Seeding/Planting
Across most of south-central and southeastern Ontario, there’s been 50 to 100 per cent more rain than normal,” says Scott Banks, a cropping systems specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). “It’s certainly been a challenging year. There isn’t really a silver lining to all this rain: no crops like being so wet. But growers have experienced tough years before. Outside of controlling the weather, there isn’t a whole lot they can do other than trying to minimize the issues and crossing their fingers for a warm, open fall.”
A few growers in Saskatchewan are adopting intercropping systems as a way to improve yields and revenue over monocropping. Researchers at the South East Research Farm (SERF) in Redvers, Sask., are helping growers address some of their intercropping questions through small plot research and replicated trials, including demonstrations and evaluations of the potential of various crop combinations.
When is the “right” time to put soybeans into the ground? Research in Manitoba is moving beyond the recommendations borrowed from Ontario and south of the border to develop Prairie-specific guidelines.  
To stay viable and competitive despite steadily increasing input costs, farmers need to optimize every input. In the future, most farmers will likely use variable rate input application as one of the key tools to achieve that optimization.
What if we could design a landscape that would provide a variety of nutritious foods, high-quality habitat, and ecosystem services, while also delivering a healthy profit to the landowner? According to University of Illinois researchers, it is not only possible, it should be adopted more widely, now.

“We need to be on the road to figuring things out before we get to tipping points on climate change or food security, or we could be left way behind. In future environments, people might get paid for ecosystem services or carbon credits, or food might become more valuable. If so, these systems become much more attractive for landowners,” says Sarah Taylor Lovell, an agroecologist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.

Lovell believes multifunctional woody polyculture is the way forward. She and several co-authors introduce the concept and discuss their experimental design in a recent paper published in Agroforestry Systems.

Essentially, the idea is to incorporate berry- and nut-bearing shrubs and trees in an alley cropping system with hay or other row crops. The combination is meant to mimic the habitat features, carbon storage, and nutrient-holding capacities of a natural system. “We wanted to capture that aspect, but we also wanted it to be commercially viable,” Lovell says. “The trees and shrubs need to fit in perfect linear rows 30 feet apart, so you can fit equipment. That was a much more practical agronomic consideration.”

Lovell and her colleagues are three years into what they hope will be a long-term experiment on the U of I campus. Their trial consists of seven combinations of species in commercial-scale plots, from simple combinations of two tree species to highly diverse combinations including multiple species of trees, shrubs, and forage crops. “We added increasingly diverse systems so we can get a sense of how much is too much diversity in terms of trying to manage everything in a feasible way,” she says.

The researchers will measure crop productivity, management strategies, and economic potential as the experiment gets established. “We’re keeping track of all the person-hours that go into each of these different combinations, so we’ll capture the labor involved and figure out whether it’s economically viable,” Lovell says.

Farmers accustomed to traditional row crops may be daunted by the long wait associated with nut crops. Lovell says chestnuts and hazelnuts don’t produce worthwhile harvests until 7 to 12 years after planting. But, she says, the other species can bring in profits while farmers wait. Hay or vegetable crops can be harvested from the alleys in year one. And shrubs could start bearing high-value fruit crops, such as currants or aronia berries, within a couple of years.

Lovell points out that the market for some nuts is growing. For example, Nutella lovers may recall headlines about an international hazelnut shortage a couple of years ago. “It would take a while to saturate that market,” she says. But she also points out that some nuts could be used more generically for their starchy or oily products.

Another barrier to adoption may be the cost of specialized equipment needed to harvest tree nuts, berries, and row crops. “There’s a tradeoff in terms of how complex to get and still be able to manage it in a reasonable way,” Lovell says. But she suggests the potential of farming cooperatives with shared equipment as a way to defray costs.

It will be several years before Lovell will have results to share, but other trials have shown that multifunctional woody polyculture could be both economically viable and environmentally beneficial. Lovell’s article details the outcomes of long-standing experimental sites in France and Missouri, but she says those two sites are the only large-scale examples in the temperate region. “That really shows just how little research there is on this so far,” she says. “We need to invest in this research now because it’s going to take so long to get to the solutions.”

