Agronomy project aims to raise yields 25 per cent

Complex project will study intensive systems approach to crop management

Sheri Strydhorst isn’t doing a lot of fishing this summer. And if her research bears out, you just might be willing to give it up, too.

An agronomy research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development in Barrhead, Strydhorst is leading an incredibly complex, multi-layered, multi-site, multi-crop research project designed to find out the extent to which an intensive systems approach to crop management can boost yields in wheat, feed barley and peas.

“There hasn’t been a huge amount of work done on advanced agronomy systems,” says Strydhorst. “There have been lots of one-off projects on things like multiple fungicide applications, or the effect of plant growth regulators — and all of that is valuable research.” But, she adds, there haven’t been many opportunities to look at what happens when you use all of these practices together in a systems approach to crop management.

So, what does Strydhorst mean by an advanced agronomy systems approach? Basically, she and her team are stacking multiple agronomic practices in a field to determine where the synergies lie and where the cut-off points are in the quest for higher yields.

For example, there are plenty of independent research data to show that two fungicide applications in wheat can boost yield. But what if you include a plant growth regulator (PGR) in that crop and give it a supplemental treatment of liquid urea ammonium nitrate (UAN)? What about two fungicide applications and a higher rate of UAN? What about different application timings? How do these practices impact each other? Would these interactions differ depending on soil zone? How much is too much, and where is the point of diminishing returns when it comes to input cost versus increased yield?

If you think that sounds like a lot, brace yourself. “We are looking at 48 wheat management practices, 64 barley management practices and 15 pea management practices,” says Strydhorst, adding that the three-year study is being conducted at five sites across Alberta and encompasses irrigated land as well as thin black, black and grey soils.

In all, Strydhorst and her team are testing about 50 different management systems in wheat and feed barley aimed at maximizing yields, and 15 management systems in peas aimed at improving harvestability. Her goal is nothing short of increasing wheat and barley yields by 25 per cent while maintaining peas in the rotation, in an effort to make western Canadian farms more profitable.

That’s why it’s important to Strydhorst that a portion of her funding is coming from farmers through the Western Grains Research Foundation. “The WGRF is a huge contributor to this project,” she says. “The knowledge that farmers are willing to spend their dollars on this means a lot to me.” She adds that this funding has helped leverage additional dollars from the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF).

Indeed, the importance of this work to growers is evidenced by the fact that Strydhorst’s project has six funding bodies (including WGRF and ACIDF), the majority of which are farmer directed (Alberta Wheat Commission, Alberta Barley Commission, Alberta Pulse Growers Commission and Alberta Innovates — Bio Solutions).

Optimizing existing technology

The first thing you might notice about Strydhorst’s research is that canola is nowhere to be found. “There has been so much work done on canola and malt barley,” she says. “We need the work in these other crops now, but we are planting all of our systems into canola stubble because we know that’s the reality for growers.”

Another reality assumed by the research is that farmers are getting the basics right before advanced agronomic practices are overlaid. “We are doing all the basics as they should be done,” Strydhorst explains. “We’re seeding early, using certified seed, seed treatment, proper seeding rates and depth, early herbicide applications — this is the control factor. Then we want to see what happens when we add a fungicide certain times, in-crop UAN and PGRs.”

Strydhorst believes that farmers already have top-of-the-line technology in the form of plant genetics, crop protection products, fertilizer, even machinery. Her focus is on how growers can optimize the potential of these things through advanced agronomy. “I think it’s critical for Canada to be competitive on an international scale,” she says. “We have the genetics, but I don’t think we have the agronomy to maximize those genetics. Or sometimes we buy the new chemical, but then don’t use it properly.”

At its core, this research is about what is possible in terms of yield when you do everything right. “Last year, I had a farmer ask me at a field day if he should cut his wheat fertilizer dollars and put it all into fungicide, since the results of a dual fungicide application trial looked so good,” says Strydhorst. “But you can’t steal from one pile to feed another. If you don’t do everything right, then none of it matters.”

In other words, building big yields is about setting a strong foundation and building on it carefully, brick by brick. “This is intensive management,” Strydhorst says. “We are looking at the best growth staging to apply a PGR, or the best timing and growing conditions to apply UAN. You have to get the basics right and then ask what you can tweak to build yields.”

The plan is that if growers can consistently achieve wheat yields of 54 bu./ac. and feed barley yields of over 75 bu./ac., then these crops become very economically competitive choices when it comes time to plan rotations.

With the peas, it’s less about yield than about reducing the pain-in-the-butt factor. “The whole purpose is to get those things to stand through harvest,” laughs Strydhorst, recalling a farmer recently telling her it took him five days to harvest a quarter of peas.

She explains that 2014 is a prep year for the pea work — basically growing wheat that will be harvested at different stubble heights and then peas will be inter-row seeded into that stubble next year. “We will seed CDC Meadows into 14-inch, seven-inch and no-stubble fields,” she says. “We’ll do inter-row seeding, using stubble as a trellis, then add a PGR and look at timing and rates. If we can make it more attractive to grow peas, that would be great.”

Focus on farmers’ needs

All this talk of dual fungicide applications, PGRs and UAN applications — won’t all this cost too much? Not really, says Strydhorst. A 30-bu./ac. yield increase in wheat more than offsets the cost of two fungicide applications, for example.

But she cautions this is not simply a checklist of things to do to get higher yield. It’s about helping farmers farm better by knowing when to push the crop and when to cut their losses. Is the yield potential there? Are the growing conditions looking good enough to apply fungicide a second time? “It’s about knowing your crop and babying it,” says Strydhorst. “It means you can’t take that fishing trip in June or July.”

And farmers are at the forefront of her thinking, with many field days, winter meetings and media outreach plans included as specific project objectives. “If I do this work and farmers don’t know about it, then I’m wasting my time,” she says with a laugh. “The more farmers and agronomists we can talk to about this, the better.”

Strydhorst admits that maybe agronomy research isn’t as flashy as something really high tech, but the difference that advanced agronomy can make to farmers’ yields is what gets her up in the morning. “I want to get farmers excited about agronomy again.”

Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) is a farmer-funded and -directed non-profit organization investing primarily in wheat and barley variety development for the benefit of western Canadian producers. Through investments of more than $57 million, WGRF has assisted in the development and release of more than 100 new wheat and barley varieties over the past decade and a half, many of which are today seeded to large portions of the cropland in Western Canada. WGRF also invests in research on other western Canadian crops through the endowment fund. In fact, since 1981 the WGRF endowment fund has supported a wealth of innovation across Western Canada, providing over $26 million in funding for over 230 diverse research projects.

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