Weather extremes highlight benefits of crop research

If ever there was a question about the value of research and development in crop production, this year answered it with a resounding affirmative.

Residual moisture from previous years was critical for many in the central and southern Prairies, but so too were advances in crop varieties and minimum and zero tillage.

Nothing could prevent serious yield loss in bone dry regions, but in many areas that were dry but not parched, farmers are shaking their heads and smiling as they watch combine yield monitors in fields they had little hope for in July.

Statistics Canada’s first crop production forecast, produced from farmer surveys conducted in late July, says prairie hard red spring wheat and canola yields, on average, are down about six percent from the 2012-16 five-year averages.

However, most in the industry think that is a worst-case scenario. The survey was conducted at the height of the heat and dryness, putting producers in a negative mindset.

Anecdotal reports from farmer posts on social media, satellite monitoring and other evidence suggest things are turning out better than expected.

That is amazing, considering that Regina and Moose Jaw experienced their driest July in more than 100 years of records.

It was also hotter than normal. Regina had 11 days of plus 30 C highs compared to the average of five.

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Those situations were among the extremes, but the vast majority of the Prairies in July had rainfall well below normal and temperatures above normal.

The situation prompted comparisons to 1988 and 2002, two previous drought years.

However, the results in the fields were not like previous droughts.

A critical difference this year was the fact that the Prairies were coming off of a string of wet years.

Although the soil surface dried out, there was moisture in the subsoil that plants could access.

However, we also have to consider that today’s farming machinery and techniques conserve moisture like never before. A couple of decades of minimum or zero tillage on most prairie fields have changed the soil structure, making it better able to absorb and hold moisture.

Crop residue and greater organic matter hold soil, preventing erosion in high winds.

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As well, the latest crop varieties handle stress better, which allows them to perform better in dry weather.

Breeding for drought tolerance is still a difficult thing. Standing up to drought is a quality with many genetic factors. There is no simple GMO solution.

However, the steady march of breeding with incremental improvements in yield and quality has created as a byproduct plants that are more robust and able to seek out available moisture.

These advances in plant variety are the result of costly research paid for through rising seed costs and research checkoffs.

We can appreciate it when producers complain of the rising cost of inputs such as seed. With so much money going into the ground to produce a crop, the risk rises to stressful levels that can’t be dismissed.

However, we can also appreciate it when research investment allows crops to be produced in conditions that in the past would have caused massive failures.

We hope Mother Nature provides fall rain and winter snow to replenish soil moisture. If not, 2018 will provide an even greater test of the resiliency of our farming system.

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Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.