Varieties key to glyphosate loss

Korby Koshman takes a low-key and straightforward approach to harvesting his oat crop.

He simply waits.

He lets the oats stand in the field until they are ready for harvest.

“Honestly, patience is typically all it is,” said Koshman, who operates a 6,300 acre farm, about 75 kilometres northwest of Yorkton, Sask.

Koshman hasn’t used a swather on his farm for about three years and he doesn’t apply glyphosate to his oat crop before harvest.

“We just find our yields are higher, without swathing. The seeds tend to mature and get full,” he said. “That’s a nice thing (of) not doing a pre-harvest (treatment) of glyphosate or a desiccant. If you can actually wait for the seeds to get bigger… in theory (it) should increase weight and yield.”

Many growers in Western Canada spray oats with glyphosate to control weeds and dry down the crop before harvest. In June, Richardson Milling, one the major oat buyers in Canada, told growers it won’t purchase oats that are treated with a desiccant or pre-harvest glyphosate.

The decision, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2021, was based on consumer demand for oat foods that are “not treated with a pre-harvest desiccant,” Richardson said in an email.

Grain Millers, which operates a mill in Yorkton and is the other major buyer of oats on the Prairies, told growers to stop using glyphosate as a pre-harvest aid in 2015.

The corporate decisions could effectively end the practice and some growers may back away from oats.

“Loss of another tool that has been scientifically proven to be safe and effective will impact seeded acres. In many areas, producers will decrease production if oat buyers do not adjust prices to offset the production risk,” the Prairie Oat Growers Association said in a July 17 letter.

Wet weather at harvest can cut yield and reduce crop quality, which is a financial risk for growers.

The loss of glyphosate won’t affect acres on Koshman’s farm.

Oats are an important crop for him and in many years, 25 percent of his acres are seeded to the cereal.

Instead of using glyphosate, he selects varieties that can stand in the field for weeks in the fall. That allows him to straight-cut the oats when they’re ripe and sufficiently dry.

“Stand is a big (trait) and of course, yield and weight,” Koshman said. “(The varieties) tend to be a bit shorter, better straw strength.”

Of course, no oat variety will remain upright if there’s 40 centimetres of wet snow in early October, but many varieties on the market have “harvest durability,” said Jim Dyck, owner of Oat Advantage, an oat breeding company in Saskatoon that released two varieties through SeCan in 2019.

Glyphosate was a handy tool but growers can successfully straight-cut oats without it, he said.

“There are plants from the University (of Saskatchewan), from Ag Canada and from our program… that can endure some time (in the field),” he said.

“If you do have to wait (to combine), these varieties do stand pretty well… and oat breeding programs will come out with even better varieties, which will have even more harvest durability.”

Besides choosing the right variety, growers should seed oats earlier in the spring, Dyck said.

In the past, oats was often the last crop to go in the ground on many western Canadian farms.

But oats can be a profitable crop and shouldn’t be an afterthought. They should be the first or second crop seeded, even before canola, he said.

Koshman agreed.

He tries to seed his oats earlier to “get it in the combine earlier.”

Some growers may shift acres away from oats because they don’t want to wait for oats to naturally ripen in September. Or they don’t want to start up their swather that’s been sitting idle for five years.

Koshman stopped using his swather because it’s difficult to find farm labour.

“The main reason we went to straight cutting is just operators,” he said. “We don’t have the (workers) to run swathers and combines at the same time. Labour is a big factor for us.”

However, many farmers have figured out how to produce oats without glyphosate. Since implementing its no-glyphosate policy, Grain Millers has expanded its Yorkton mill and is processing more oats than it did five years ago, a company rep said.

Other companies are attracting oat production with similar policies. Paterson Grain offers an identity preserved oat contract, which prohibits use of pre-harvest glyphosate.

While it is feasible, there are some challenges, Koshman said.

Operating a combine with a 15-foot wide pick-up header is relatively easy. Running a machine with a much wider header is more difficult.

“I would say that’s our biggest challenge, getting operators to run 40-foot headers,” he said.

“There’s a lot going on and a lot to watch. Especially if you get into some rolling land. It’s not easy.”

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