Monday, June 29, 2015

Hook Up The Oxygen Tank

Corn fields have taken a turn for the worst since June 1.  Any where from 8-11 inches of rain has fallen through the Stratford, St Marys and Lucan neighbourhoods since the first of the month and it is not over.  Rain continues to fall outside my window.  It is now common to see patches of yellow and severely stunted corn everywhere.  Looking at the above picture everyone instinctively knows that the difference between the front and the back of the picture is caused by saturated soils.  More specifically the corn at the front has sat in waterlogged soil for an extended period while the corn at the back did not have to suffer the same condition.
It doesn't take a genius to understand why the plant above is struggling when you see the soil condition that is has to survive in.
The point of this post is not to get into all of the various reasons why water drains quickly from some areas and not so quickly from other areas.  That diagnosis is best undertaken by the farmer who has the most intimate knowledge of soil types found on the farm and past history, in terms of crop rotation, tile drainage, traffic patterns etc.  If you are still confused, then consultations with drainage contractors and agronomists may shed some additional insight.  Many times it is still difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why water accumulates here but not over there.  My observation over the years are that farmers tend to be experts about why their neighbours crops suffer from too much rain, but seem to be less insightful when their own field is poor.  That is another topic in itself.
To help shed light on what causes corn to turn yellow and more importantly is there anything you can do to immediately fix the problem, it helps to understand how soil biology and crop physiology is affected by excess water.
Healthy productive soil for corn production is composed of 50% solids, 25% air and 25% water.  The 50% solids made up of the sand silt and clay particles plus organic matter stay pretty much constant. The focus will be on the 50 % that is split between water and air.
When there is too much air and not enough water, soil biology slows to a crawl and the plant withers due to drought stress.  The cure is to add water, by irrigation or rainfall.  Soil life will bounce back fast because water will infiltrate dry soil very easily, reinvigorating the bacterial and fungal life that drives the soil processes. The drought relief though may not occur in time to repair the drought damage done to the corn plant. The loss in yield due to drought has more to do with damage to the plant itself and less to do with any sustained damage to soil life.
It gets more complicated when the reverse occurs, too much water and not enough air.

If you look at the picture above the question becomes how can air get back into the soil?  The answer is it can't, at least not very quickly.  Water is heavy and when it sits on top of the soil for extended periods the clay particles smear together creating an air tight seal. This creates the double problem of soil life drowning from lack of oxygen and root growth stopping because corn is not related to rice.  Corn does not tolerate flooding very well.  Its roots are not designed to function in an environment devoid of oxygen and they simply stop growing.  At this stage of the corn plants development a lack of root growth is a big problem because corn needs a large root system to supply enough nutrients and water after tassel emergence. Once tassel initiation commences root growth slows down and virtually stops.  If roots are not established during the vegetative growth phase the plant is not designed to regenerate roots after tassel.
Inter row cultivation will help to break the surface crust which allows some air back into the soil, but cultivation is neither a quick cure nor a practical solution.
This picture illustrates the effect of a drainage tile through the middle part of the picture which is removing the water and allowing air to take its place in a balanced manner.  This keeps both the soil life and the corn plant healthy. The lack of balance between water and air to the right and left of the tile is causing the plants to yellow. Yellowing is commonly thought of as a lack of nitrogen, which is essentially correct, but the nitrogen was evenly applied across the width of this photo.  Why is it not being taken up equally well from right to left?
Two main reasons.  As already mentioned corn roots do not function well in water logged soils.  With no root growth, leaf growth slows to a crawl.  The second reason is nitrogen becomes unavailable due to denitrification. Denitrification occurs in our soils because soil microbes that need oxygen to breathe will attack the nitrate form of nitrogen.  Nitrate nitrogen is a nitrogen molecule attached to three oxygen molecules.
The microbes strip the oxygen molecules away.  Without the oxygen molecules the nitrogen turns into a gas which escapes into the atmosphere.  The amount of nitrogen loss is dependent on the duration of the water saturation in soils.
The biggest question is can the corn plant recover from this type of stress?  Can we do anything to help it recover?  Because one of the contributing factors to the reduced growth is nitrogen loss it is assumed that adding more nitrogen fertilizer will help in the recovery.  This question has been extensively researched.  There is general agreement that applying 30-50 lbs of additional N will give a return.   Some research indicates the worst the flooding damage, the greater the return is to nitrogen. We need to be realistic about this.  Fifty lbs of N plus application costs is going to add $35 per acre to the production budget.  That eats up about 10 bushels at today's prices.
I come back to my badly stressed little friend shown above.  In my opinion, the chance of this corn plant producing a harvestable ear of corn is pretty slim.  But in the remaining portion of the field there is a good chance additional N can provide payback.  Many of us, including my son Brian are going to find out because investments have been made in drop pipes of many configurations and layouts, the Y-Drop system being the flavour of the month.  There is also interest in high clearance dry fertilizer spreaders.
If you listen to the debate raging on Twitter, you would think flexible drop tubes and dry fertilizer spreaders were a brand new invention.  These ideas have been around for years.  Recently there is a renewed drive to apply nitrogen later in the growing season to boost yields adding fuel to the debate. Simple drop vs Y-drop, skip row vs every row, 28% vs urea, agrotain vs no agrotain and on and on.  I am here to remind everyone that the efficiency of surface application of nitrogen is lousy and there is the constant risk of crop injury.  We have known this for a very long time and no amount of agronomic marketing glitz and glam will change it.  If July turns as dry as June has been wet, surface application of nitrogen will remain exactly where it has been put, which is not in the right place I might add.  This nitrogen is also subject to volatilization losses as well.  Research has proven this. There is no guarantee this rescue mission will be successful.  But we have to try,
I keep thinking to myself, but with no proof to base it on, that the greatest return may be in the best parts of the field.  Applying a small amount of additional N may pump enough air into the tires to carry the corn further through the grain fill process that is just around the corner.  Pioneer keeps telling us about the amount of nitrogen that the plant takes up post tassel.  Can this late season application of nitrogen make up for hidden losses and give a return on the dollars spent?  We intend to find out.  But don't count on us broadcasting the results on Twitter.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Regulation vs Implemetation

