Technology gains may have saved many a crop last season

We often reflect on the previous year at this time of the year and give thanks for the bounties that we have received.

This is magnified with those of you who receive their livelihoods from the land. We are so at the mercy of Mother Nature. This was very evident this past year.

However, the most common remark I heard this year when I asked a farmer how his yields were was “pleasantly surprised” or “un-expectantly good.”

I chalk up much of these results to the adoption of direct seeding and no-till technologies developed in the 1990s by many industrious farmers, agronomists and engineers. We have come a long way in a short period of time.

I think back to the dust storms in the late 1980s and remember my mother lamenting about having to dust almost daily as the clouds of dust rolled through.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to organizations such as the ManDak Zero Till Association and the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association for their hard work and foresight with regards to soil conservation and no-till.

The discussion of technology leads me to another observation.

This past fall, I had the opportunity to tour for six weeks in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. This area has often been referred to as the world’s rice bowl. Having now travelled through this area, I can see why.

When in the country, you are seldom out of range of seeing a rice paddy. Whether you are travelling through the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar or the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, you see these small paddies stretching from horizon to horizon. This is not unlike driving across the Prairies during the summer, but that is where the technology part cuts in.

I saw paddies plowed with water buffalo, broadcast seeded by hand and harvested with sickles. I even had the opportunity to drive a pair of water buffalo in a rice paddy in Cambodia.

Some of the farmers are using technology such as a transplanter for seeding and a rice combine for harvesting, but these practices seem to be varied in their acceptance.

It was interesting to find at one farm I visited a stack of bags of 16-20-0-14 fertilizer in the corner of the shed. The farmer told me that this was the basic product they used on their rice along with 14-14-14-12.

I also toured a rubber plantation, where their form of controlled release fertilizer was interesting. They put what I would estimate as 10 kilograms of fertilizer — 20-10-12 I think — in poly seed bags and lie them between the trees. The rainfall dissolves the fertilizer to feed the trees.

All of this tells us that western agriculture and those involved in modern crop protection are blessed, whether we are talking about modern seed varieties or hybrids, herbicide technologies, equipment or more cutting edge technologies such as variable rate fertility. We have such an array of technologies and such a wide variety of choices.

We are also blessed by having such a dedicated industry behind these choices to offer farmers technical and agronomy support. As well, we have an incredible group of researchers behind these products — both private and public — developing new and innovative products and techniques for producers to use on their farms.

I have been in the agriculture business for 45 years since I entered it as a student. I have had the opportunity to work at the leading edge of such innovations as herbicide tolerant crops, fertilizer placement in direct seeding and the whole field of data management and modelling. Wow, have there been changes in those four and a half decades. My twitter handle is #agfeedstheworld, but possibly it should be #agtechnologyfeedsthe world.

As you reflect back on 2017 and complete your spring planning, take a moment to reflect on what you do now on your farm compared to what you did 10 or 15 years ago. Consider where we are headed on this trip and be prepared to hang on because the ride is only just starting to pick up speed.

Thom Weir is an agronomist with Farmer’s Edge. He can be reached by emailing thom.weir@farmersedge.ca.

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