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Getting back to the basics

Technology is a wonderful thing, but it can distract from some of the essential principles and practices; in a metaphor, seeing the forest, but not the trees. Is there a need for growers to get back to fundamentals and brush up on good agronomics?  To explore this issue, Top Crop Manager approached three independent Ontario Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs) with a series of questions on technology and agronomic practices: Chad Anderson (Lambton County, southwestern Ontario), Alan McCallum (Elgin County, south-central Ontario), and Paul Sullivan (Carleton County, Ottawa, eastern Ontario).  Here’s a distillation of what they had to say.

As we continue to see advances in plant breeding and equipment designs, are we seeing the same advances in sound agronomic fundamentals (e.g., good agronomics, chemistry and trait rotation) among a large percentage of growers?

There is general consensus that these CCAs are seeing a good blending of technology and agronomic practices. Even with all of the technological advances, it takes time and trial and error to determine the advantages and disadvantages of the technology and refine its use on-farm, two of them note. However, says Sullivan, “We still need to stick to the basics of growing a crop, and this will take advantage of the gains offered by new technology.  The basics for me include timely planting, uniform emergence and planting depth, early weed control, and crop monitoring in-season to make sure there aren’t any missed management opportunities that can be made this year or next.”

Anderson says that he mainly works with producers who grow conventional soybeans rotated with glyphosate-tolerant corn for weed management, as well as some producers who grow back-to-back genetically modified soybeans and corn. In both cases, he sees good use of conventional chemistry in tandem with glyphosate. “This mix of rotation and chemistry works very well in the long term at reducing overall weed pressure,” he observes.

He also notes that GPS technology has helped many growers to make more informed agronomic decisions by better targeting soil sampling and fertilizer application. “The whole next step to GPS and guidance has been a huge step forward in lowering fuel and labour costs, creating a large leap in a farm unit’s efficiency.

What is needed to achieve better rotations, not just of crops, but of tillage practices, chemical formulations, and/or traits, as well as growing a diversity of hybrids/varieties in any single growing season?

Two of the CCAs responded to this question. McCallum thinks that a more equivalent level of performance among genetics and pricing of pest control options would encourage better rotation. “Small economic differences can be overcome by sound agronomics and stewardship, but not large ones,” he says.

Sullivan thinks that it is the tendency to simplify crop management that leads to a lack of diversity in management practices such as crop rotation, herbicide rotation, and variable-rate fertilization. However, he points out that diversification does not necessarily mean more cropping management, but rather “more planning and organization of the operation.” That would include co-ordinating custom work and “relying on what others can do better or more efficiently,” for example.

In your professional opinion, is there one component that is the most underrated in agricultural management practices?

Two CCAs identify diverse crop rotation as the most underrated agricultural management practice. “It drives so many sound practices,” says McCallum. “Rotating chemistries, tillage, fertility management is almost enforced by rotating crops.”

Using at least three crop types on soils that respond to a mix of crops “forces change to many things, including breaking insect, disease and weed cycles,” says Sullivan. “But it also improves the chances of keeping better soil structure. And the soil health improvement from a crop like wheat definitely shows up in corn and soybean performance.”

They also list improved drainage and soil structure, and more resilience to weather extremes as benefits they’ve noticed from crop rotation.

“I think the most underrated component is the use of conventional chemistry in glyphosate-tolerant crops,” says Anderson. He suggests that the ease of glyphosate use, its low cost and not having to clean the sprayer between crops may have contributed to growers getting out of the habit of using conventional chemistry. But he notes that there are added benefits to using conventional chemistry. “Weeds like nutsedge, wild carrot, spreading atriplex, velvetleaf and lambsquarters are becoming the norm as we naturally select to build higher weed density with continued use of glyphosate. Tank mixing allows for improved control while reducing the dependency on glyphosate to manage your weed pressure. The residual activity opens up the window for herbicide timing taking the pressure off later in-crop sprays of glyphosate, which really helps with late emerging weeds such as cocklebur, or will allow perennial weeds like thistles to be closer to the bud stage, giving better control from the glyphosate application.”

Finally, Sullivan mentions residue management as another underrated practice. “Residue has an impact on the following crop,” he explains. “Handling residue is why a lot of tillage is done, but some of this tillage could be avoided or reduced if residue were managed better by harvest and planting equipment.”

