This is what I’ve learned from the last 12 months

This is the time of year when there is time to reflect back on the season that just wrapped up and try to take some lessons from what we did and what happened. Here are a few notes that I made.

Wheat planted early, followed by three weeks of cold weather, will successfully germinate and produce a good early crop. That is what both research and crop insurance data would suggest, but this year was a little different from a normal year. Mid-April had some nice weather and by April 20 there were fields that could be planted in many areas. While this is common for southern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan, we are talking about areas into the black soil zones of central and east-central Saskatchewan and northwestern Manitoba.

Then we had abnormally cool weather until well into May. This resulted in wheat emergence taking three weeks. Pulse crops showed a better response to the cold soil than wheat, but the wheat did emerge and produced some very nice crops — albeit a little shorter than normal.

These crops still had a jump on weeds and were ready to harvest before normal-date seeded crops, and the comments I heard were that yield and quality were very good. The take-away — believe the data and in most years, it is never too early to seed wheat. Two recommendations, though: use a seed treatment and don’t skimp on the phosphate.

Cutworms seem to like soybean stubble and previous year fallow land. Over the past two years, I have been called out on or contacted by growers who have had cutworm issues. Approximately half of these calls were related to crops grown on soybean stubble. My guess is the cutworm moths see the green soybean fields in August when they are looking for a place to lay their eggs and think that that is promising real estate.

The other cropping situation where I have seen a lot of issues is on fallow land. For what ever reason, if you had land that didn’t get seeded, if the crop was torn up and there was cultivated bare soil or you have fields that were in soybeans this year, my feeling is that these fields are where you should consider using seed treatments that have control of cutworms on their label.

Vertical tillage or similar tillage equipment designed with the seed bed in mind and used by many producers for the past few years, when excess moisture was an issue, do perform as advertised. However, in a spring when there were many areas that didn’t receive rainfall until the middle of June, these did too good a job. I saw many fields that had very little canola germinate until June 20, which caused issues with harvest in the fall.

My recommendation is to find alternatives for seed bed preparation unless you have better than normal moisture. By using one of these tools and tilling to a depth of four inches, you will probably lose 0.5 to .075 inches of moisture. If, like this year, we don’t get a spring rain, crops will suffer.

The crop varieties we are growing and the production practices we are using continue to amaze me with their ability to respond to limited rainfall and less than ideal climatic conditions to produce above average crops. Even when half or more of a canola crop didn’t germinate until June 20, it still produced excellent yields when the basics — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur — were provided. Twenty extra pounds of nitrogen are still probably the best investment you can make in a crop once you have satisfied the other major nutrients.

Protein questions always come up around the first week of July. The simplest answer as to how to increase your protein on wheat is to seed it onto a legume stubble. Don’t worry about your nitrogen credits. Use your normal nitrogen program and you will grow an excellent, high protein crop. Get more legumes into your rotation.

A lot of fields have, in response to a number of years of excellent wild oat control, a wild oat population that can be described as very low. A number of cereal fields did not get a wild oat treatment because, at the normal application timing, they had very few plants, well below economic thresholds. To refresh your memory, yield losses in wheat vary by wild oat density and by emergence date as compared to the crop.

Estimating a 60 bushel crop, $6 per bu. wheat and a $18 per acre cost of herbicide and application, one would need approximately a five percent loss to break even and a 10 percent cost to get the 2:1 return often recommended for spraying. Across every acre then, a grower would need an infestation of five wild oats per sq. metre if the wild oats emerged one leaf ahead of the crop and 15 per sq. metre if they emerged one leaf after the crop emerged. Double these infestations for a 2:1 return.

Most of the crops I saw had a few wild oats in the headlands or in the draws, but infestations were maybe two to three per sq. metre and they emerged two to three leaves behind the crop. Very few met the economic criteria to spray.

While there will be some wild oat seeds going back into the seed bank, next year’s herbicides will pick them up. Another bonus is that one year was saved in the battle with wild oat resistance. Every year a herbicide is not applied is another year where selection pressure was not applied to your wild oat population.

Caution should be taken when cleaning out sprayers following Group 2 herbicide applications. More and more of the generic Group 2 products (trifensulfuron/tribenuron) are available, which use older formulation techniques.

These products, as well as newer products such as PrePass Flex, have the issue of hanging around in sprayers and plumbing and only coming out if thoroughly cleaned, including all filters and strainers, or when Liberty is used. This results in significant damage to the canola. It can occur after several sprayer tank loads of herbicide. I looked at a few fields showing damage.

And finally, a couple of observations on the weather and models. Guess what? We had an average year of precipitation in much of the Prairies. However, it was very dry for the first six weeks and very wet for the last six weeks. We were a bit cooler, especially in May and June, and crop delays carried on throughout the year.

Crop staging predictors do work. I have been using one and it has been scary accurate for most of the year. The disease and insect models also worked. When they said low risk for fusarium or sclerotinia infections, low disease pressure was observed. It was Obi-Wan Kenobi who said, “Use the forecast, Luke,” or something to that effect. The forecast models work, and as we get more and better local weather information, they become more accurate on your farm.

And finally, I am convinced that climate change is real, and one of the consequences of climate change is more violent shorter-term and longer-term swings in weather, which results in more erratic weather. We saw it this year — from very dry to very wet, cooler than normal, et cetera. So don’t be surprised when we have springs — or falls — or summers like we had this year.

Because of these swings, growing crops like soybeans or corn may result in frost damage because the average first day of fall frost is still the second week of September in much of the Prairies. No one wants to wear their Halloween costume when combining.

Thom Weir is a certified crop adviser and former professional agrologist working in the Yorkton, Sask., area. You can reach him at thom.weir@farmersedge.ca.

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