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Why controlled traffic farming?

Controlled traffic farming (CTF) is a bit like tramlines on steroids. CTF not only keeps sprayer operations on tramlines, but all other field operations on those same tramlines, year after year. Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta (CTFA), a new project set up in 2010 to assess CTF, is trying to determine if the practice, which is popular in Australia and growing in Europe, has a fit here.

The concept was first presented in Alberta at the Alberta Reduced Tillage LINKAGES Direct Seeding Advantages conference in November 2008. Subsequently, CTFA was formed as a farmer-led initiative aimed at evaluating CTF in Alberta. One year of funding was provided by the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Alberta Barley Commission, Alberta Pulse Growers, and Alberta Winter Wheat Producers Commission. The Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) is the managing partner.

Peter Gamache is the project leader on CTFA, and says the group is exploring the fit for CTF in Alberta. He says CTF may provide Prairie farmers benefits in yield, reduced costs, and better soil structure, and the starting point in understanding those benefits was a one-year awareness project driven by farmers. “There is awareness of controlled traffic farming in Western Canada, but we wanted to look at how to reduce the risk for farmers getting into it by looking at the agronomics and economics of the system,” explains Gamache. 

Gamache defines CTF as a crop production system in which the crop zone and traffic lanes are distinctly and permanently separated. In practice, it means that all implements have a particular span or multiple of it, and all wheel tracks are confined to specific traffic lanes.

Craig Shaw, of Durango Farms at Lacombe, Alberta, and a member of CTFA, says the organization looked to Australia for examples and benefits of CTF. There, he says CTF has put 10 percent more cash in farmers’ pockets through reduced input costs, increased yields and better risk management. “When you look at the agronomic gains in Australia, if we could obtain those gains here, it could provide a large economic benefit to farmers,” says Shaw. “Like zero-till, it was really tough at the start. We were making decisions based on not a lot of answers, so we are trying to provide some answers to CTF in Alberta.”

Eliminating random wheel tracks
Gamache explains that a one-pass seeding system covers between 40 and 60 percent of the field with wheel tracks each year. This is cumulative, with seeding, spraying, harvesting and post-harvest operations all adding up. 

Steve Larocque, of Beyond Agronomy, sees advantages to controlled traffic farming (CTF).    Photo by Bruce Barker.

Controlled traffic farming establishes permanent traffic lanes where all machinery travels each year. A machinery system is created where all machinery uses a similar wheel gauge (distance between wheels across the machine) as much as possible. One of the most common systems used is a 30-foot seeder, 30-foot combine/header and 90-foot sprayer, all running on a similar wheel gauge, for example 10 feet. However a 60-foot seeder is possible, too.

Australia is the world leader in CTF with estimates as high as 30 percent of crop acres in some areas using a version of precision farming/CTF. There, an original motivator was to reduce soil compaction from random wheel traffic. Adoption was driven by efficiency and ease of farming, rather than compaction. It has evolved to include better water use efficiencies, savings in fuel consumption, improved soil structure, reduced pesticide costs and improved flotation of equipment.

Whether compaction is a serious issue or one that is less easily observed or measured is undergoing renewed debate in Western Canada, not only because of the awareness of CTF, but also because recent wet growing seasons have growers questioning whether compaction is an issue on their farm. (Top Crop Manager magazine will devote another article to this topic in an upcoming issue.)

CTF has been around to a lesser extent in Europe. Tim Chamen with Controlled Traffic Europe at Bedford, United Kingdom, estimates there are about 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) in the UK, with a few thousand more hectares across Europe. He does not know of any system in Europe before 2004, and the first was in the UK.

A trip ‘down under’
Gamache and 10 other Albertans, including eight farmers, toured Australian CTF farms in early Dec 2010. One of their objectives was to learn about the economic and risk management benefits that CTF has brought to growers. Gamache provides the following summary of what they learned on their CTF Australian tour.