The research team is working with regional farmers to replicate small- and large-scale versions of their experimental setup on-farm. Lovell knows it might take some convincing, but points out that many farmers are willing to set aside portions of their land into the Conservation Reserve Program. “If we can provide the same benefits in terms of water quality, habitat, biodiversity, and nutrient cycling as CRP but then also have this harvestable product, why wouldn’t you consider that?”
For the past few years, researchers and growers in southern Saskatchewan have been trialing intercropping. The first intercrops were with chickpea and flax, but this year some other intercrops are being investigated. The results so far from research trials and commercial grower field efforts have been positive and interest is growing.

Lana Shaw, research manager at the South East Research Farm (SERF), in Redvers, Sask., explains the researchers began in 2013 with an initial project studying replicated trials. "Chickpeas are a high-value crop opportunity, but are also a crop with agronomic problems such as diseases, lodging and maturity considerations,” she says. “We wanted to investigate the possibility that the area of adaptation for chickpea could be increased potentially through intercropping strategies. We also wanted to investigate the effect on yield and disease incidence by using an intercrop."

Flax and chickpea were selected as the first intercrop trials, with flax as a nurse crop for chickpea. These two crops are compatible for a few reasons: the herbicide Authority is registered pre-seed on both; both crops have low levels of shattering prior to harvest; and the crops are easily separated using a rotary seed cleaner. Both crops were grown as monocrops for comparison. One application of Proline fungicide was made per season at flowering timing.

"The flax holds the chickpea up and keeps it off the ground, maturity tends to be a bit shorter and quality is improved,” Shaw says. “Overall we are getting good, reliable yields of both flax and chickpea as compared to monocrops, and often the combined yields of flax and chickpea are higher overall than either crop on their own. The intercrop provides some reduced production risk in terms of disease and maturity and improved harvestability, plus no [nitrogen] N fertilizer is required and minimal pesticides are called for. A few growers have been growing large acres of intercrops commercially over the past couple of years and are pleased with the results they are getting so far."

Field observations indicate significant differences in disease levels between trials, with levels in chickpea intercrops lower than in the monocrop when using one fungicide application per season. For example, in 2014 Ascochyta severity was estimated at 17 per cent for intercrops and 51 per cent for monocrop plots at Redvers. Although early indications are showing reduced disease, Shaw is hoping to expand the project to include a more detailed disease assessment process and perhaps seed disease testing to provide better comparisons between monocrops and intercrops.

Chickpea quality was also improved in the intercrop plots when compared to monocrop trials. Shaw is collaborating with Bill May at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Indian Head, Sask., and he confirmed what has been observed in Redvers. "In the 2015 trials at Indian Head, the chickpeas from the intercrop plots had a lot less green seed and better quality at harvest than from the monocrop plots," Shaw says. "Improved quality means better prices and returns for growers, particularly when the cost of a colour separator is added in to separate green seeds out of the sample."

Considerations when planning ahead for an intercrop
The flax and chickpea can be seeded with an air-seeder at the same time, putting the chickpeas down the fertilizer shank and the flax down the seed chute. "We are using this method in our research plots and this would be an easy way for farmers to start," Shaw says. "Some farmers have been altering their drills to be able to seed chickpea and flax in alternating rows. Bill May and I are looking at another research project to compare seeding intercrops in the same row or alternate rows. If we find a big benefit to alternating rows, then it likely is a good idea to alter equipment. However, if there isn't a big benefit, then it likely isn't worth it."

Field selection also matters. Cereal stubble is the best option for growing an intercrop of chickpea and flax. Avoid fields with volunteer canola or wild mustard pressure, as the options for controlling these weeds is poor. Authority herbicide is registered and helps with some weeds, and there are options for grassy weed control, but volunteer brassicas are a problem. One research plot had to be abandoned early in the project because too much volunteer canola emerged ahead of the intercrop.