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, (MOECC)  has come out with OReg 139/15, the new regulations regarding neonicotinoid use under the Pesticides Act that will go into effect on July 1.
I have not had time to write recently in this space because I have been buried under a pile of new Nutrient Management Strategies.  The dairy and poultry industry is alive with livestock facility construction projects that are being scheduled for later this year, hence the need to get the documents into OMAFRA for approval.
I did take some time to review these new regulations.  They will be a huge topic of discussion going forward and it will get confusing for many producers.  I do not recommend trying to interpret the document unless you have experience reading government regulations.  The language takes some getting use to and you also need a full copy of the Pesticides Act in hand to understand the changes.
A sanitized and easier to read summary provided by the province is here.

Class 12 Regulations

While it is somewhat useful to know the regulations, the real devil in the detail is how the regulations are implemented.  To illustrate how this works I will use the Nutrient Management Act, OReg 267/03 as an example. Farmers don't read the NM Act, but if they have built livestock facilities in the past 10 years they are familiar with the process.  Once a decision is made to go forward with a project, the farmer contacts the following 4 individuals in no particular order.  The contractor, the engineer, the NM consultant and the municipal building official.  The NM consultant ensures the project satisfies the regulations as laid out by OReg267/03 and secures OMAFRA's approval of the proposed changes to the farm operation.  The engineer and contractor make sure the project meets the requirements of the farm building code, local construction by-laws and the farmer's budget.  The municipal building official provides government oversight through the whole process.  I have done hundred's of NM strategies and if everyone involved in the chain has experience in livestock facilities, the process goes very smoothly.  It was not always this way.  When OReg267/03 was passed in late 2003 there were some major growing pains thanks to people having to interpret and implement a new set of regulations.   This improved as people gained experience with how the reg's were being implemented. The implementation of these same regulations has evolved over time.  The regulations themselves have also been changed and amended several times.  It still is not perfect, but compromise is a necessary part of life.
The initial enforcement of the 267/03 is done at the local municipal level of gov't through their respective building departments.  In addition to this the province does random follow-up audits performed by the MOECC, but they have not proven to be a significant burden in the majority of cases.  Often the farmer is more at ease after the audit is finished than before.  The ominous letter stating that you have been chosen for a random audit will cause the heart to flutter, but if the NM consultant has done a satisfactory job there is not great cause for concern.  Complaints drive most of the MOECC's interaction with livestock farmers and if you cause problems and do nothing to address the situation, fines and jail time can be imposed.
While you have every right to disagree with the concept of government intervention in private business matters, I have not met a farmer yet that would disagree with the primary thrust of the NM regulations.  In a nutshell this thrust is aimed at protecting our water sources by ensuring minimum standards are met for livestock housing, manure storage capacity and land base for manure disposal.

