Since farming success requires competence on many fronts, Better Farming speaks with industry experts to learn some of their top strategies.
by Geoff Geddes
Though grain and oilseed farmers are often do-it-yourself types, they sometimes need a helping hand to get a leg up to succeed in business. The person who knows more about spraying the fields or playing the commodity markets can be a powerful ally.
So, this month, Better Farming speaks with farmers and industry experts to learn how they manage disease, pests and soil. We also explore strategies for crop marketing as well as the importance of staying open to change to help ensure the longevity of farm operations.
Managing diseases and pests
“Apart from weather, one of the greatest influences on crop yield and quality is pests including diseases, weeds and insects,” says Dr. Kelly Turkington, a plant pathologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at the Lacombe Research and Development Centre in Alberta.
Disease can prevent the establishment of uniform crop stands. This situation inhibits plant competitiveness and leads to variable crop development, which affects the timing of in-crop pesticide applications as well as harvests.
Disease may also affect the root system, compromising the crop’s ability to take up water and nutrients and significantly affecting yield and quality.
“The foundational strategy for disease management is crop rotation,” says Turkington. “That means at least two years between similar crops.”
For crops such as field peas, which don’t have resistant varieties or chemicals for seed treatment, and for Aphanomyces root rot, you might need a rotation of five to seven years, Turkington says.
Avoiding irrigation during key times for infection – just prior to, and soon after, head emergence in cereals – can help limit fusarium head blight.
Another weapon against disease is genetic resistance. Growers who choose varieties that resist disease can mitigate the need for fungicide applications or other disease management strategies.
While the use of genetics is the high-tech approach to disease management, the low-tech option should not be overlooked.
“We often minimize the importance of crop scouting and record keeping,” says Turkington. “If you stay on top of disease issues in the field and track their history, it’s easier to choose the proper approach. You may start to see more scald on your barley and have to change your variety and genetic package in response.”
Though you can catch a lot of problems through visual inspection, other crop assessments can inform your disease- and pest-management decisions. For example, seed testing labs can analyze both harvested grain and grain that is being used as seed for seed-borne pathogens. Farmers can use this information to determine suitable strategies to minimize the effects of disease in current or future crops.
“Each Prairie province has a plant health lab where growers can send samples for diagnosis of disease,” says Dr. Ron Howard, a plant pathologist at RJH Ag Research Solutions Ltd. in Brooks, Alta. This private company provides professional agricultural consulting in the areas of plant and crop diseases.
Growers can also find information on provincial government and commodity group websites to stay informed about the latest disease and pest threats and learn how to address them.
For producers overwhelmed by crop disease challenges or growers simply trying to fine-tune their disease management programs, more help is on the way. Many industry observers have high hopes for the Prairie Crop Disease Monitoring Network, which Turkington has spearheaded since 2018. The project is scheduled for completion in 2023.
“This is an exciting new concept around crop disease monitoring,” says Howard. “It takes current activities – such as disease monitoring, surveillance and reporting – that are being conducted across the Prairies by government, industry and university or college staff – and consolidates (this information) in a central hub. This hub would offer a wealth of current and readily accessible information on disease occurrence and forecasting for farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.”
Prairie entomologists have successfully operated a similar project – the Prairie Pest Monitoring Network – for several years.
Because crop diseases and pests affect the bottom line, the time and money used to combat them are typically well spent.
“Plant disease can impact crops from the seedling stage to early crop development right through to the reproductive phase,” says Turkington. “Depending on the crop and the nature and timing of the disease, yield loss ranges from 1 to 40 per cent. It may exceed 50 per cent in certain cases, such as stripe rust attacks on wheat.”
Though farm management priorities may differ from farm to farm, soil is high on most lists. Interestingly, soil health and human health have something in common: balance is important to both.
“With soil fertility, you have to focus on what you’re pulling out of the soil and what you’re using as replacements,” says Ashley Klassen, a crop inputs manager at Richardson Pioneer in Nampa, Alta. “Just as people have multiple food groups, soil requires five macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Essential micronutrients include iron, boron, zinc and copper.”
Finding the right balance of these nutrients for your soil is critical. While a deficiency in macronutrients can inhibit plant growth and increase disease risk, an excess of micronutrients might lead to a loss of plant colour and reduced growth.
“You can achieve a lot by pulling back on one nutrient and increasing another,” says Klassen. “Recent efforts have found that phosphorus is just as important to the soil as nitrogen, so that could influence your fertilizer decisions.”
Lee Moats, a third-generation crop farmer southeast of Regina who is also a longtime agrologist and former director of the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, focuses on soil health in his operation.
“Soil is at the root of everything we do on our farm,” says Moats. “It is our most important resource, and (I argue) tillage is the big evil when it comes to managing soil in Western Canada.”
By zero tilling for the last 30 years, Moats has avoided the problems that neighbours face such as soil erosion, lack of fertility and the expense of adding nitrogen to the soil.
“Our task was to conserve the soil and develop a system that was less exploitive of our natural inherited fertility. Zero tillage made that possible,” Moats says.
Playing the commodity market
Given the amount of time, energy and money that farmers invest in preparing their crops for the market, farmers must maximize their returns.
“Success in marketing depends largely on discipline,” says David Derwin, a commodity portfolio manager and investment adviser with PI Financial Corp. in Winnipeg. This independent investment dealer provides a full range of products and services for individual, corporate and institutional investors.
“You must know your … cost of production and have a program in place … so you’re prepared to act when opportunities arise,” he says.
By being thoroughly prepared, you can capture those high market prices. But when the market drops and you face trouble breaking even, a disciplined approach may prevent a mediocre year from becoming a disaster.
Being open to using options might make the difference in managing the markets. A commodity option gives a buyer the right to buy or sell a commodity or agricultural product at a specific price until a specific date.
“Learning all you can about options and how to use them for hedging purposes gives growers a new tool,” says Derwin. “It’s like insuring your crop, building or vehicle, but it gives you price insurance that you can’t access anywhere else as cheaply and efficiently.”
Growers can book a deferred delivery contract at an elevator and secure a price, but growers lock into that price and quantity. If prices go higher or lower yields force you to fall short on your crop commitment, options protect you from the downside but preserve the upside.
At the same time, you need not commit your production for delivery at the outset.
“Options allow you to separate pricing decisions from delivery decisions,” says Derwin. “That makes a powerful ally.”
The newcomer to commodity markets should be realistic and patient.
“No one has a crystal ball,” he says. “There are times when you lock in a price with a forward contract or through buying options. Then, the market goes way up, and you regret your decision. Just remember that it’s easy to second guess yourself in hindsight.”
If you go slowly and accept that you won’t be right all the time, sticking to your strategy should pay dividends. This measured approach helps you avoid the kid-in-a-candy-store syndrome that affects some rookie players.
“As you start out, make sure you are not overtrading or speculating just for the sake of buying and selling. Deal with a broker who focuses on good, sound hedging strategies for clients and who has experience in dealing with farm businesses,” Derwin adds.
Whatever the area of farming, Derwin’s advice about achieving a balance and relying on sound, proven strategies is hard to top in growing your bottom line. BF