Planning ahead at harvest is required to set up for separation of the two crops. "There are numerous inexpensive separator options for separating these two crops because of the huge size difference," Shaw says. "One of the strategies that growers are using is to separate the two crops when they [are] hauled off the field. The load is dumped and augered into the separator, then two augers run the separated crops into individual bins. The advantage is, if the chickpea, for example, needs some extra drying, that can be done right away."

Based on the experiences of the researchers and commercial growers, there is potential to use intercropping to add another pulse crop option across much of the southern grain belt in Saskatchewan. "Intercropping has the potential to expand the area adapted to chickpea and a way of increasing yield," Shaw says. "With the wet conditions in parts of southern Saskatchewan in the fall of 2016 causing harvesting challenges, growers may want to consider intercropping as a way to keep chickpeas up off the ground and make harvesting easier and faster."

With the success of the chickpea and flax intercrop, researchers and growers are now trying other intercrops. Shaw has started doing some work on mustard and lentil intercrops. "Two of the options we are trying are lentil and mustard and pea and Clearfield juncea canola, both being trialed commercially by growers as well," Shaw says. "Another intercrop that is in the very early stages is fababean and carinata mustard, a crop being developed for biofuels. This intercrop did very well in the first year and we think has lots of potential. Fababean can be tricky to grow and is prone to weeds, while carinata tends to lodge easily. Both crops have limited weed control options. As an intercrop, the two crops hold each other up and there is much less weed pressure."

Shaw hopes to get some funding in place to expand the research into these various intercrop options and provide good production information to interested growers.

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For those farmers in Western Canada who grow InVigor hybrid canola, a research group from Bayer has been investigatging target plant populations in order to help optimize the yield potential of the hybrid. The Bayer Product Excellence team used plots 15 times the size of traditional plots and used equipment designed to replicate farm conditions as closely as possible. This research has been ongoing for three year. 
overview of plots
        Ariel view of Bayer’s Product Excellence trial plots

High plant populations
high rate
Sample of canola plants seeded at a high rate (15 seeds per ft2)

Plant populations that are seeded above the optimum rate can act as a drain on available resources such as light, nutrients, space, and create unwanted competition between plants. The result of this is higher in-season plant mortality and a high percentage of plants utilizing precious resources without contributing to additional yield. Extremely dense plant stands result in canola with thin stalks and reduced root development, which often makes these plants more susceptible to stressful conditions such as high temperatures and low moisture. Another consideration for canola crops with high plant populations and weaker stems are increased lodging, which can trap moisture and reduce air flow through the canola canopy and lead to an increased incidence of disease such as Sclerotinia.

Low Plant Populations
low rate
Sample of canola plants seeded at a low rate (5 seeds per ft2)

Plant populations seeded below an optimum rate, typically less than five plants per square foot, can also cause a number of challenges such as difficulty controlling weeds due to the reduced competition during early season growth and late canopy closure. Often this results in the need for a second herbicide application to control the weed escapes. Additionally, low plant populations often come with an uneven distribution of plants creating variable plant growth and flowering times. This can make targeting fungicide treatments more difficult and delay both flowering and maturity. Perhaps one of the more serious consequences of low plant population is under-utilization of the seed bed and resources, and the large gaps between the plants makes for inefficient use of placed nutrients and moisture.

Optimal plant populations
optimal rate
Sample of canola plants seeded at an optimal rate (10 seeds per ft2)

The research recommends a targeted plant population of 5-7 plants/ft2. Based on a survivability rate of 50-70 per cent, that’s an average of 10 seeds planted per ft2. This population offers the ideal balance of seed bed utilization through efficient use of nutrients, moisture, light and space, while offering sufficient crop competition against weeds and maximizing InVigor yields. The recommended target of 5-7 plants/ft2 is not a bullet proof solution for canola plants to protect themselves against the environment or pests, however it will give your InVigor canola field the best chance for success.
Winter wheat can be a great crop to include in your rotation. Winter wheat will typically out yield spring wheat by 20 per cent or more, depending on growing conditions, and is normally harvested several weeks before spring wheat.
The 2016 harvest season was one some growers would like to forget. Unfortunately, the reminder was still there when the snow melted this spring uncovering thousands of unharvested acres that producers had to combine plus get a 2017 crop in the ground. But adversity leads to opportunity and the Western Winter Wheat Initiative (WWWI) encourages producers to seed winter wheat this fall as a way of dealing with unseeded acres that didn’t get planted this spring.

