Improved varieties would reduce herbicide waste

A lot of breeding work has been done to improve alfalfa, but a real advancement would be an alfalfa variety susceptible to a low-cost herbicide. | File photo

Here are some random ideas for cutting waste, cutting costs and thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Alfalfa is a great forage crop, but as a grain producer who collaborates with cattle producing neighbours, I see it as a difficult-to-control weed.

While this deep-rooted perennial will sometimes be killed over winter, trying to kill it with tillage or herbicide is expensive. Every tame forage stand should be regularly terminated to optimize production. Many stands go too many years with declining production before being reseeded.

A lot of breeding work has been done to improve alfalfa, but a real advancement would be an alfalfa variety susceptible to a low-cost herbicide. Within many annual crops, no herbicide control exists to take out alfalfa. Being able to easily kill alfalfa would be a big advantage.

The same need exists with canola, but in this case the problem is with canola volunteers in the years following a crop. Many years ago, work was proceeding on a terminator gene whereby seed would be sterile.

This created a huge backlash. How were farmers going to save their own seed if this terminator technology was unleashed? Breeding companies dropped the concept.

Now, hardly anyone saves and replants their canola seed. With hybrids you’d take a big yield penalty. Plus, it’s illegal. By buying the seed, you agree to not save and replant.

So having the terminator trait would be a huge advantage — no canola volunteers to fight. Most producers would be more than willing to adopt canola varieties with a terminator trait.

Another breeding objective should be flax without so much fibre in the straw. Dealing with the crop residue is one of the reasons many producers choose not to grow flax.

Burning straw rows and piles is still quite common. What a waste of crop nutrients. What an environmental black eye for agriculture.

Some farmers bale and remove the straw even though it has little livestock feed value. While this is more environmentally friendly than burning, it’s still a waste of resources.

For many years, the flax industry promoted fibre applications and it can certainly be used for many products. Unfortunately, the industry has never blossomed and few producers receive payment for their straw. The cost of baling and transporting is a big impediment.

Breeding the fibre out of the flax straw would be a marvelous advancement. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy and only one flax-breeding initiative remains in Western Canada, at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre. Perhaps a flax fibre reduction initiative could tap into some of the money being thrown at climate change mitigation.

Beyond crop traits, here’s a waste-saving idea that would only require a regulatory change. Far too many labels and information booklets are printed for the crop protection products we buy.

Open up a box with four or six jugs of herbicide and there’s a use manual for each jug, either attached to the side of the jug or separate in the box. Presumably this ensures that even if you just buy one jug, you get all the information.

In practice, probably 99 percent of this information is never read. It’s useless waste that we all pay for. One set of instructions for each box of jugs would be adequate. Better yet, provide a link to a website.

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

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