Crop yields depend upon a long list of factors.
Producers control some of those factors and Mother Nature controls the rest.
For years, organic farmers in Western Canada didn’t worry a whole lot about yield and the agronomics within their control.
But that low-key, low-input approach is fading away.
“I’m really happy that we’ve got some people talking about producing good yields in organic,” said Martin Entz, University of Manitoba plant science professor who specializes in organic cropping systems. “For a long time… there were a lot of poor organic crops.”
Entz made his comment during a coffee break at the 2020 Prairie Organics conference, held early March in Brandon.
Not long ago, many organic growers were content to achieve 50 percent of conventional crop yields. They could survive, financially, with weak yields because organic prices were high and they used minimal inputs to grow wheat, oats, flax and pulse crops.
Now, many farmers question that approach.
Ian Cushon, who runs Moose Creek Organic Farm with his wife Jo-Anne in Oxbow, Sask., said improving soil fertility and increasing yields is a priority.
They invest in cover crops, or green manure, to improve nitrogen levels in the soil. And they spend money on phosphorus.
“In the last few years, we’ve been bringing in phosphorus, in organic fertilizers,” said Cushon, one of the speakers at the Prairie Organics event in Brandon.
On their better land, those investments have made a difference.
In good years, the Cushon’s achieve wheat yields of 40 bushels per acre and oats can hit 80 bu. For flax, a good organic crop would be 20-23 bu. per acre.
That’s about 65 to 70 percent of conventional yields.
“I’ve got conventional neighbours… I’m growing better crops than they are. They are not spending a ton of money (on inputs),” Cushon said.
A few organic growers on the Prairies are reaching yields that are about 90 percent of conventional, but most producers could set the bar a little lower.
“Seventy percent of conventional on cereals. Soybeans (should be) higher. Forages are higher,” Entz said. “Seventy percent of conventional. That’s a good organic farm.”
It’s difficult to know if organic growers are getting close to 70 percent because organic crop production statistics are unclear, at best.
It’s obvious, though, that more organic growers are focusing on fertility and better yields.
“Some are doing lots of cover crops and lots of plow downs to get their fertility up, which also helps with weed control,” said Laura Weinbender, crop specialist with Grain Millers, a major oat buyer in North America.
“Some farmers are getting into… eight to 12 species of different kinds of plants (for cover crops).”
Organic oat growers who employ the optimal practices are achieving 90-100 bu. per acre, Weinbender said.
Incorporating cover crops, or green manure, into a rotation does come with a cost. Part of a farmer’s land base is taken out of production, to improve fertility, and cover crop seeds are not free.
Regardless, it seems like more organic growers are willing to spend money to make money.
That’s a sign that producers are taking control over their yields.
“That’s the exact messaging that the organic sector has switched to. What you get out of your soil is solely what you put into it,” said Laura Telford, organic specialist with Manitoba Agriculture. “It’s only been in the last three or four years, that we’ve seen those quantum steps… towards getting the fertility you need to have the big yields.”
Organic growers in Western Canada are making strides on yield, but there’s work to be done.
Phosphorus remains an obstacle for many producers and conventional crop varieties aren’t always suitable for organic production.
AAC Brandon, for instance, is the most popular CWRS wheat on the Prairies. It isn’t a great fit for organic growers, Cushon said.
AAC Brandon is a semi-dwarf wheat but he needs a taller wheat variety, which grows quickly and outcompetes weeds early in the growing season.
“I think breeding varieties that are adopted for organic conditions, we will see yield increases,” he said.
For a number of years, Entz and others have been working on this Achilles’ heel of organic production. The University of Manitoba has operated a participatory plant breeding program, for organic farmers, since 2011.
“The objective… to develop cultivars (of oats, wheat and potatoes) relevant to farmers needs by conducting selection in the farm environment,” says the U of M Natural Systems Agriculture website. “A second aim important to our PPB program is to give farmers more control over seed resources by helping them develop and maintain their own varieties.”
For more information on the program, go to www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/naturalagriculture/ppb.html