Controlled traffic farming in Alta.

Editor’s Note: Western Producer journalist Ron Lyseng took an in-depth look at Alberta’s now completed controlled traffic project and report and has provided his analysis.

Controlled traffic farming is similar to the time-proven tramline concept, except that CTF takes it all one important road forward. All equipment tires must follow exactly same paths in the field.

We already know tire tracks cause compaction and lower yield. Rather than having equipment tracks running willy-nilly all over the field, it makes sense to establish certain predictable routes for tires follow over and over, year after year. However, it’s a hard pill to swallow, knowing that by setting up permanent CTF tire routes, you are writing off any chance of growing crop on those acres.

Maybe the financial tradeoff makes the sacrifice worthwhile, maybe not. By strategically keeping equipment off designated cropping zones, new compaction is eliminated and existing compaction has a chance to break up naturally. This leads to better moisture infiltration, and the soil has a better chance to give you better yields.

Experts say a well planned CTF field means 65 to 80 percent of the ground is non-traffic areas.

Although the CTF idea has been kicked around for decades, there have been a couple obstacles.

For one thing, it requires strict enforcement of traffic lanes to ensure all implements have a particular track width or multiples of this span. That may be easy with some sprayers and some tractors, but it will seem like an insurmountable task when you try to squeeze or stretch track width on your swathers, combines, seeding equipment and grain trucks. Making the switch might require a major investment in new equipment.

Kirchner Machine in Lethbridge developed this implement to renovate tramline paths, which experience the inevitable rutting and damage. | Bruce Barker photo

Secondly, it looks good on paper, but so do a lot of things. Nobody questions the possible benefits of barring tires from designated production zones, but without prairie-specific research, producers are reluctant to invest the time or money in CTF.

As the input-profit ratio tightens, growers are looking for the next big step in crop management. We’ve extracted numerous benefits from zero till and more recently from precision farming. Perhaps CTF will be the next breakthrough.

That’s the question put forward by a group of Alberta farmers four years ago when they formed Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta (CTFA). They approached Alberta Renewable Resources and the University of Alberta with a request for in-depth research to explore the agronomic and economic benefits of CTF in actual on-farm conditions.

The project consisted of eight replicated on-farm field-scale plots running for three years, comparing CTF to random traffic (RT) fields. The study collected data on water infiltration, plant counts, weed counts, soil biology and yields. Soils on co-operators’ farms ranged from sandy loams to heavy clays. The sites included a wide range of soils, terrain and climate. The farmers who initiated the project had a clear vision and mission.

“Our vision is to help farmers successfully adopt controlled traffic farming systems that improve soils, increase production per unit of input, decrease cost per unit of production and increase net returns,” they said.

“Our mission is to evaluate and assess controlled traffic farming systems in Alberta conditions and provide farmers and agronomists with high quality, unbiased information so that they can make informed decisions about adopting controlled traffic farming.”

The data and conclusions are contained in a 60-page report that contains the following brief conclusions:

  • A 10 to 15 percent yield increase was attributed in part to the ability to seed on time. Keeping machines off the protected areas prompted better soil structure, water infiltration and soil water storage, which led to yield increases. Roots went deeper so water and nutrient efficiencies improved. A CTF system using RTK/GPS allows farmers to apply fertilizer closer to plant needs.
  • Drought resistance was a major factor. A 50 percent higher yield was documented in a drought year on some CTF fields. Crops could be grown on some fields where neighboring fields had no crop at all.
  • Up to 15 percent improved nutrient use efficiency was found. Better soil structure lets plants explore the root zone more effectively. CTF growers have noticed an increase in soil biological activity, which leads to better nutrient cycling.
  • Ten to 25 percent reduced crop protection costs were also reported. Healthier soil naturally leads to healthier crops that are more competitive with weeds, disease and insects. As well, RTK/GPS teamed up with CTF allows farmers to apply products more accurately and efficiently. It also allows for inter-row spraying of weeds and on-row spraying of fungicides and insecticides, thus reducing the amount of pesticide required.
  • Up to 50 percent less fuel use was seen. Compacted soil is normally thought of as a bad thing, but compact soil in a tramline is like a paved sidewalk, reducing the resistance to the rolling implement tire. It improves traction, which also reduces fuel consumption. Efficient field layouts and highly accurate RTK/GPS ensure that the seeder, sprayer and combine function at full capacity.
  • Lower machinery capital investment — Many of the co-operators in the project ran FWA rather than 4×4 tractors because compacted tramlines reduce horsepower requirements. Most farmers in the project had fairly small seeding equipment compared to what’s normally used in Alberta. This can be attributed in part to a wider seeding window for getting the crop in the ground.
  • Better crop grades — Timing has so much to do with crop grades. Many co-operators noted they can get on fields sooner after rain events both for seeding and at harvest.
  • Risk reduction — CTF systems are enhancing stored soil water. The system allows farmers to keep stubble standing, preventing erosion and enhancing water infiltration.
  • Soil observations — The study concluded that “controlled traffic systems had positive effects within the un-trafficked areas throughout.…

“Controlled traffic systems displayed significant improvements to soil structure in the un-trafficked areas, which was emphasized by increases in water transmission pore volume, soil S-Index and unsaturated hydraulic conductivity.…

“The observed enrichments to soil physical quality was variable across the regional areas of Alberta and was likely due to the varying duration of CTF implementation in each of the study sites, where longer durations of CTF usage displayed more robust soil amelioration.

“CTF systems performed well in a range of climatic and soil conditions and are increasing the resilience of the cooperators’ cropping systems.

“The research project has led to observations in which CTF can contribute to a number of critical factors that will improve the cropping system and make an individual farm business better off.

“Given Alberta’s climate and soil types, it is uncertain as to how long soils may take to repair the effect of years of random traffic and high axle loads, especially in the subsoil horizons. There is evidence that soils take a long time to recover from compaction.

“The Morrin co-operator has observed better, more even germination and emergence resulting in evenness of maturity in the CTF plots compared to the random traffic plots.

“CTF has shown a yield advantage over RT, and other advantages of the system are proving to be valuable. The precision of CTF opens up a whole new world of agronomic and economic opportunities such as in-crop nitrogen application, on-row fungicides and precision seed location.”

Soil digs taken 12 inches apart after five years in CTF show compacted soil under the castor wheel path on the left and undisturbed loose soil in the protected soil cropping zone on the right. | Bruce Barker photo

CTFA 2014-17 was a joint project with the University of Alberta and the Department of Renewable Resources and was funded primarily by the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund and the Alberta Canola Producers Commission. Further help was provided by Beyond Agronomy, Demeter Solutions, AgViser Crop Management, Paradigm Precision and the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta.

The co-operating farmers made significant investments and undertook additional risk to implement CTF on their farms.

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