Direct Seeding Systems in Alberta, Canada

Spencer Hilton, Strathmore, Alberta

1997 President of Alberta Conservation Tillage Society

I appreciate the opportunity to participate at this conference and bring greetings from A.C.T.S., the Alberta Conservation Tillage Society. A.C.T.S. is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year as our provincial, producer directed soil conservation organization. And it is from this perspective that I want to initially address direct seeding.

In Alberta we annually seed 19 million acres and in monitoring and in surveying, since 1994 we find that direct seeding is increasing and conventional tillage seeding is declining. 1998 is our target year, where 50% of all acres sown will be direct seeded. Our longer term goal is to see 70%-80% direct seeded. Is this achievable, I think it is, but it will take a concerted effort. One of our main tools for achieving this goal is the Alberta Reduced Tillage Initiative. ARTI will focus numerous partners towards transferring direct seeding technology and know-how to Alberta producers. It is a large initiative that is spearheaded and managed by A.C.T.S. and gets strength from the partnerships which includes Monsanto, Ducks Unlimited, Olds College, Dow Elanco, Agrium, Alberta pool, Westco (fertilizer), U.F.A. (farm supplies) and both the federal and provincial governments.

Now on a more local level I want to talk about the experiences we have had on our own farm with direct seeding. I am responsible for the mangement of our 5000 acre grain and cattle operation. We are situated 40 miles east of Calgary and about 120 miles east of the Rocky Mountains. L We are well within the Chinook belt of the province and those warm winds are welcome and really moderate our winters, especially in an El Nino year, such as now. We are situated in the transition area between the thin black and dark brown soil zones and our soil type varies from sand to sandy loam to clay loam, but is considered predominately sandy loam. The Calgary weather office tells us that on average we should receive 7-1/2 inches of rainfall during the critical months of April through August. Our annual precipitation is 15 inches, but we lose a lot of winter precipitation through sublimation (evaporation) due to the same Chinooks I mentioned earlier. Our main crops are milling wheat, malt and feed barley and canola. We also grow alfalfa and pasture under irrigation for our 150 head cow/calf operation. The farm is a multi-family operation of my parents, myself and my wife Lynne and our 4 children, and my younger brother.

Now to relate Pasco to Alberta and our farm site, if you jumped in a vehicle and worked your way north/northeast you would arrive at our farm after about 600 miles. And if that seems a long way north to be direct seeding, well there=s a well known zero-tiller at Manning Alberta, named Henry Graw, who has been successfully direct seeding for 8 years and he farms another 600 miles North of our farm. The point is, reasoning like, I have to till or plow to warm up the soil, to kill weeds better or just because it=s good, doesn=t hold water. In fact farmers and researchers are proving the benefits of direct seeding. Like improvements in water infiltration, water use efficiency, organic matter, soil structure, earthworm populations, weed control, fertilizer placement and economic returns. It is no longer a matter of whether direct seeding will work, its just a matter of building a system that works best for you.

My Great Grandparents homesteaded near our current location in 1910 and broke-up the prairie and grew some good crops. But the lessons of the 30=s were severe and the soil eroded badly in areas. That type of farming was not sustainable and the process of change started. New technology came slow in those days but by the late 60=s my father was minimum tilling with a Morris hoe-drill and was quite interested in trying no-till. So, by the mid-seventies we were cutting and welding to modify the Morris into a no-till drill. It was arduous to say the least. By 1979 we were committed to no-till and after a tour in the Palouse country, that summer, we ordered a Pioneer/Yielded No-Till Drill. The Yielded worked well, it could handle all our seed and fertilizer requirements, the trouble was it wasn=t wide enough to cover all our farm land. So, from 1980 to 1988 we tried out some drills, like the Haybuster 1000 and a Morris Air-Drill prototype but could not quite settle on our next step. In 1988 an air-seeder caught our eye, the New Noble Seed-O-Vator. It offered excellent depth control, on row packing, fertilizer banded between the seed rows on a 5@/9@ spacing, (paired row) and excellent trash clearance. We requested some modification in shank and shovel design which they agreed to, that enabled us to low disturbance seed with a narrow shovel or use wider shovels and the hydraulic driven rod to kill weeds and still one-pass direct seed. We still use this drill today, just a newer model and are now using Anhydrous Ammonia as our nitrogen source.

For our current system, the flexibility of the Seed-O-Vator works well for us. We like to seed real early in the spring. In fact my father has trained us to ignore the calendar in the spring and simply rely on the environmental conditions. We regularly check the soil temperatures and when the soil warms up to about 41C (381F) at seeding depth, and if the trees are budding, and if the forecast is good, then we start seeding barley. In these cool conditions Round-Up doesn=t work as well and a sprayer can freeze up at night. Couple that with few weeds or very young weeds and the high disturbance option makes sense. Seeding barley early is very important to us, it greatly improves our chances of getting into the higher value malt market and also improves our yields. We usually seed about half our farm high disturbance then switch over to the narrow shovels, take off the rod and start spraying in front of the drill. Canola responds especially well to low disturbance seeding.

For spraying, we have just recently switched from a hooded sprayer to a Melroe Spray Coupe with the E.S.P. system. The technology is promising for better coverage, increased efficiency and we can now handle our own pre-harvest and fungicide work as well as our in-crop spraying. After 8000 acres of use we are quite pleased with the results. The Coupe is a proven well built machine. The E.S.P. system inot a new idea but Melroe found a way to induce a 40,000 volts charge onto the spray solution which enhances coverage. This first year we were able to test drift reduction and water and chemical rate reduction. To round out our herbicide program we use a rotary harrow for shallow incorporation of Avadex and Fortress.

If you=re talking about direct seeding, you have to include residue management. We have tried a couple of different jobber spreaders and I=ve seen a number of others working. All seem to work fairly well, or you can just modify your existing machine. Either way, residue management is one of the most important items for enhancing your conservation system and making it more manageable.

So, increased production, soil conservation, increased water use efficiency, efficient and precise fertilizer placement, extended rotations, and efficient and sometimes reduced use of inputs is what direct seeding has to offer. It requires more management but is brings good economics and on a broad scale it offers sustainable increased production that at its best can enhance the environment. Because, at some point people have to come into the equation, and this kind of food production is what society will likely demand as we step into the next millennium. To quote Dr. Cesar Izaurralde, Head of the Conservation Chair at the University of Alberta, AThe numbers are staggering. Every second, the world=s population increases by about 170. That=s 90 million new mouths to feed every year.@ To put it in perspective, that=s the number of people in the greater metropolitan area of Seattle, times 53. That is staggering. We cannot afford to take the productivity of our soil for granted. Soil is #1.

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