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Back to the basics: PAYING HEED TO ESSENTIALS

Talking about basic agronomy can seem passé, but for growers


January 31, 2012
By Treena Hein

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Talking about basic agronomy can seem passé, but for growers, making sure they are paying attention to fundamental principles is critical to maximize their operation’s profits.

For example, in jurisdictions where rotation is not mandated, growers should be doing it nonetheless. “It’s legally mandated in Prince Edward Island, but in Ontario growers are not forced to do it, says Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs potato specialist Dr. Eugenia Banks. “However, potato farmers practise crop rotation,” she notes. “A one-year rotation with cereals is common, but unfortunately, land is a limited resource and longer rotations are rare in Ontario.”  

A grower usually has one field heavily infected with common scab, Banks continues.

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One practice she therefore thinks growers should never forget is to plant resistant varieties in fields infested with it. “At the present time, there’s no reliable control method to control scab except the use of resistant/tolerant varieties,” she explains.

These include Superior and GoldRush for the fresh market, Pike for chipping, Norland, a red-skinned variety, also for the fresh market, and Mozart, a gourmet variety.
Growers may hear about new varieties rated as resistant to scab in Europe, but Banks says these varieties might be susceptible to the different strains of scab that prevail here in North America. “It’s therefore important for growers to do their homework and check with potato specialists and other extension personnel about susceptibility or tolerance,” says Banks. “Each season I evaluate numerous new varieties.”

Beyond variety selection
Keeping up with other new trait offerings should be something every grower does diligently, stresses Rainer Borgmann, the CEO of Spudnik Equipment Company LLC in Blackfoot, Indiana. “Seed traits are very important factors in increasing yield and quality,” he says. 

Another agronomic basic to be practised diligently is field scouting on a regular basis to better time pesticide applications and manage potential problems. “Field scouting allows growers to use pesticides only when necessary, which saves time and money,” Banks asserts. “On wet, cool seasons, late blight is a potential problem, but if it’s detected early, when there are only one or two small hot spots, these areas can be top-killed to eliminate sources of infection and reduce the rate of infection in the entire field.”

Field scouting also helps to detect insecticide resistance, a very serious problem. “For instance, if a neonicotinoid is applied at planting and Colorado Potato beetles are infesting a field before the neonicotinoid has lost its activity, there’s a good reason to suspect insecticide resistance,” Banks says. “Field scouting sounds the alarm.”

Proper storage and cutting of seed potatoes is another very important basic that is often neglected when farmers are in a hurry. “Paying more for quality seed only to store it in less than ideal conditions or cutting seeds in a sloppy manner are wasteful but common mistakes,” notes Borgmann.

The proper use of seed-cutting equipment requires experience and constant monitoring to ensure a good cut is being achieved, he says. “Seed cutters are not something that you can ‘set and forget’,” Borgmann adds. “A skilled employee, farm manager, or the farm owner should monitor seed cutting equipment throughout the day and make adjustments where needed to correct for inconsistencies or changes in seed lots.”

Another basic, proper seed planting, is among the most important things a grower will do in a season, Borgmann adds. “There’s no quicker way to hurt yield, size profile, and quality than to use a seed spacing that’s too narrow or too wide for your variety, soil, and climate,” he says. “Planting depth and accuracy are also crucial.”

Operators should check depth, spacing, and consistency hourly because planting depth will vary with seed cut and soil conditions. “Planters should also be operated at a proper speed to obtain skip-free accuracy,” says Borgmann. “The best planters on the market have fantastic accuracy at three to three-and-a-half miles per hour, but will lose significant accuracy as they’re pulled faster.”

“You have to take the time or make the time to properly train your equipment operators,” he adds. “If operators understand the importance of proper techniques and have been properly trained, they will do a much better job.”

Lastly, Borgmann urges farmers to keep abreast of new treatments and chemical technologies. “I would argue that adopting the new best practices and technology will always help the bottom line of any farm,” he says. “However, this is only true as long farmers do not begin to neglect important basic practices. If farmers believe new technology is a replacement for careful planting and proper crop management, they are spending money for improvements they cannot fully benefit from.” 


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