Opinion: Winners and losers

We should take a much harder look at those yield contests

The following is my opinion. Enough said.

This started out as a column that was going to extol the farming abilities of some of the winners of canola growing contests. But as I talked with farmers about how they achieved their amazingly high yields, it became clear to me the highest yield isn’t really the story, especially for a strategic business publication like Country Guide.

In my opinion, the real story is about contests that may encourage farmers to make poor agronomic, economic, environmental, and sustainable decisions in the sole quest of yield.

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I’m not criticizing the farmers. They can’t be blamed for pursuing the opportunity that these contests put in front of them. But frankly no one comes out of this looking very good.

For example, in one yield contest a producer made four in-crop applications of fungicide. How are multiple passes of fungicides justifiable from an agronomic or environmental perspective?

Farmers are warned about fungicide resistance, yet the honour and prizes that come with winning such contests pushes some farmers to use multiple passes of a very limited number of fungicide actives in the quest for the highest yield. More importantly, since most fungicides are preventive rather than curative, can a producer even judge if repeated passes were warranted or whether they were effective?

By the same token, contests that focus strictly on yield encourage growers to apply insecticides regardless of the economic threshold levels of insect infestation. Worse, many insecticides are non-selective. How many beneficial insects are being killed, not because a canola crop is economically threatened, but rather in the hope a grower might get a yield increase by controlling any and all insects?

A huge concern of the general public is nutrient runoff into watersheds. Unfortunately, most growers trying to maximize yields likely start their quest for the record by increasing fertilizer without even questioning if the soil cation exchange capacity is capable of holding such high fertilizer levels.

Excessive fertilization in Denmark has already led to government regulations limiting the amount of nitrogen fertilizer which can be applied in a year, and as a result, crop yields in that country are actually dropping.

We are being closely watched by environmentalists and government regulators to ensure farmers follow sustainable, safe and effective application of fertilizers and pesticides, yet these contests offer wonderful prizes for the producer who harvests the highest yield with little regard to the practices used to achieve those yields or the economics of production.

Even more troubling is that the ag industry, media, and even agronomists and crop advisers then celebrate farmers who may have used questionable practices to achieve those yields, and then encourage other farmers to try and match those winning yields without detailing the sustainability or the economics of the practices used.

Instead of responding to environmentalist concerns about modern farming practices, we are actually offering them ammunition for their battle against the farming industry.

But it is just a learning exercise!

Sponsors will say their contests are all about exploring the potential of the crops we grow. They’ll say they are intended to be a learning exercise to encourage farmers to try new products, to adjust inputs, or to try new farming techniques that may lead to increased production across the entire farm in the future.

But is this really a valid argument? When you throw open your cheque book and maximize the application of all inputs across the field, how do you know the effect of an application of any particular product? Is the addition of that micronutrient package really giving you that yield boost, or was it the top dressing of N, or a sulfur rate higher than you have ever applied before.

I am all for trying new varieties, or adjusting input rates, or trying new ideas, but to get any meaningful data, you can only adjust a single variable at a time to truly know the effect of such a change, not only on yield but on costs and returns as well.

Furthermore, I question if yield should be the ultimate goal farmers strive for. Over the last decade, I have participated in field-scale trials with three different companies comparing top-yielding canola varieties. It has given me the opportunity to try new and upcoming canola varieties as well as to compare the best varieties from multiple companies under large-scale, real farm conditions.

One lesson I learned is the top-yielding variety is not necessarily the best variety for my farm. There are a host of other plant characteristics that I consider just as important as yield potential, including early season vigour, plant size, green seed counts, length of growing season required, shattering, disease resistance, and especially harvest-ability. I have tested some really high yielding varieties which I would never consider growing because they are so tough to harvest.

Farming is a business, and few businesses succeed by focusing solely on production. The goal of successful businesses is to maximize profit and efficiency rather than output.

When the stars align

Most farmers are familiar with the graphic of a barrel with knot holes at various levels, each representing a particular nutrient or input. The yield potential of the crop is limited by the input which is in shortest supply (lowest hole in the barrel). By plugging the lowest hole in the barrel (by increasing the nutrient in shortest supply), the farmer will increase yields.

Unfortunately, not all holes can be plugged. Too often it is an environmental factor which is limiting yield, so increasing inputs may not have any effect on yield. Too little or too much rainfall can play havoc with cropping plans and eventual yields. For instance, canola is very sensitive to hot temperatures when flowering and there is little farmers can do if we have extremely hot weather at the wrong time, just as there’s little they can do if we get a late spring or early fall frost. Should farmers really try to maximize yields each and every year? Or should they adjust their expectations based on environmental factors. Instead of fertilizing for that 80-bushel crop in a dry spring, should they fertilize for 40 bushels and add nutrients in-crop if timely rains present the possibility of that 80-bushel or more crop?

In reality, is winning a high yield contest a reflection of best farming practices or more a reward for being fortunate enough to farm in an area where environmental conditions are ideal that year? Is a high yield contest really about best management, or is it more a reward for an act of God?

Every farmer with a combine yield monitor has likely seen places in their fields where the stars have aligned and yields are double the field average.

Let me repeat. In no way am I faulting the farmers participating in a yield contest. The prizes for winning most yield contests are very attractive and the farmers participating likely will not be financially hurt by excessive spending on a small number of qualifying acres in such contests.

On the other hand, if this sounds like a rebuke of the contests, well, it is. As I mentioned earlier, farmers are increasingly subjected to scrutiny by both the public and governments, and farmers should not be enticed by a prize into questionable farming practices.

Instead, I challenge companies that truly want to assist farmers to run a contest to identify not the highest yield but rather the most efficient and profitable farm practices. Instead of number of bushels per acre determining the winner, how about profit per bushel of canola harvested? Let’s see if that newest variety with the hefty price tag actually delivers more profit per bushel harvested. Does that additive product add as much to the profit per bushel as it does to the yield?

And why stop at just one crop? The best contest would be a whole farm analysis. Think of the learning potential! Is the farm operation that leases new equipment every year actually more profitable than the farm running older equipment? Let’s find out how the 2,000-acre farm actually compares to the 20,000-acre farm on a profit-per-bushel basis.

With today’s computing power and data collection we could even tie in environmental data like degree days and rainfall amounts to see the impact of things farmers cannot manage on the bottom line.

The big question is who would sponsor such a contest. What if the most efficient or profitable farm was not using the newest varieties or the latest products on the market? What if the most profitable farm did not upgrade equipment annually? What if the most efficient farms were not spending money on crop and market advisory services? What if the biggest farm turned out not to be the best when judged by the bottom line?

Such a contest may or may not be a tool for a sponsor to sell new seed or equipment, higher rates of input, or advisory services. But it sure would be interesting to see the numbers!

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