Farmers who swap information and production methods can boost yields while improving the soil
CARMAN, Man. — Jeremiah Evans had a big production problem in his organic fields.
“The crop was just overcome by wild oats and mustard most of the time,” Evans said in an interview during the July 15 organic field day at the University of Manitoba’s Carman research farm. “Thistles were a problem. Quack grass.”
So last fall he bit the bullet, spent $80,000 on an electric-eyed inter-row cultivator, and this year he’s hitting the weeds while the crop is growing in the rows beside it.
“The in-row cultivator has taken care of all the weeds between the rows,” said Evans.
That’s the kind of action that University of Manitoba instructor and researcher Martin Entz thinks is necessary to avoid the kind of critically low yields that have put many farmers off organic agriculture.
“There are farmers in this room who are getting 70 percent of conventional yields, and there are lots of farmers who are getting really low yields, and they make their money marketing,” said Entz in an interview.
“I worry about those people.”
A Western Producer analysis of crop insurance data from Manitoba and Saskatchewan has showed that average organic yields have tended to be 40 to 50 percent of conventional yields, which Entz said was mirrored at his university’s long-term organic field plots in its early years.
For example, flax yields were about 45 percent of conventional during the first 12 years of the studies.
However, researchers then added a couple of steps and yields shot up.
“When we started applying some of the new ideas, like inter-row cultivation in small grains, now our yields are between 70 and 80 percent of conventional,” said Entz.
European farmers have traditionally grown a seven-crop rotation, which provides a robust weed-fighting and nutrient-cycling system. As well, Entz said mixing forages into organic systems also boosts the general strength of the biological system.
Inter-row cultivation is extremely effective because it chops down most of the weeds growing around the crop.
Evans said his 22-foot-wide cultivator has destroyed virtually all the weeds between the six-and-a-half inch wide rows, and he thinks the unit will pay for itself if he can get one extra bushel per acre.
He seeds with a 44 foot air seeder, so the inter-row cultivator is paired to that width, with each pass covering one half of a seeder pass.
The “electric eyes” use colour to identify the crop rows and keep the shovel going through the spaces between the rows.
He passed through the crop twice this season, once at three to four weeks after planting and then again two weeks later.
“We’ve proven in our field that it’s accurate,” said Evans.
He said he did the first turn gingerly with frequent stops to check if it was working, but now he can often move at seven m.p.h. on easy patches.
Entz said he hopes organic farmers will pay close attention to organic agronomics and swap information and findings because that’s the best way to go from sub-50 percent yields to 70 percent or higher.
“The farmers have been very isolated. They’ve been very much on their own. Some organic farmers are so independent they don’t want to interact,” said Entz. “But the ones here are interdependent, and they benefit from that.”