What’s on your radar for the coming year?

Three agronomists share some lessons learned from 2020

It’s impossible to know what you might have learned if you had been able to go on farm tours or visit fellow producers last year.

So getting crop intel heading into this year’s growing season will require tapping into your networks and asking others what’s on their radar. In that spirit, we asked three agronomists for their thoughts from the year past and for the one ahead.


For Scott Gillespie, the big takeaway from the past year was the risk of relying on a ‘just-in-time’ supply chain for farm chemicals.

While the threat of supply disruptions never came to pass, the pandemic has shown that the world can change in a hurry and it’s better to be prepared, said Gillespie, who operates Plants Dig Soil Consulting in Taber.

In the case of farm chemicals, having supply in the pipeline doesn’t help if it doesn’t arrive before you need it, he said.

The benefits of planning ahead and getting your crop inputs early should be an enduring lesson from the pandemic, says agronomist Scott Gillespie.
photo: Supplied

“Don’t be leaving it to the end, or expect you’ll get it just when you need it,” he said. “There will always be a case where an issue comes up and you need a certain chemical for it and there’s nothing you can do about it.

“You can’t plan for everything, but you can plan for 90 per cent of things that you know you will be using.”

Some chemicals, such as Liberty, could be critical for a farm, and so producers should think about what they could do if supply was threatened, he said.

“If it wasn’t a supply issue, it could be a timely supply issue.”

Planning ahead is something that comes pretty naturally for Jeremy Boychyn, agronomy extension specialist with Alberta Barley and Alberta Wheat.

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Although the pandemic meant most crop tours were cancelled and his number of farm visits was curtailed, Boychyn was in regular touch with many producers and so this winter he’s thinking about what he heard and how to prepare for the coming growing season.

One of his recommendations is to seed cereals based on 1,000-kernel weight.

“When you are able to go out there and count your plant stand, 21 to 28 days after seeding, you know how much seed you put in the ground if you seeded that crop based on 1,000-kernel weight and you are better able to get an idea of how much is emerging and how much should be there,” he said.

Boychyn recommends a seed test to determine 1,000-kernel weight, seed germination and vigour.

“Seed that crop based on 1,000-kernel weight and really get an idea of what is coming up,” he said. “When you are dealing with choosing seed in the season, it’s easy to know what kind of impact they’re having so you can make adjustments the following years.”

Getting a better handle on emergence is one of the top recommendations of Jeremy Boychyn, agronomy extension specialist with Alberta Barley and Alberta Wheat.
photo: Alberta Wheat

Many producers will also need to pay extra close attention to disease issues this year, said agronomist Kristina Polziehn.

The first half of the 2020 growing season was a wet one in northern Alberta where Polziehn is based. The wet, late harvest in 2019 (that wasn’t entirely completed in some areas) delayed seeding for many farmers in northern regions. So some had to scale back on applications of fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and seed treatments — a disadvantage exacerbated by a wet start to summer.

“While the extreme moisture events significantly impacted crop growth and yields, underlying fertility issues and disease pressure exacerbated the losses on the crops,” said Polziehn, who owns and operates Axiom Agronomy in Sturgeon County.

In particular, the effects of aphanomyces root rot in pulse crops were “extreme” this past year in northern Alberta as a result of the moisture stress.

“Fields that have not had a history of field peas but have historical rotations with alfalfa or clover species are testing positive,” she said.

Clubroot in canola is another growing concern in northern Alberta, she added.

“With the large amount of water movement this spring, the premature senescence could easily be interpreted as water damage,” she said. “But in many cases, the clubroot disease followed waterways and drainage ditches.”

To combat these disease issues in 2021, Polziehn recommends a soil test as a first step, followed by diligent scouting.

“Baseline fertility of fields has a great impact on how a crop can respond to environmental stresses, like excessive moisture,” she said. “Addressing nutrient deficiencies is likely even more important following years of excessive moisture, as nutrients like nitrogen and sulphur are prone to leaching.”

Soil tests can help determine whether there are any nutrient deficiencies, as well as the extent to which nutrients have shifted in the soil profile. But certain soil tests can also assess the risk of disease in the field.

“Adding (disease) testing to all soil testing is one way to help evaluate the risk of the pathogen in fields,” she said.

Boychyn has specific pest issues on his watch list, particularly wireworms, wheat midge, and wheat stem sawfly.

Wireworms “continue to be more of an issue,” particularly in the south, and if they are a potential problem in your area, scout and do plant stand counts 21 days after emergence, he said.

“If you find patches where things are emerging a little bit slower, take the time and dig that crop up,” he said.

Wheat midge is another pest to watch for, and producers should check the province’s wheat midge forecast map.

“You can really see that there’s an increase in concern there,” said Boychyn. “Producers in (at-risk) regions are going to want to hopefully use a midge-tolerant variety, and if they don’t do that, they should be scouting as they are getting into heading timing.”

Wheat stem sawfly numbers have also been rising, and producers in affected areas should be rotating out of cereals regularly and/or using semi-solid stem varieties.

While looking ahead to the coming year and planning accordingly is good, producers would also benefit from thinking several years out, said Gillespie.

“I’m biased because I’m on the regenerative agriculture side,” he said. “There are no easy answers or simple formulas, but instead of just relying on chemicals being your pest control options, it’s good to look at some other little things you can do,” he said.

As an example, he pointed to quinoa, a specialty crop that’s seeing some take-up in his area. It has wider row spacing, so inter-row cultivators can be used on the crop and if cover crops are planted into the residue, that will reduce weed pressure (and the need for chemical control) even further.

That sort of diversified approach is another way to reduce risk, said Gillespie.

“Short term, people should make sure to have (chemical) supplies on farm, and long term, they should start investigating little things they can do to be less dependent on one way of killing pests,” he said.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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