Killing Frost Teaches Valuable Lessons as Farmers Plan for Spring Crops
For many Saskatchewan grain farmers, 2004 was a stressful year. Most were hit by the killing frost that cut through a record breaking harvest just weeks before swathing. But scattered amid the frozen fields are success stories – of farmers, who for some reason, managed to harvest bigger crops than their neighbors. A closer look at one producer’s experience reveals there was more at play than just simple luck. And as farmers make plans to seed new crops this spring, research scientists say there are valuable lessons to keep in mind.
“Early seeding at a controlled depth for fast uniform crop emergence - that’s the magic,” says Walter Palaschuk, a grain farmer near Wishart, Saskatchewan, about an hour North of Regina. “It’s the reason we harvested a good crop with above average yields for our district in spite of the frost,” he says.
“We had neighbors who planted their crops at the same time or earlier than us in mid-May but harvested much less because their crops didn’t mature in time. The difference was being able to seed shallow and even which gave us quick, uniform emergence, especially with canola,” says Palaschuk. His canola averaged over 25 bushels/acre with one field exceeding 40 bushels/acre. He says many of his neighbors talked about below average yields of 10 to15 bushels/acre while a few said they got close to 20.
Palaschuk direct seeded his crops at a uniform depth of ¾ of an inch with a Seed Master zero till drill. “As the fields were heading, I could see it all coming up even, from low spots to high spots.” But he says many neighbors who seeded deeper and unevenly with conventional air seeders ended up with patchy crops that took almost two weeks longer to fully emerge. That’s what happened to Ron Lamb. His fields lie just North and East of Palaschuk.
Lamb says he tried seeding his canola at 2 inches but his air seeder depth varied from ½ an inch to 3.5 inches. “If I tried seeding any shallower with it, I would have ended up with seeds lying on top of the ground,” says Lamb, who plans to buy a new seed drill this spring. “I wasn’t happy with the emergence at all.”
Uneven Seeding is “The Worst” for Any Crop
Crops seeded unevenly “are the worst,” says Dr. Yantai Gan, a research scientist at the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Swift Current. Shallow seeded plants emerge several days faster and compete with the slower emerging, deep seeded plants for water, light and soil nutrients, reducing their yield by up to 50% or more. There can be 10 days between the first and last plants to emerge, which can be crucial in a frost year, he adds.
Dr. Gan says frost or no frost, crops seeded shallow and uniform have a definite edge. They emerge more quickly and evenly, mature faster, and have higher yields. He led a three-year study that showed canola, mustard, and flax planted uniformly at ¾ of an inch in early May emerged 3 to 5 days faster than seeds planted at 2 inches and had yields up to 25 % higher. With lentils, the yield increased up to 15% at ¾ of an inch. Peas and chick peas only yielded 4% more due to their seed size and vigour at deeper depths. A small plot study with wheat showed a 27% increase in yield at 1 inch compared to 2 inches. “Small seeds like canola should never go deeper than an inch, no matter how dry it is. They exhaust energy pushing through deeper soil and it weakens the plant,” he stresses.
And it’s important to remember the deeper you seed in the spring, the colder it stays, says Dr. Guy Lafond, an Agriculture Canada research scientist at the Indian Head Research Station. Research trials have shown crops emerge up to 17 days faster with a soil temperature increase from 5 to 15 degrees Celsius, says Dr. Lafond. “So in a cold spring like last year, temperature in relation to seed depth can make a huge difference.”
Uniform, Shallow Seeding Can Be a Challenge
But shallow and uniform seeding can be a challenging task for some farmers. Dr. Gan says it depends largely on the land, how evenly farmers distribute residue from last year’s crop if they direct seed, and the depth control they achieve with their equipment.
Depth control technology has improved considerably over the last 15 years, making it easier for farmers to seed shallow and uniformly, says Norbert Beaujot, P.Eng, a Regina-based Agricultural Engineer with Straw Track Manufacturing, who developed the Seed Master design in the early 90s. “An accurate seed depth was very hit and miss back then because most seeders set depth by raising or lowering a wide frame that bumped and tilted as it rolled over the field. That style is still common today,” he points out.
“Canola and mustard were just becoming popular then but the technology didn’t exist to plant small seed crops at the shallow and uniform depth they need to flourish,” recalls Beaujot. “So I got the idea of attaching each fertilizer and seed knife opener to a separate arm with its own packer wheel at the trailing end. Instead of a fixed frame and a gang of packers, there are a multitude of arms moving with the lay of the land and gauging depth independently for each row. The more you treat each seed row individually, the higher accuracy you will achieve,” he explains.
This style of seeding technology has become more widespread as research continues to focus on the advantages of uniform seeding for all crop types and as more producers realize the impact, says Beaujot.
Lamb plans to use this technology to seed his crops this spring. He says he’s frustrated with his air seeder, which relies on the frame height to set depth. “This year was a red flag. Other years, most of the crop seemed to catch up, although you’d always worry it wouldn’t. With canola there were always patches that never caught up and you wouldn’t get a nice black seed.” But this year, with the cold spring and early frost cutting the growing season short, the need for fast, uniform emergence became really clear, he says.