Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It's Ok Allan

Last week at the Certified Crop Advisor Annual Conference Allan McCallum, who is a highly respected consultant from Elgin County, was telling me how he is becoming more and more like a grumpy old farmer.  As he put it, he keeps trying all the latest and greatest concepts to improve profitability in corn and soybean production on his own farms and with clients.  At the end of the day, what does he learn?  That most of the latest and greatest concepts do not work as advertised and he would be further ahead to not pay attention any more to the latest and greatest. 

What makes this observation relevant is this is the time of year when we are bombarded with the latest and greatest ideas from conferences and meetings. 
As an example, Twitter was buzzing last week at the Soysmart conference about manipulating soybeans to put out more pods per plant and more seeds per pod.  Treat the crop with a systems approach and watch the bushels flow.
I don't like to burst the bubble, but Horst Bohner our provincial soybean specialist has been doing this for several years now.  He has conclusively demonstrated the number one method to increasing soybean yields.  Allan and I have both tried it and we agree with Horst.  The number one ingredient to higher soybean yields is to plant full season soybean varieties early.  Period.  Having the ability to irrigate soybeans in August would work even better, but that is not an option for many Ontario producers.  Anything else is a distant second.  We know conclusively that soybeans do not respond consistently to row width, population, tillage, emergence, fungicide or foliar feeding.  Spending lots of money on inputs to improve soybean yields does not work.  That makes for a very brief system.
I have a customer that can grow 80 bu per acre soybeans.  He has done it consistently and could go on the circuit and become the "Maharishi of Soybeans".  His ethics stop him because he also knows he can't grow 80 bu just because he is smart.  The production recipe is tied to the deed on the farm and the recipe is a complete failure when exported off that same farm.  The truth hurts.
What is a frustrated soybean producer to do?  Focus in the basics of soil structure, organic matter retention, crop rotation, base fertility, inoculants, seed treatments and variety selection.  Boring as heck, but infinitely more profitable.

One other hot topic making the rounds is variable rate corn planters GPS referenced to change seed drop on the go.  A cheap version of variable rate is already on the market.  New monitors allow you to program two population settings and the operator has to remember to switch populations manually as the planter moves across the field.
Several questions still need to be answered.
What is the right population for the hybrid in the planter?
What is the right population for that hybrid on the soil type in that spot on the field?
What are the yield limiting factors for that spot in the field?
What actually is the yield potential for that spot in the field?
Most seed companies do their best to give guidance to population response by hybrid which begins to answer the first question.  But that answer will be heavily influenced by the answers to the remaining questions which are only educated guesses for most producers and agronomists. 
Bob Neilson at Purdue has looked at this on field scale population trials in Indiana.  The results of this are no surprise to me.  When we take population recommendations by hybrid to the field and subject them to statistical analysis, the recommendations are not very reliable.  The take home message is do not get caught in the hype that machinery and seed companies have this all figured out.  Once again that makes for a boring presentation and not many "tweets".

You can read the results of the Purdue study at

Coming back to Allan I know he will continue to experiment.   Just don't try selling him any more latest and greatest.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Neonic-less Future?

Happy New Year to everyone.  My hope is to stay mildly enlightening as we forge ahead to planting 2014's crop.  I always feel full of optimism every year in January because you have to be, or at the very least, should be optimistic in this business.  Agriculture is a fantastic way of life and we are truly blessed to be part of it.
Last week I attended the Southwest Ag Conference in Ridgetown.  It is a tremendous conference that everyone should consider attending at least once.  The list of topics discussed at the conference are extensive and I am amazed every year by the diversity and quality of the speakers.  In addition to the usual selection of Ontario specialist and farmer speaker types, there were speakers from the US, Brazil and France. All coming to little Ridgetown.  FarmSmart is coming up at Guelph this coming Saturday and it too has an impressive list of presenters.  A good new year resolution would be to make time to fit one of these programs into your schedule.

The last session I attended was a presentation by Tracey Baute, OMAF's insect lead and Art Shaafsma, University of Guelph, Ridgetown campus.  They presented the results of the survey their team of technicians conducted in 2013 regarding neonicotinoid (Cruiser, Poncho, Gaucho) corn seed  treatments and the impact of this treatment on honey bees and the environment.    
They monitored 9 locations in Ontario with farm co-operators planting corn using vacuum style planters adjacent to honey bee yards.  They had data on the dust created by the planters, the residual levels of neonics in the fields after planting, the type of pollen bees collect during the growing season and the levels of neonics found in the pollen and the dead bees found at the hive.  All very interesting stuff, some of which merely leads to more questions that need follow up.  The story will definitely continue. 

First, the good news from the study. 
1.There are still lots of honey bees available to crop producers who rely on honey bees for pollination purposes.
2.There was no correlation between the levels of neonics found in dead bees vs the total number of dead bees.  Bees die through the season due to a number of factors.
3.Honey bees collect 90% of the pollen from flowering trees, hawthorns, crab apples, etc. during corn planting time.  It was believed that honey bees foraged more in plants like dandelions that are much closer to the ground.
4.Using Bayer's new fluency powder as a seed lubricant instead of talcum powder reduced the total amount of neonic residue coming out in the planter exhaust by 21%.

Now the bad news from the study.
1.The number of confirmed honey bee hive collapses due to neonic pesticide poisoning has increased from 2012 to 2013. In 2014 this trend will have to reverse itself.
2.Neonics were found in every hive sampled by the study and neonic residues were found in all pollen samples collected at the hives.
3.Wind will blow planter dust up into tree lines and circulate it over considerable distances.
4.Neonics are highly water soluble which is part of the reason they work so well as a seed treatment.  However, neonic residue could be found in the surface dust on the field later in the season.  This is because soil moisture making its way to the top of the soil brings along some neonics with it, in very trace amounts.  Neonics could also be found, sometimes at very high levels in ponding surface water left on the fields after a heavy rain.  That was most disturbing to me.

The MOST important point of the presentation came at the end.

It is estimated that 70% of the corn planted in Ontario is done with vacuum style corn planters.  For this coming year Canada's Pest Management Review Agency has decreed that lubricants used for seed flow purposes, such as talcum powder will not be permitted.  The only seed flow lubricant allowed for use in vacuum style planters is Bayer's new fluency powder.  It is important to understand the difference between a seed flow lubricant and a mechanical lubricant.  Graphite which is an example of a mechanical lubricant can still be used in finger pick up type planters.

After listening to the entire presentation I have come to the conclusion that neonicotinoid use as a seed treatment will be at best, greatly restricted and at worst banned completely in the near future.  The agronomist in me does not like that conclusion.  Neonicotinoids work well on soil insects that love eating seed. The use of neonic products totally eliminated one factor that contributes to reduced plant stands. 
The environmentalist in me does not agree with the agronomist.  It appears to me, and I must stress this is only my opinion, that the negative consequences of wide spread neonic use are piling up. I have trouble believing that these consequences are not spreading to more than just honey bees.  I truly hope that this assessment is wrong.

No matter, agriculture will carry on and continue to thrive.  New solutions will be found because that is what smart people do.  There are a lot of smart people in agriculture.  I saw a bunch of them at Ridgetown.