We now have a new set of regulations to digest.  It is easy to get wound up by the latest intrusion into our affairs on the farm caused by an apparently deaf and arrogant MOECC.  It is a bigger issue than nutrient management due to the number of producers affected and the highly political nature of the new bill.  If the agricultural industry is as professional as we claim it to be, now is the time to stay calm.  One can be outraged by this new set of rules, but to some farmers and definitely to the general public, the protecting the pollinator banner flown by the new document is a worthwhile endeavor.

There are some things I do know after reading OReg139/15.
1. If you choose to not use neonic treated seed it is business as usual.  No action required.
2. For 2016 planting only, if you want to use up to 50% neonic treated seed on your corn and soybeans you need to take a free IPM course and sign a declaration form that confirms your total acreage of each crop.
3. This declaration is crop specific.  If you have an equal acreage of corn and soybeans you are NOT allowed to declare that you are using neonic treated corn seed on every acre and no neonic treated soybean seed to get to the 50% usage ratio.  It must be 50/50 on each crop.  Dumb rule #1.
4. If you want to use neonic treated seed on more than 50% of your acres you need to take the additional step of doing a pest assessment.  You can do this yourself, but I do not foresee many growers actually taking the time to conduct an assessment in the manner proposed by the MOECC.   It is a do as I say, not as I do, style of assessment and is purposely slanted to not being able to prove a need for a neonic seed treatment.  Dumb rule #2.
5. Starting in 2017 there is a phased in schedule, whereby depending on which county or counties you farm you will no longer be able to do the self assessment.  You will need to employ the services of an accredited professional pest advisor to do the assessment.  Certified Crop Advisors or Professional Agrologists qualify, but don't ask me to be your advisor.  Being a CCA in good standing for 18 years does not make the cut because a seed company pays me to sell treated seed.  I am not trustworthy enough to evaluate the risk of soil insects on my own farm, let alone anywhere else according to the MOECC.  Dumb rule #4.  In my opinion the geographical part of this regulation won't last very long because the schedule makes no sense.  I have seed clients in 4 counties, Middlesex, Oxford, Huron and Perth.  Middlesex is first to lose the self declaration ability in 2017, Oxford and Huron lose it in 2018 and Perth is last in 2019.  What that means is if you happen to farm in all 4 counties starting in 2017 you will be not able to do the self assessment on all your farm properties even though they are merely a few kilometers apart. Dumb rule #5.
6. My son Brian who holds a land exterminator's license in good standing is allowed to custom apply a variety of insecticides that are definitely not pollinator friendly.  He is now excluded from applying the new class 12 seed applied insecticides without following the new specific regulations to the letter. Dumb rule #6.

There are many things I don't know.
What does it mean for custom planting services that sometimes bring seed to customers and sometimes do not?
How are custom seed treaters going to be monitored?  Better yet is how are custom seed treaters that fly under the radar going to be monitored?
How will this new massive stack of paper be monitored and enforced?  Seed vendors and treaters are required to keep records for two years after the date of transfer to the customer.  Every October 31 vendors are required to inform the MOECC of the total amounts of neonicotinoid insecticide used and the estimated acreage of neonic and non neonic terated seed sold.   If for example, it works out in 2017 that Pioneer sold 55% neonic treated corn and 60% neonic treated soybean seed, what will happen?  Will Pioneer get a "mulligan" or face a fine?
This upper level enforcement will have a trickle down effect to the grower.  Due to political posturing on both sides of the issue there will be a number of entrepreneurial individuals out there who take pleasure in trying to beat a system that they believe to be unfair.  Will there be a "neonic snitch hotline"?
Can the MOECC force Pioneer and other companies to reveal individual customer information?  That would be crossing a line that should never be crossed.

The bottom line from where I sit is we are embarking down a very long road without a road map. OReg139/15 is bigger in scope than 267/03.  All corn and soybean producers have to deal with it.   My wish is for farm groups to huddle together and think this issue through.  The seed industry now has to plan accordingly in an attempt to minimize seed supply disruptions.  Confusion will be the order of the day because it is human nature to act without thinking.  Leaders need to do the opposite and think carefully before they act.
No one has all the answers, including the government of the day.