Seeding winter wheat into chemfallow requires different planning than seeding into other stubble. Here are some tips that Janine Paly, WWWI agronomist for Alberta, has for producers to seed winter wheat successfully.

Minimize stubble disturbance/maintain stubble: Standing stubble is a key practice to establish winter wheat as the trapped snow insulates the crop from winter elements. Year-old stubble will break apart easier than stubble from a freshly harvested crop; however, any stubble is better than summerfallow. Minimize traffic over the field to maintain stubble integrity by using the same tracks in spraying operations and avoid harrowing and cultivating if possible.

Line up seed early: Before spring crops are harvested, take advantage of the less busy time and source seed. Plan to have the seed on farm and treated with a seed treatment before planting. Research conducted by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada indicates a seed treatment minimizes seedling disease and can help with winter survival.

Fertility management: Selecting the right source and amount will help ensure your soil has a balanced supply of plant nutrients. It is important to perform a soil test to determine nutrient levels within the field. Winter wheat nitrogen management is different than spring wheat and determining the right timing of nitrogen application will vary depending on your operation. There are a few options: fall-applied, spring-applied or split application, but the method will vary depending on weather, soil moisture, and seeding equipment. Winter wheat has the ability to yield up to 40 per cent more than CWRS with adequate rates of nitrogen.

Seed early: Seeding early is a key factor in establishing a successful winter wheat crop. Plants that enter the winter with three to four leaves have a well-develop crown tissue and a better chance of winter survival. The optimal seeding window across the Prairies is between September 1 and 15. The question that may arise is, “How early can I seed?” It is better to seed earlier than later as producers can get busy with harvest operations and forget to seed within the optimal window. Extra consideration when seeding too early is the risk of disease transfer of stripe rust or wheat streak mosaic virus. If these diseases are of concern, growers can seed a resistant variety, delay seeding (depending on region), or should avoid seeding into conditions with volunteer cereals, or adjacent to a green wheat crop.
When it comes to the economics of growing winter cereals such as winter wheat and hybrid fall rye, the numbers don’t tell the full story. Looking at the three provincial government crop planning guides published for Prairie producers in 2017, winter wheat and hybrid fall rye land somewhere between the fifth and 16th most profitable crops to be grown in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. But set aside the most profitable crops like pulses, canola, sunflower, corn and beans, and winter wheat profitability looks pretty good compared to spring wheat.
Many winter wheat growers in Western Canada are wondering if the seeding window can be extended. A multi-year, multi-site Prairie study is working towards a tool that will help growers answer that question for their own conditions.
Canola stubble has traditionally been the preferred stubble for winter wheat plantings because it can capture snow to insulate the overwintering wheat crop, improving winter survivability. However, some high-yielding canola hybrids have later maturities, presenting a challenge for seeding winter wheat at the optimum time.  

In recent decades, Prairie producers have taken steps – such as using minimum tillage, improving water supplies for livestock, and storing extra feed – that enable them to survive short droughts. But the Prairie climate in the coming decades could include droughts that last five, 10 or more years, as well as extreme swings between really wet and really dry conditions. So Prairie people are starting to come together to plan and prepare for whatever the future might hold.

Many people on the Prairies have experienced dramatic shifts between extremely dry and extremely wet periods in the last few years. “For instance, from April to June in 2015, Regina had 43 millimetres of rain. Normally it would see about 147. Looking at the records that go back to the 1880s, it turns out to be the third driest such period in 120 years. But the previous April to June was the wettest on record for Regina. That is the kind of weather whiplash that farmers are dealing with. The weather has a Jekyll and Hyde personality,” David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, says.

