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Fewer tracks mean better yields

Alberta farmers can grow like the champions if they learn to tap solar power and drive carefully, said experts at a recent conference.

Alberta farmers can grow like the champions if they learn to tap solar power and drive carefully, said experts at a recent conference.

Around a thousand people gathered at the Edmonton Mayfield Inn last week for the annual FarmTech conference, one of the province's biggest meetings on agri-technology. One big draw was keynote speaker Steve Larocque of Beyond Agronomy, who spoke on how farmers in New Zealand have been able to reap record-setting wheat crops.

Alberta farmers could get up to 30 per cent more crop from their fields simply by driving in straight, consistent lines like the New Zealanders do, Larocque says, and cut their fuel bills by 30 to 50 per cent. "A 30 to 50 per cent drop in costs almost pays my bill!" he jokes.

Sun power

Larocque, a well-known Alberta agronomist, recently took a trip to several New Zealand and Australian farms that had some of the highest crop yields in the world. Many were past or current world record holders.

New Zealand has several advantages over Alberta — a warmer, wetter climate, for one — but uses several techniques local farmers could borrow.

New Zealand wheat plants are shaped differently from those in Alberta, for example: while ours have thin leaves that point perpendicular to the stem, theirs have broad ones that point up and out in a V-shape. Those big leaves act as huge solar panels, he says, letting the plants catch more power for growth. They also point up instead of out, which means the top leaves don't shade out the bottom ones.

"There are big strides to be made in both disease management and sunlight capture," Larocque says. Alberta researchers should try to breed varieties that have the big V-shaped leaves of New Zealand plants to boost productivity.

Precision planting

Canadian farmers use drills that don't account for changes in terrain, Larocque explains, so the seeds they plant can be several inches above or below their optimum depth. Manitoba research suggests that even a one-inch difference in planting depth can cause a 40 per cent difference in yield. "You can lose a week or 10 days in maturity. When you have only a hundred-day growing season, [that's] very important."

New Zealand and Australia use precision drills that plant each seed at exactly the right depth, he notes, and are accurate enough to plant seeds in between the stubble of last year's crop. The stubble traps heat to help the plants grow — something that could help in Alberta's cold spring.

They also used GPS systems to drive their equipment along the exact same paths each year — a practice called controlled traffic. "About 40 to 60 per cent of our fields are being covered by wheel-tracks in any given year," he says. "By year two, you've basically travelled across the entire field."

Since most farm vehicles weigh about 18 tonnes, you end up compacting all the soil in your field and stunting plant growth.

New Zealand research suggests that crops are 40 per cent more likely to sprout if planted in untravelled soil, Larocque says. Controlled traffic not only boosts yields, but also cuts fuel use by up to half by creating hard, smooth wheel-lanes. "You can drop the horsepower requirement on your tractor by a hundred," he says, leading to substantial savings.

Cautious optimism

Provincial researchers are already looking at controlled traffic in Alberta, notes conference chair Kent Erickson, who was not aware of any farmer who was currently practicing it. "If it adds bushels to the crop and adds value, it's something we want to look at."

Farmers would have to invest in new drills, tires and GPS equipment to do controlled traffic farming, says Rick Taillieu of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, which could discourage some from taking the plunge. Still, these techniques are worthy of more research. "There's no reason why many of the same benefits they see in Australia can't be seen here."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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