By contrast, is there one component that is the most overrated in agricultural management practices?

Two of the CCAs suggest that aggressive tillage is overrated. “In the hands of a skilled farmer, a wide variety of tillage or planting tools will do the job,” says McCallum. “Proper timing is so much more important: knowing when to go, when to hold off, go deeper, shallower, faster, slower.”

In addition, Anderson cites the “hype around multiple stacking in corn” as overrated. “Some people are drawn to the ‘stack’ before they consider the hybrid’s potential first,” he remarks. “Corn seed has become such a high-cost input in the last few years, and growers need pick their corn seed on performance first.” 

Anderson also thinks the use of fungicides in corn and soybeans is overrated, noting that average responses indicate improvements in yield, but variability in the response means that many growers are just getting their money back or are losing money on the application. He is also concerned about the effects of fungicide on beneficial fungi and the risk of resistance development with the use of similar products across multiple crops. “I would like to see manufacturers move to a predictive modelling system like we have in wheat for Fusarium control,” he says.

Is there a growing need for good agronomic advice (from a human source) or is the technology (GPS, smartphones) making it easier to become a good on-farm manager?

All three respondents note that while technology has helped with access to information, it has also added complexity to on-farm management. For example, McCallum observes, “Technology advances (yield maps, remote imaging) have helped to identify production problems, but ground truthing (first-hand observation) is almost always required to really confirm what is going on in the field.” And Sullivan says, “Many sources of information from abroad require some level of interpretation and application before they can be applied confidently.”

And increases in farm size and business complexity are making it more difficult and inefficient for one grower to be an expert in all areas of management, reinforcing the need to rely on trusted, specialized experts. This means that one-on-one consultation, with professional advisors as well as other producers, will remain important for growers “to give themselves a different perspective and understand how others approach situations,” says Anderson.

“There is usually no better source of information or sorting out of data than discussing it with someone that you trust and have an established relationship with,” adds Sullivan.

Another example in which one-on-one consultation is valuable is in using technology to diagnose crop issues. When making a diagnosis from a picture of the crop, it is not always clear if all the relevant factors have been communicated, such as management and other events prior to the problem’s development. “A picture of a leaf disease or nutrient deficiency can occasionally lead you to the wrong conclusion; sometimes everything looks like Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus,” says McCallum.

Are we “mining the soil” beyond its capacity?  Or are the industry players (e.g., seed trade, chemical industry, equipment dealers) becoming more informed and better at communicating and advising growers to keep from mining the soil?

All three respondents agree that there is some mining of the soil occurring, as indicated by “falling soil-test values,” and each points out different contributing factors. McCallum thinks that newer technologies have increased both yields and crop removal of fertilizer, and growers may have been a bit slow to respond with appropriate fertilizer application. On the other hand, Anderson does not believe that the recent increased yields are the culprit because “it takes a long time to make up a deficit.” He thinks the decline could be related to past, long-term, poor returns for grains and oilseeds that forced growers to use less fertilizer to stay afloat. 

Sullivan suggests that some excessive soil mining may be occurring in situations in which short-term use agreements make long-term soil planning a low priority. Some practices that can contribute to soil mining, e.g., excessive tillage, inadequate fertilizer and lime applications, and limited crop rotations, could be improved. However, if problems such as a lack of soil drainage are not corrected, there are limited options for soil improvement, he says.

With all due respect to seed breeders, chemical companies, and equipment manufacturers, and all they have brought to fields in the past 15 years, do you think that a significant portion of growers have become over-reliant on the technology or is there a balance?

The CCAs agree that growers have adapted quickly to maximize the benefits of technologies, but that does not mean they have become over-reliant on it. “The technology that has worked, like improved genetics, corn borer resistance, Roundup Ready weed control systems, for example, has become entrenched in production practices,” says Sullivan. “I don’t deem this over-reliant, just keeping current with what has been made available by the industry.”

However, they note that some of the technology may not have been managed appropriately, for example, the use of refuge corn. And that will have to improve.

“I think the basic level of agronomic understanding among growers is as high now as it has been in years,” McCallum concludes. “The production and economic challenges of a few years ago have helped growers focus on making sound decisions and developing cost-control discipline.” He says that growers should continue with that mind-set when profitability becomes easier. “It is much easier to focus on long-term sustainability if you are not worried about just surviving the year.”