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Fencerow farming

Wheat beside canola stubble. Photo by Steve Larocque.

Morrin, Alberta farmer and certified crop advisor Steve Larocque’s journey into extreme precision agriculture was made possible by a dose of chance, an eye for potential, and a willingness to step into the unknown, followed by a whole lot of brain-bendingly intense mental energy. The results, preliminary yields suggest, may change the way top farmers use controlled traffic farming (CTF).

“We chanced on what I call fencerow farming almost by accident, which I guess is the way most really cool, innovative things are discovered,” Larocque says. “Now that we’re seven years in, I really believe it is the future of controlled traffic farming for top farmers, at least for those who are as anal or type A as me.”

Back when Larocque first jumped into CTF, his initial challenge was to figure out how to adjust his equipment to manage residue while staying on CTF tramlines. While most people seed right between previous rows, Larocque found that ground hard and dry, especially in low moisture years. Instead, he offset his hitch by just two inches, allowing his shanks to seed right alongside the previous year’s stubble where the soil is comparatively softer and moister. While this seed placement is unusual, Larocque’s wouldn’t be much of a story if his efforts had ended there. But, about the same time, he started thinking more and more about something that at first glance seems entirely unrelated: old fence lines.

Over decades, fence lines catch drifting soil, building up a four, five, even 10 foot wide raised area that boasts a substantially deeper A horizon (top soil strata) compared to the rest of the field. Long after the fence line is removed, the built up area offers a better growing medium with richer, more deeply placed nutrients and a greater amount of beneficial biological activity.

Like many farmers, Larocque noticed time and again that his yield monitor spiked as his combine heaved up and over the headlands of long-gone fence lines. There had to be a way, he figured, of mimicking that fence line effect along every row of his field to achieve a yield jump in each and every plant. Not one to watch and wait for others to innovate, Larocque converted his farm into a large-scale “fencerow farming” experiment.

Since he was already placing seeds close to old stubble to capture maximum moisture, Larocque began seeding in a four year placement rotation (ie: row A in year 1, two inches left of row A in year 2, two inches right of row A in year 3, back on top of row A in year 4). This seed placement resulted in a six inch wide “fencerow” every 12 inches throughout the field.

Intensive soil testing suggests Larocque’s fencerow seeding method is generating a host of benefits. The consistent location of the stubble row builds up and concentrates organic matter like mini fencerows. In dry years, the highest soil moisture content is found inside the previous year’s root ball and can spell the difference between weak and strong emergence. Equally importantly, Larocque says, fencerow farming allows him to improve the availability of nutrients through row loading.

“If you seed across your stubble or even between rows, you dilute your mobile nutrients. You’ll accumulate them over time but never in high concentration. What we are trying to do is create a biological zone that is super loaded with as much nutrient as possible – macros, micros, biologicals, even fungicides and pesticides – anything that can support the plant in furrow,” Larocque says. “We keep all of the nutrients within the same furrows, maximizing availability to the crop, decreasing nutrient immobilization, and super loading the biosphere to support tons of biological activity.”

“We’ve been using fertilizer in the same way for 40 years. We’re seeing yield improvements because we have better varieties than we used to, but we’re not seeing yield improvements from how we actually use fertilizer. There are ways of using the same inputs we’ve always used but using them with much more efficiency,” he adds.

With six seasons of fencerow farming under his belt, Larocque says it is still too early to prove with yield data the single most important question about fencerow farming: whether it actually produces sufficient financial benefit to justify the required RTK technology’s $35,000 price tag, and the admittedly intense mental effort.

“We believe that it absolutely will prove itself, but we haven’t put in enough years yet. And we still have some fine-tuning to do to tighten up our furrows so we only cover 25 per cent of our land with furrows, not 50 per cent as we do now. All indications show that we’re on the right track. But it takes at least six years to change things substantially enough in the soil’s structure, biological health and nutrient availability to be really noticeable, and we’re only on year seven,” he says.

While Larocque’s preliminary results look good, the results of long-time fencerow farmer Dean Glenney offer even more promise. Glenney has been quietly growing corn in southern Ontario according to fencerow farming principles for more than 20 years. Larocque hopes to soon achieve comparable results to his fencerow farming predecessor.

“Glenney is pulling 300 bu/ac corn while everyone else around is pulling 170 bu/ac corn on the same rainfall. That gets a guy like me excited,” Larocque says. “It may take a decade to see the results but once we’re there, we hope to achieve what Dean Glenney has in Ontario with the same technique.”

Larocque is convinced today’s generally accepted concept of controlled traffic farming just barely scratches the surface of precision agriculture’s benefits. While he admits his precision-to-a-whole-new-level farming technique might sound extreme, he firmly believes the results from his farm will pave the way for top farmers.

“There’s no question: what I call fencerow farming is the future for the top 10 or maybe 20 per cent of Alberta farmers,” Larocque says.

In fact, the greatest deterrent to greater uptake is not the technology itself but rather the culture and expectations surrounding Canadian farming, he says.

“Until the pain of staying the same is more than the pain of change, people will continue to do the same thing over and over, and watch from the sidelines. Why would you change when things are working OK – not working amazingly, but working OK?” Larocque says. “You see much greater adoption of innovation in places like Australia or South America because they don’t have back stops like crop insurance there. Guys have to be really sharp or they get knocked out of the business.”

Fencerow farming does take an added level of management, admits Larocque. For him, though, the mental exercise required to create, analyze, fine tune and problem solve a workable fencerow farming system into existence in his fields makes farming “a lot more fun.”

To farmers who might be nervous about jumping into this intense form of farming, he says: “Half the battle is just getting your head wrapped around it. You absolutely can do it, and you can do it on larger scale. You don’t flip the switch and start fencerow farming, you just baby-step into it. Once you put in the up-front time to get started, controlled traffic farming makes your life easier because you know exactly where to go. And if you can get bigger returns for the same amount of crop inputs? That’s what we need to prove to get people on board.”