The next big thing? Pioneers of CTF have high hopes

Controlled traffic farming may be the biggest advance since no till, 
but even its fans don’t expect it to be an overnight success

Controlled traffic farming has many benefits, but it still hasn’t caught on big in Alberta.

There are only a handful of farmers in the province who have adopted the practice and a recent conference drew just over 50 people — even though CTF, as it’s commonly called, is hailed by some as the biggest advance to come along since no till.

But CTF proponents aren’t deterred.

“One of the reasons is because people need to see things happen,” said Peter Gamache, project leader for Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta, a multi-year study on the practice.

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“You start off with a nucleus of guys, and if it’s successful, it goes from there. That takes time.”

Australia is the global leader in the practice of running equipment on the same tracks (called tramlines) in fields year after year. Severe drought led to about a million hectares being farmed under the system in Australia, driven by the idea that soil that isn’t compacted will absorb (and hold) more water when there is some rain.

But the list of potential benefits is long — a veritable smorgasbord of things any farmer would love to have, including improved soil health, reduced inputs or targeted use of them (such as in-crop nitrogen application), less fuel use, less wear and tear on machinery, and the ability to get on fields early to seed and harvest in wet years.

All of those grabbed the interest of Steve Larocque, an agronomist who also farms near Three Hills. In order to get a close-up look, he successfully applied for a Nuffield scholarship, travelling to Australia and elsewhere in 2007-08 to see first hand how the system works.

Upon his return, he immediately began modifying some old equipment so he could test the system on a few hundred acres he farms on the side.

“Quickly, we found out that we could traffic our field a lot faster,” said Larocque. “The first benefit — and the biggest one — was timeliness. We could get on our field a lot faster, and seed it in much wetter conditions than we could before, especially on our heavy clays.”

Larocque, one of eight farmers in the study overseen by Gamache, is one of the big boosters of CTF. After six years of running equipment only on tramlines, he said he’s seen many other benefits.

“On the wet side, we can absorb a lot of water — our porosity is 68 to 70 per cent in our soil, which is incredible,” he said, adding he’s continually amazed by how quickly a heavy rain is soaked up.

The tramline used by the sprayer (which typically runs on every third or fourth tramline) is obvious in this controlled traffic field in Lacombe County. Ease of spraying and other in-crop applications (such as split application of nitrogen) is one of the advantages of CTF systems.
photo: Peter Gamache

The system also gives him the ability to place seed more accurately, do precision applications, and has resulted in better canola emergence.

“What we can do with four pounds of canola seed, most would take five pounds to achieve and get the plant stand we do,” he said.

He’s also noticed a decrease in wild oats, cleavers, and buckwheat populations on the CTF areas in his fields, compared to the random traffic check areas he’s maintained.

Barley responds especially well and his barley yields have increased by five to eight per cent, he said.

The challenges

So why aren’t farmers piling into CTF? Two big reasons — equipment and a major learning curve.

Scott Keller was well aware of both challenges, which is why it took him seven years to move from a believer to a practitioner.

The farmer from New Norway, who is also an agronomist, said he was convinced of its value when he first heard about the practice in 2008. But he also decided that switching to the system required a “long-term plan.”

“It wasn’t that I went from random traffic last year to now I’m full CTF,” he said in a presentation at the conference on the practice last month.

“A lot of the other co-operators (study participants) dove right into it, and definitely, there were some challenges.

“Basically, it took me five or six years before I was there.”

In the meantime, Keller kept studying the practices while gradually purchasing equipment that would work with the system (axle widths must be either the same on all equipment or multiples of that width).

Larocque agrees with that go-slow approach.

“You have to sort things out, you have to map out your equipment and your equipment widths and field directions, what equipment you’re going to buy in the future,” he said.

Larocque opted to go with 30-foot spacing when he modified equipment and most current users either go with that spacing or 35 feet. But he figures 40-foot spacing will likely be the choice of most producers in the future.

But that wider spacing brings its own challenges, said Keller.

“If you’re going to do 40, you have to prove to yourself that you can spread residue 40 feet,” he told conference attendees. “Guys are doing it, but it’s a big task.”

He urged those thinking of adopting CTF to first spend time learning how to spread residue more effectively and master inter-row seeding.

“If you can’t do those two things, you can never get CTF to work,” Keller told his audience.

Slow adoption allowed Keller to learn from his mistakes without paying a heavy price and not have to spend money modifying equipment to get the right axle width.

Still, he said, he hasn’t got a big return on his investment of time and money, unlike upgrading to RTF (real-time kinematic) guidance which “paid for itself in four years” by reducing overlap.

“CTF hasn’t given me a return over what I was doing,” he said.

The future

These two sides of CTF — many potential benefits but small returns (at least initially) — seem to be at odds with each other.

But that’s why patience is needed, said Gamache, adding the early days of CTF are much like those for no till.

“The guys who continue with it, they could see some yield advantage, but it’s not going to come quick,” he said. “Direct seeding was a case where you didn’t see it. It took four to five years, and (then) the system started working well and performed well in a drought.

“I’m sure a lot of guys are watching and waiting and wondering what is going to happen and if this is the next way to go.”

Even Larocque, who regularly extols the benefits of CTF in his weekly client newsletter, can quickly name the barriers to adoption. The big ones are that the system “requires more thought and planning to execute,” harvest logistics are more complex, the costs of adapting equipment aren’t clearly known, and “it is early days with CTF in Canada so nobody knows the true benefits.”

“It’s a pretty challenging management system in terms of getting into it and the thought process,” added Gamache. “But once you’re up and running and have all your pieces in place, it actually is a great system to work with.

“Getting there certainly takes a lot of planning. That’s a factor for many guys who are busy and may not be prepared to do that.”

At least for now, said Larocque.

“People are waiting — why learn when you can let the early adopters figure it out?”

To see results of the plot reports from Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta and other information on the practice, go to www.controlledtrafficfarming.org.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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