lenz.

“After that, the rains that we had were very timely and not big downpours. We’d get half an inch here and half an inch there, and all spread out nicely.

“If we could control the weather, that’s about as good a year as we’d ever get. It ended up being one of those years where everything worked out right. It’s nice to have a year like that every so often.”

Zero tillage was also a big factor in conserving soil moisture and preventing a wreck on his farm during this year’s drier conditions, said Kuefler.

“You can tell the people who do the minimum till versus no till. It doesn’t work as good out here. They dried out a little bit,” he said. “Back in the day, we used to work the land lots and seed in the dust, and nowadays, we don’t.

“Most everybody has caught on to no till. I think it’s been proven throughout the years.”

Zero tillage is “old news” in Alberta, said Brook.

“If you zero till and return most of the crop residue back to the field, you’re building up organic matter levels,” he said. “Over a 20- or 30-year period, you can make significant gains in organic matter levels. If you increase organic matter levels, it reduces evapotranspiration on bare soil, and anything that reduces evaporation off the soil’s surface means there’s more for the crop.”

Lenz agrees — in principle.

“Producers learn pretty fast how important it is to conserve moisture if you are in a drier area of the province,” he said. “Zero till has made a big difference for those producers.”

However, Lenz generally does minimum tillage.

“We’re on the opposite end of the spectrum,” he said “We don’t do zero till because we do deal with quite a bit of excess moisture in the spring where we’re at.”

Lenz does some fall tillage to “black the land up a little bit” as it allows him to get on the fields earlier in the spring.

“That probably helped us this year more than most because we did have a bit of a wetter spring than we normally have as a result of the wet fall we had the year before,” he said.

“If you do feel like you’re going to have a dry spring coming up, you try to minimize the amount of tillage passes that you do.”

Ultimately, producers need to do what works best for their own operations, said Lenz.

“Producers know their land pretty well, just from the experience of seeing what the wet years look like and how dry it can get,” he said.

“The years that we really remember around here were 2001 and 2002, when we had dry springs both those years.

“You always have those kinds of years in the back of your mind, so you do what you can to prepare for that and allow your crop to get off to as good a start as possible.”

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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