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Grain Farming From a More Holistic Approach

By Paul Kuntz

If you do a search for ‘holistic management’, you will see that the livestock industry occupies this area. For many years they have been promoting a more holistic approach to grazing and overall livestock production. You can find speakers and courses that teach these principles. It is not spoke of a lot in the grain world.

As a financial adviser, the bottom line is important. Farms need to make money. I believe it is a good practice though, to make money over a long period of time rather than short-term. We can get too involved in making cropping decisions based on the price of grain in a 12-month window. We need to look at a bigger picture.

Profit is always the goal and necessary to have success and longevity. There are ways we can look at this from a profit perspective but also have a long-term view.

How we make decisions regarding what we plant each year is based on a number of factors. First off is production. There are certain parts of Western Canada where you should not grow soybeans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, corn and others. Each farm starts with a list of production winners. Then, from this list of crops we can produce, we start to narrow it down using other factors. Profit is probably the next biggest one. Then we move on to other parameters such as storage concerns, harvest issues or additional work loads. We factor these in and come up with our decision. I suggest we look at other aspects of each crop to assist in making this decision. 

We need to look at chemical groups. By growing different crops it can be easier to manage certain weeds. Take for example Sulfentrazone (Authority). This is a Group 14 chemical that works with your pre-burn glyphosate. It is a pre-emergent chemical that can help control weeds other chemicals maybe cannot. You can use this when seeding flax or mustard but not when seeding wheat or canola. Sometimes we look at a crop like flax and discount it because it is harder to harvest and we have to deal with the straw. We look at both the yield potential and pricing then determine if we can make a bit more money growing wheat or canola.

We have all sang the praises of pulses. We understand the nitrogen-fixing component. There are other biological benefits as well. The soil activity for pulses is not the same as wheat and canola. The disease pressure is different. The bugs are different. We sometimes focus on the extra pass for rolling the field and discount this crop. Or we look at the harvest and determine we have to drive too slowly with the combine.

Growing oats puts a whole new perspective on disease and bugs. This cereal crop is not the same as wheat. We often just focus on the bulkiness of this grain and discount it as a crop.

Planting a fall crop can be a true benefit to breaking disease and insect cycles. We often focus on the inconvenience of seeding while we try to harvest.

We need to focus on more than revenue and convenience when choosing our crops. This goes well beyond the canola scare of blackleg, sclerotinia and clubroot. This goes beyond pulse disease issues preventing planting that crop for six years. This goes to soil health, less weed pressure, insect management and plant health. 

I am not saying we have to plant a crop that loses money. If we look at the Crop Planning Guide for Saskatchewan’s black soil zone, hybrid fall rye is expected to net as much as spring wheat. Flax and peas are both looking to return more than $60/acre of profit. There are many crops that will produce a profit. The problem is that canola produces a lot more profit.

We saw acreage decline this year in canola most likely due to uncertainties with our world markets. Another reason why it is good to have a few other crops in the bin, when one goes down in price, perhaps another one will go up. Crops like flax, fall rye, barley, canary seed, peas and oats all saw an increase in acres this year based on Statistics Canada’s March 2019 seeding intentions. Granted, these are small-acre crops that only saw a few more acres. It still shows producers are trying to diversify their crop selection.

I suggest we look at a five- to 10-year projection of making profit and not a 12-month cycle. We need to ensure the land is healthy, disease pressure is low, insects can be managed and weeds are controllable. Sometimes this means seeding a crop that nets you $60/acre instead of $100/acre. These choices might be the difference between staying profitable for five years or a lifetime.

Cover crops have recently become quite popular. This is a very interesting topic. We once used to think about idle land as giving it a rest. Now we see producers dropping seeds with a plane prior to harvest so that as soon as your field is ready to combine, another crop will grow there for a couple months until freeze up. We are now seeing that it is beneficial not to leave land idle even after harvest in our short growing season. The cover crops available are limitless because we are not looking to harvest seeds. We just want the benefit of what the root system can do for the land and the biomass that will eventually decompose. 

As a financial adviser I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty that if your farm does not make money, it will fail. I also know producers want to ensure long-term viability of their operations for multiple generations. There are ways to do this. Open your mind beyond just what you have done in the last one to three years. Explore options and be creative.