He adds, “Farmers build into their strategies dealing with things like too wet to seed and too dry to grow – those things happen when you’re in farming. But when you get back-to-back weather conditions you would expect to see only once in a career of 40 or 50 years of farming, how can you deal with that?”

Looking at the period from 2009 to 2011, University of Manitoba atmospheric scientist John Hanesiak and his colleagues found that precipitation ranged “between record drought and unprecedented flooding.” In some instances, drought and very heavy rains occurred at the same time in different parts of the Prairies. And some locations experienced both weather extremes within those three years; for example, some southern Manitoba farmers had insurance claims for both flooding and drought in the 2009 growing season.

This type of wild variability is predicted to be part of the future climate. “We are expecting to see greater variability from year to year, going from droughts to really wet periods. Even the older climate models were telling us 10 or 15 years ago to expect that kind of a pattern,” Hanesiak says.

The current variability in the Prairie weather may be one indication that the predicted patterns in the atmosphere are starting to become a reality. “Recently some articles have suggested that we’re on the verge of seeing these things happening now, where the wave in the jet stream tends to meander a little more. That potentially could create a more stagnant pattern, where you get longer periods of drought and longer periods of wet, depending on where you are on that wave,” Hanesiak explains.

Studies of past climate patterns show that such weather extremes are not new to the Prairies. Research by Dave Sauchyn of the University of Regina has found that multi-year and multi-decade Prairie droughts have occurred during the past 1,000 years.

“We tend to get caught off-guard [by extreme weather] and we use the excuse that ‘we couldn’t have anticipated it because it has never happened before.’ We’re implying that it has never happened in our lifetime because we all think in terms of our own situation,” Sauchyn says. “But if you get outside your own local experience and look at the longer records, you find that it has happened over and over again.”

Adapting as individuals and groups
Sauchyn has been sharing the results of his climate research with Prairie people who need the information, and he has been learning from them about their drought adaptation strategies. For example, in October 2015, Sauchyn and his research group met in southwestern Saskatchewan with local people including farmers, ranchers and government officials.

“They told us that much of what they have already done over the decades, and especially the last few decades, is putting them in good shape because, in general, agricultural practices are more sustainable than they were in the past. That is reflected in less soil erosion and more resilient agricultural ecosystems. In general, if you maintain a healthy and resilient agro-ecosystem and take proper care of pastures, crops, soil and water, then agriculture will be less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” he says.

“But they also told us that individual farmers and ranchers can only do so much, especially if drought exceeds more than one or two years. They can store water for a couple of years. There is an extensive water storage and diversion infrastructure on the Prairies, especially in the drier parts, and it has been very effective in withstanding one- or two-year droughts. Beyond that, there is only so much water that can be stored. Similarly, feed can be stored for one or two years. But they tell us that after a couple of years of drought, the local options are pretty much exhausted.”

At that stage, people turn to their social capital. Sauchyn explains, “We’re all familiar with concepts like ‘fiscal capital,’ money, and ‘natural capital,’ ecosystem goods; there is also ‘social capital,’ maintaining good relations among neighbours. Especially when people are faced with climate extremes like flooding and drought, they rely very much on that social capital.”

He notes, “One of the most effective ways to adapt to a changing climate is to work collectively, with your neighbours within your watershed. Local organizations such as watershed stewardship groups are especially effective.”

Preparing for extreme
One example of a Prairie watershed agency working to prepare for climate variability is the Battle River Watershed Alliance (BRWA). The Battle River has its origins in east-central Alberta and flows into Saskatchewan where it joins the North Saskatchewan River. The BRWA is an Alberta group created in 2006 and it operates in the Alberta portion of the Battle River and Sounding Creek watersheds. The BRWA describes itself as “an inclusive, collaborative and consensus-based community partnership that is working to guide, support and deliver actions to sustain or improve the health of the Battle River watershed.”