10 to 15 percent increase in yields. Yield responses were attributed to soil improvements, capture of water and timeliness of seeding. Reducing compaction began the process of soil improvement. Soil structure, water infiltration, and soil water storage improved and led to yield increases. Plant rooting depths increased and both water and nutrient efficiencies improved. A CTF system using RTK/GPS allows farmers to apply fertilizer closer to plant needs.

Up to 50 percent better yields during drought. In some cases, CTF enabled crops to be grown compared to neighbours who had no crop. CTF has led to greatly improved water use efficiencies.

Up to 15 percent improved nutrient use efficiency. The same reason as increased yields due to better soil structure and plants exploring the rooting zone more effectively. As well, farmers have noticed a marked increase in soil biological activity, which leads to better nutrient cycling.

10 to 25 percent reduced pesticide and crop protection costs. Crops are more competitive in the CTF system. RTK/GPS has allowed farmers to apply pesticides more accurately and efficiently, avoiding overlap. It also allows for inter-row spraying of weeds and on-row spraying of fungicides and insecticides, thus reducing the amount of pesticide that needs to be applied.

Up to 50 percent reduced fuel usage. Compacted soil in the tramlines decreases implement rolling resistance, improves traction and leads to less fuel use. Efficient field layouts and highly accurate RTK/GPS ensure that the seeder, sprayer and combine are running to full capacity.

Lower machinery capital investment. Many of the farmers were using front-wheel assist tractors rather than four-wheel drives. Improved soil structure reduces horsepower requirements. Most farmers were using fairly small seeding equipment compared to that used in Alberta. That can be attributed in part to a wider seeding window for getting the crop in the ground.

Impact on crop grades over time. Many farmers noted that they can get on fields sooner after rain events both for seeding and at harvest.

Reduced risk. CTF systems are enhancing stored soil water. The system allows farmers to keep stubble standing, preventing erosion and enhancing water infiltration.

What else can be learned from CTF? Whether the benefits experienced by Australian farmers can be achieved in Western Canada remains to be seen. Agronomist and farmer Steve Larocque, of Beyond Agronomy, was along on the Australian trip, and summarized what was learned. Larocque farms 640 acres in central Alberta with his brother-in-law Mitch Currie. They made the leap to CTF for spring seeding in 2010, and his website, offers his 2010 observations on his CTF journey. 
  • CTF doesn’t have to happen overnight. You can progress into CTF over time as you begin to match up equipment widths and axle widths. Nobody says you have to flip a switch and go all in year one.
  • CTF equipment setups don’t have to be expensive. Many of the farms invested less than $15,000 to get into CTF and some took a few years as cash flow allowed.
  • You do not have to be anal about CTF. For example, if you have to jump off a tramline to unload at harvest because you can’t make it to the end of the run, then jump off and unload. The extra wheel traffic created by jumping off the tramlines to unload amounts to a very small percentage across the farm.
  • CTF opens up a world of precision application opportunities: inter-row seeding to inter-row spraying herbicides, on-row spraying of fungicides and insecticides, in-crop fertilizer banding, and strip till banding fertilizer in the fall. 
  • CTF creates spatial awareness. With the aid of application and yield mapping you can begin to eliminate the variables that reduce yield in your cropping system. Once you reduce the randomness of input applications, you can start to extract valuable yield data because the placement of inputs is so precise.  
  • CTF improves the timeliness of input applications. We all know how important timing is in farming. With CTF, growers can get on the field sooner after a rain than conventional farming systems. Improving the timeliness of seeding, spraying and harvest can generate big returns.   
  • CTF reduces fuel use by 30 to 50 percent, with big savings during harvest. For example, drive a loaded combine weighing in excess of 60,000 pounds across a soft field and then drive it across a pair of hard-packed tramlines. Needless to say, the reduction in fuel use is significant.  
  • On-farm research becomes easier and the data collected more valuable with CTF. The pass-to-pass accuracy in a CTF system allows you to apply treatments and collect yield data knowing exactly how many rows you treated and how many rows you harvested. It eliminates randomness such as input overlap and harvest under-lap that skews yield data.