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Forages and potatoes fit together

Build organic matter, improve soil and reduce erosion.


November 14, 2007
By Helen McMenamin

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26aMike Wind finds forages and potatoes fit well together on his light, erosion-prone
land. The forage crops put organic matter and fibre into the soil, lowering
the erosion risk and improving water infiltration. Following a strict protocol
for terminating the forage is essential.

Well-managed timothy that makes the grade for export quality hay brings good
returns. According to Wind, it is also a great preparation for potatoes.

Wind has grown potatoes at Purple Springs, east of Taber, Alberta, for 30 years.
His light, sandy soil seems ideal for the crop, but it needs careful management
to avoid wind erosion. He finds the erosion protection and other benefits of
forage, especially timothy, more than compensate for its challenges. "I
was quite concerned at first," he says. "People said you couldn't
go into potatoes right after a forage. I've found it can be done, it just takes
a little extra field work.

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"As long as the land is in forage it's not being worked at all. In this
area, where wind erosion is such a big issue, it's great to have the land covered,
building organic matter with no opportunities for erosion. With all that organic
matter, even bare soil prepared for planting is safe. It won't blow."

Wind leaves timothy in for five years before breaking it up for potatoes. "The
stand is still very productive after five years," he says. "But, that's
long enough to build up organic matter and still fit into our potato rotations."

He found that terminating the forage with glyphosate before the second cut
is the key to working with forage land. The herbicide must be applied in summer,
while the forage is growing vigorously, and it needs a full week to spread through
the whole plant before cutting. When that is done, he says, regrowth is not
a problem the following spring.

Wind is totally convinced of the importance of summer termination of the forage
stand. Even though there is fierce competition for rental land among potato
growers in his area, he will not accept forage land unless it has been treated
with glyphosate before the last cut of hay is taken.

The main advantage of a long rotation that includes timothy is the fibre and
organic matter it puts into the soil. "The organic matter in the soil is
unbelievable," says Wind. "Our sandy land can get just as hard as
concrete if you don't look after it. Timothy really builds up the soil and softens
it so it takes up moisture beautifully. It leaves a lot of root hairs and fibre
in the soil.

"When we bring in our potatoes the year after timothy, they're very clean.
But the soil is so hairy, it hardly flows off the cleaning system. We have a
lot of earthworms in the soil, too. When we're working in the field, we have
big flocks of seagulls behind the machine. That's something we haven't seen
for quite a few years."

Although the health and bio-diversity of the soil improve while the land is
in forage, Wind has not had a problem with wireworms in his potatoes. "We
do put on the maximum allowable rate of Thimet," he says. "With that
protection, wireworms just haven't been an issue."

While the land is in timothy, Wind rolls and sprays it every year. Any soil
or weeds in the hay can disqualify it from the high value Japanese export market.
As a result, land coming out of timothy is very clean. "During the time
the land is in timothy, we can use chemicals we couldn't use if we were planning
to grow spuds in the next year or two," he says. "We can take land
with thistle, wild oats or other weeds and by the time we've had it in timothy
a few years, it's clean and ready for potatoes."

Timothy uses a lot of fertilizer, more than potatoes in Wind's operation. "We're
taking a lot of material off the field," he says. "So we have to put
it back. That is what's building up the soil into such a marvellous state."

Five years is plenty of time for timothy to form a dense sod, Wind discs the
land up to three times to cut up the sod. He then deep tills and ridges the
fields to let winter frost action break down any remaining clods. He will plant
directly into the ridges in a GPS controlled operation. "The auto-steer
is a big investment, but on each circle (133 acres), we expect to plant an extra
four to six acres compared to a little overlap. That's a lot of fertilizer and
chemicals we're over-applying when we steer by eye. We don't want to put any
extra chemicals on the ground.

"The Accu-steer will allow us to align any machine perfectly in any field,
so we can be better stewards of our resources and the environment. We'll save
on inputs like fuel, too. That is getting to be a more and more significant
cost."

Once he has broken up a forage stand, Wind grows seed canola, wheat and barley.
He grows a rotation that includes a couple of crops of potatoes before he seeds
a field back into a forage. Cereals are lose-lose, he says. But, they put organic
matter back into the soil, so they are a price of growing higher value crops.
Cereals, especially barley, do fit well just before potatoes, providing plenty
of straw to hold the soil over the winter.

On land that is not suited to timothy, Wind grows alfalfa for a local dairy
operation. "We follow the same process with it," he says. "We
don't have to work it as much, though, because it doesn't form a sod. The long,
deep roots are more of a problem."

Forages and investing in Accu-steer typify Wind's approach to farming. "Timothy
really builds the soil," he says. "It makes it soft and mellow so
it can take up water really well.

"A crop that brings a good return and improves soil that much is just
good stewardship. We're only here for a little while. It's up to us to make
the best use we can of our resources in the time we have and take good care
of the land for the next generation." -30-