Healthy skepticism on new technology is good

If you attended Canada’s Farm Progress Show back in Regina in June or the recent Ag in Motion outdoor farm show near Saskatoon, you heard lots of sales pitches for new technologies.

As farmers, we’re bombarded by sales pitches all the time. Whether it’s a new seeder, a new seed treatment or a new variety of seed, there are good reasons to be wary.

Don’t get me wrong. The technological advancement in agriculture has been amazing and the pace of change is accelerating, but there are always winners and losers when it comes to the new technology.

Remember a few years ago when a company was promoting the idea of routing the diesel exhaust from your seeding tractor into the soil, claiming all the benefits it would provide? Or do you remember many years ago when there were machines for adding water to seed for tempering it before you put it in the ground?

While the sales pitches were convincing, the concepts were a flop.

These days, a myriad of soil amendments and additives are being promoted. While some probably have merit, and may even make economic sense, others are being promoted without the evidence of properly replicated trials.

It could be that maybe something has merit in the black soil zone, but doesn’t work in the brown or vice versa. Or maybe something works, but it isn’t cost effective.

Fungicides are proven technology, but do you need them if you’re having a dry year when disease risk should be greatly reduced? The sales pitches typically make it sound like fungicide should always be used, while independent agrologists provide a different perspective.

Precision agriculture with variable fertilizer and seed rates has theoretical merit and has come a long way, but adoption is lagging because consistent and substantial benefits are difficult to document.

You can buy satellite and drone images of your farmland, soil test extensively and employ the companies on the leading edge of precision agriculture. Maybe this will make you money, but maybe it won’t.

One difficulty in Western Canada is predicting the weather. In regions where moisture conditions vary dramatically from one year to the next, coming up with optimum fertilizer recommendations is tough enough without adding a bunch of other variables to the equation.

While some support precision ag with evangelical fervour, others have the same unshakeable conviction that cover cropping and intercropping are the answers to profitability and more importantly soil health. Again, theory needs to be backed by scientific rigour. Philosophy isn’t an adequate substitute for data.

The zero-till philosophy is now being challenged by crop residue issues and herbicide resistant weeds. This has led to the promotion and introduction of more tillage tools.

New crop varieties are coming out all the time. Often these are incremental improvements in yield, agronomy and/or disease resistance, but every now and then something comes along that’s a game changer.

That’s a good reason to buy seed, but do you need to buy certified seed if you aren’t upgrading to an improved variety? Certified seed has an important role to play, but is it actually superior to farm-saved seed if you’re careful about purity and seed cleaning?

It’s good to balance an open mind with a healthy skepticism when it comes to new technology. All too often, the leading edge of adoption is also the bleeding edge.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at

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