Top Crop Manager

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Crop consulting in the Brown soil zone

Growers experience benefit from agronomic advice.


November 26, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

Topics

The number of certified crop consultants offering independent agronomic support
to prairie growers has been steadily increasing. The majority of crop consultants
are located in the Black soil zone where crop yields tend to be highest and
most stable. Troy Laforge, an independent crop consultant, started his career
with Green Key Solutions in south-central Alberta with clients located within
the Black and Dark Brown soil zones.

 28a
Troy Laforge conducts an early season visit with Dave Wieler at
his south-west Saskatchewan farm. Wieler appreciates the wealth of agronomic
knowledge that Laforge brings to his farm; critical information that Wieler
does not have the time to keep up with. He indicates that Laforge's information
on crop rotations, herbicide usage and farm practices have been especially
beneficial to his farming operation.

Following this experience, Laforge established a crop advisory service within
the more arid Swift Current region in September of 2003. Since then, the business
has grown to include a second crop consultant, Dan Hawkins. While soil testing
is fundamental to providing an agronomic advisory service, historically, levels
of soil testing are lowest within the Brown soils of this region. While this
fact may have discouraged others, Laforge knew there were many larger farms
located within this area. Larger farms mean that farm operators are usually
very busy and could benefit from the agronomic expertise he could provide.

Laforge is convinced that agronomic planning is fundamental to developing a
successful farm management program. He says, "The need for such agronomic
services is growing, especially as farm size increases. Producers may not have
the time or the inclination to devote to critical tasks such as soil and tissue
testing, crop stand assessment, weed or pest scouting, rotation planning, record
keeping and so on."

Dave Wieler, one of the Green Key clients, states, "Because scouting is
part of the job, he does it well. Whereas if I did it, I might be short of time
and not do the job as well as I should, which could result in my farm incurring
unnecessary expenses." Providing accurate and timely agronomic advice has
enabled Laforge to expand his crop consulting business.

Laforge places a great deal of emphasis on collecting accurate soil and tissue
test information and maintaining detailed field records. He feels this information
is critical to providing his clients with accurate agronomic advice.

John Wright, another Green Key client, remarks, "His approach should give
me more accurate results, as I will be putting the fertilizer where it is needed
and only in the amount required. Tissue testing confirms that what I am doing
in my fertilizer program 'is right' for my fields." To be effective, Laforge
stresses that care must be taken to ensure that the soil and tissue samples
that are collected are truly representative of the field conditions.

In addition, Laforge emphasizes the importance of collecting tissue samples
as a means of refining and fine-tuning fertilizer practices. He says, "The
soil and tissue results, used in conjunction with production records, provides
growers and their agronomists with the ability to make informed decisions on
future crop management practices."

When queried about the value of using a crop consultant, Wieler says, "He
brings with him a wealth of knowledge that I can't keep up with, including ideas
on crop rotations, herbicide usage and farm practices." While another client
states, "They bring to my operation the expertise that I don't have, the
time or the desire to learn in the depth that is required."

Laforge and Hawkins also emphasize the importance of developing an integrated
approach towards pest management. In southwest Saskatchewan, there are the traditional
crops such as wheat, durum and barley as well as a lot of specialty crops, including
lentils, peas, chickpeas, canola, flax and mustard. According to Laforge, "When
working with specialty crops within a semi-arid climate, there are many challenges.
In addition to coping with an erratic supply of moisture, difficult weed spectrums
such as annual bromes, thistle-like species and vetch, emerging disease in pulse
crops and gophers, hot summers can make planning for production of specialty
crops a real challenge. But with the use of rotations, soil moisture assessment
and input management, many of these issues can be successfully dealt with."

 28c
Troy Laforge obviously takes pride in inspecting an excellent crop
of flax located in one of his client's fields. He indicates the prairie
CCA program sets relatively high standards for agronomic training and mandates
participation in a continuing education program in order to maintain certification
provides growers with assurance in the agronomic information provided by
certified crop advisers.

Whether it is a soil test, a scouting procedure, tracking goals and achievements
or trial strips, it has become evident that guessing leaves profit on the table
each year. One example has been the use of seed tests for matching seed rates
to yield goals. In 2004, an increase in the seeding rate of HRS wheat resulted
in a 20bu/ac increase with no additional inputs. However, the same type of trial
in 2005 resulted in a yield loss of five bushels per acre.

According to Laforge, "These types of results have led to the understanding
that the yield goals must be not only fertility and plant population based,
but must also take into consideration the climatic vagaries that exist within
the region. Given the exceptional rainfall of 2004, a yield of 82bu/ac of HRS
wheat was achievable, but that cannot be the normal goal for the area, because
of weather. The next year, increasing the plant population dried up the soil
too quickly when less rainfall and more heat was experienced in 2005."

The grower clients were also asked how information usage has changed since
employing a crop consultant. One client states, "We now track our farm
operations more carefully. We seem to learn a lot more and use the results in
planning for the next crop." Another client suggests, "Being connected
by e-mail allows us to be in the field and online. If there are questions about
either weed or pest outbreaks, the answers are only minutes rather than days
away."

When queried about changes to their agronomic practices as a result of using
a crop consultant, one client suggests, "Better fertility and more specific
chemical and fertilizer practices have been used instead of the blanket approach."
Wieler indicates, "We learned that it is important to do the things you
can control well, like proper seed placement. He also helped us to take on the
production of new crops, such as winter wheat."

When asked whether their farm business had changed since involving a crop consultant,
one client states, "Since we have employed a consultant, we've noticed
that the timeliness of chemical applications has improved." Another grower
states, "We have upgraded our seeding practices and have implemented a
tissue testing program. This allows us to consider top-dressing fertilizer or
to evaluate foliar applications."

It would appear that agronomic services are indeed appreciated by growers located
within the drier portions of the Canadian prairie region. Certified Crop Advisers,
Laforge and Hawkins have clearly been able to demonstrate: clients have responded
positively to obtaining solid and timely agronomic information that has the
potential for improving the efficiency of their crop production systems.