BRWA research and stewardship coordinator Susanna Bruneau outlines how the Alliance is approaching climate variability. “At conferences, they talk about preparing for extremes, where you could get really wet events, like the flood in Calgary a couple of years ago, or a multi-year drought. We’ve been trying to work on things that can help in managing both those extremes, especially natural infrastructure like wetlands and riparian areas and even shelterbelts.” Those types of features can have benefits like reducing flood peaks, capturing water in case of drought, and protecting water quality.

She notes, “Another part of how we approach things is trying to have our systems – whether it’s our social support systems, agriculture systems or water infrastructure systems – made in a way that can be adaptive to whatever comes our way.” She explains that the BRWA recognizes the complexity and uncertainty in these systems so it works to continually learn from experience and adjust its plans and actions to more effectively deal with emerging realities. If the BRWA finds that an approach is not working, then it evaluates the approach, asks stakeholders what should be done differently, and modifies the approach to make it work better.

Drought planning a priority
In a watershed-wide consultation process, local people identified drought planning as a top priority for the BRWA. So it developed drought guidelines and policies, which were released in 2012. These documents provide a framework to help agencies in the watershed when developing drought plans for their own area of responsibility. The guidelines relate to agriculture, social issues, natural areas, and water quantity and quality, and consider the social, economic and ecological impacts of drought.

The BRWA’s drought guidelines cover both “drought adaptation,” preparation for future droughts, and “drought management,” responses during a drought. A few examples of the drought adaptation options for agriculture include: actions that research agencies could take, such as developing drought-tolerant crop varieties; actions that governments could take, such as monitoring water supplies, developing drought plans and policies and modifying crop insurance programs; and actions that producers could take, such as choosing crops adapted to drier conditions, developing drought farm plans, managing grazing rates, conserving wetlands and riparian areas and diversifying farm income. The drought management guidelines for agriculture include actions like implementing drought plans, and sharing drought monitoring information.

Although people in the Battle River watershed are aware of the need for drought planning and preparedness, it is a challenge for local agencies to direct their limited human and financial resources towards this task. Bruneau doesn’t know of any agencies in the watershed that are currently using the BRWA’s guidelines to develop their own drought plans, but she’s hoping that will change.

“Drought is part of the climate cycles here on the Prairies. Drought is going to happen, no matter what happens with climate change. There is a lot we can do to mitigate the impacts of drought if we plan and adapt before a drought happens,” Bruneau says.

“Drought is not like a flood or an earthquake; it’s not a sudden crisis where you have to deal with things in the heat of the moment. Drought is sly and it sneaks up on you. Unless you are paying attention you’ll get caught. But we have opportunities to prepare for drought, and when we see drought coming or just less than normal precipitation, there are things we can do.”

There are 10 different lentil classes with many different seed sizes, yet still only one general recommendation for a seeding rate of 130 seeds per square metre (seeds/m2), or 13 plants per square foot (plants/ft2). But with lentil seed sizes varying widely, ranging from 70 grams per 1,000 seeds down to 29 grams per 1,000 seeds, does that recommendation hold up with today’s varieties? Research is trying to find the balance between seed cost, disease levels, yield and economics. Add in the relatively poor weed competition provided by lentils and it’s clear why optimum stand establishment is critical for high yields and economic returns.
Statistics Canada issued its first estimates of 2017 Canadian crop acreage of the season. The numbers suggest Canadian farmers expect to plant record acres of canola and soybeans, as well as more spring wheat and oats in 2017, but fewer acres of durum wheat and lentils, crops that were both at high levels in 2016.

Nationally, here’s what’s expected:

Canola ­– potential record-high of 22.4 million acres. Up over 9.9 per cent from last year.

Soybeans – farmers intend to seed a record seven million acres of soybeans, up 27.2 per cent from last year.

Wheat – 23.2 million acres of all varieties of wheat, relatively unchanged from 2016.

Lentils – record 5.9 million acres of lentils were seeded last year. This will be trimmed by 25 per cent to 4.4 million this year.

Barley ­– down eight per cent compared to 2016, plans for 5.9 million acres.
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