Conservation and Winter Wheat Development

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ROLE OF WINTER WHEAT IN CONSERVATION PRODUCTION SYSTEMS

Society as a whole has come to recognize the necessity of developing environmentally friendly, low input, sustainable production systems to ensure a healthy global ecosystem. In many countries environmental concerns have translated into government policies that have a direct influence on agricultural production. So far, western Canadian agriculture has avoided major adjustments to accommodate the green movement. However, if current trends in public opinion persist, it is likely our production systems will soon be required to comply with a more rigorous code of environmental standards.

The large acreage of summerfallow and intensive tillage systems found on the Canadian prairies are high on the list of "environmentally unfriendly" production practices. If more environmentally friendly crop management alternatives are not found, future farm policies could direct production away from annual crops to lower productivity options. A trend in this direction is already started in the USA where a large acreage of Great Plains farm land has been placed in reserves and cross-compliance legislation has been passed, tying farm subsidies to cultural practices.

The agricultural industry often equates conservation programs with acreage reductions and increased production costs. No-till (stubbled-in) winter wheat production represents a unique opportunity to combine both increased agricultural productivity and resource conservation. Stubbled-in winter wheat production embraces the philosophies of profitable conservation farming by providing the opportunity for:

  1. Improved control of soil erosion.
  2. More efficient crop moisture utilization.
  3. Higher crop productivity.
  4. Longer crop rotations without summerfallow.
  5. Reduced tillage.
  6. Reduced pesticide use.
  7. Less disturbance to wildlife.

Reduced tillage, low pesticide requirements, and the maintenance of a crop residue cover on the soil surface make stubbled-in winter wheat production one of the most environmentally friendly cropping options available in western Canada. Consequently, a recognition of environmental concerns in Canadian government agricultural programs would provide a large incentive for stubbled-in winter wheat production. For example, a move to the USA Farm Bill requirement for maintenance of 30 percent trash cover for compliance would focus attention on more environmentally friendly cropping options like stubbled-in winter wheat.

Greater emphasis on long term conservation oriented production programs would encourage a more systematic approach to rotation planning. For example, winter wheat provides different weed competition than spring sown crops. In a properly planned rotation, differences in crop competition can be exploited to control weeds, thereby reducing both herbicide use and production costs.

In recent years, there has been a shift in societies' perception of the responsibilities of farmers. This change in attitude recognizes farmers as stewards of the land rather than exploiters of natural resources. Stubbled-in winter wheat production has a significant role to play in this new total resource management concept. In addition to improved soil conservation and water use efficiency, the absence of tillage operations in the spring and the protection offered by standing stubble results in less disturbance of wildlife. For these reasons, stubbled-in winter wheat production is actively being promoted by wildlife conservation groups.

WINTER WHEAT PRODUCTION IN SASKATCHEWAN

Winter wheat is not a new crop to western Canada. However, until a few years ago, winter wheat was grown almost entirely on conventional summerfallow or tilled stubble fields and the risk of winterkill confined production to southern Alberta. Recently, no-till seeding into standing stubble from a previous crop (stubbling-in) has proven to be a successful method of overwintering wheat. Snow trapping by the standing stubble essentially eliminates the risk of winterkill, with the result that winter wheat is being successfully overwintered throughout the prairie provinces.

The stubbling-in production system for winter wheat has undergone 17 years of commercial evaluation in Saskatchewan. Field trials during that period have demonstrated an average 36 percent yield advantage for properly managed Norstar winter wheat over hard red spring wheat when both are grown as a stubble crop. The release of new higher yielding semi-dwarf winter wheat varieties has increased this potential by an additional 40 percent under favorable moisture conditions. This translates into an enormous increase in production potential for Saskatchewan if present winter wheat management and marketing limitations can be solved.

Farmer success with winter wheat was good in the early 1980's. Prior to 1983, average winter wheat yield from properly managed stubbled-in re-crop fields was approximately 40 bu/acre (2700 kg/ha) in Saskatchewan. Several mild winters had been experienced in the early 1980's and winterkill had not been a problem. In 1983-84 a large acreage of winter wheat on summerfallow was overwintered in southwestern Saskatchewan. Success meant increased production. However, the use of highly questionable management practices put part of this increased planting in jeopardy. Production problems were forecast since it was expected that "improperly managed fields would fail if a severe winter was encountered". Subsequently, in 1984-85 Saskatchewan experienced the worst year for winterkill in 30 to 50 years. Further complicating production problems were the worst stem rust epidemic in almost 30 years, four years of severe drought, and a crash in world wheat prices.

Winter wheat production in Saskatchewan had moved from less than 2,000 acres (800 ha) harvested in 1972 to 860,000 acres (350,000 ha) harvested in 1985 (64 percent of western Canadian winter wheat production). The cumulative effect of problems starting in 1984 forced a reduction in Saskatchewan's winter wheat production to 82,500 acres (33,500 ha) harvested in 1989. However, Saskatchewan still accounted for 38 percent of western Canadian winter wheat production.

While the differences may appear small at first glance, the production system for stubbled-in winter wheat requires a major change in management philosophy for most farmers. As a result, many farmers have had difficulty inserting winter wheat into their rotations. Surveys conducted as part of the federal-provincial Economic Regional Development Agreement programs and by the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association revealed that most farmers did not employ recommended management practices for the production of winter wheat during the peak production period of the 1980's. Poor management increased the risk of failure. Failures resulted in lost income and wasted resources. This in turn had the effect of neutralizing the efforts that were made to establish winter wheat as a viable cropping option in Saskatchewan.

In spite of production difficulties, the acreage of no-tillwinter wheat was greater than the total combined no-tillacreage of all other annual commercial crops in Saskatchewan in the decade of the 1980's. In fact, much of the current interest and success with conservation tillage in this province can be attributed to the "learning experience" producers have had with no-till winter wheat.

While the recent reduction in acreage has been interpreted by many as a rejection of winter wheat by Saskatchewan producers, it was not unexpected. There is always a long, difficult development period with any new crop or production system and the rapid increase in winter wheat acreage that was observed in 1984 and 1985 would not normally be considered desirable or sustainable. It is easy to develop unrealistic expectations of new crops and this certainly was the case for stubbled-in winter wheat leading up to 1984.

The experience gained from working through the difficulties of recent years should increase the probability for successful winter wheat production in Saskatchewan for the following reasons:

  1. The advantages and disadvantages of winter wheat production have been more clearly identified and expectations are now more realistic.
  2. There is a core of experienced winter wheat producers in Saskatchewan who are less likely to have production failures if faced with adversities similar to those encountered since 1984.
  3. Extension specialists have a greater knowledge of the stubbling-in production system for winter wheat. Consequently, recommendations can be made with greater confidence.
  4. There was a large no-till winter wheat research program in place in the 1980's. This effort created a broad pool of research data that can be drawn on to provide reliable production recommendations.

While these factors should serve to increase success rates, the direction of the winter wheat production curve over the next few years is difficult to predict. Any number of the following variables could have a large influence on the future success of winter wheat in western Canada.

  1. The extent and speed that world wheat prices recover. It has been government programs, and not the marketplace, that have directed farm production decisions for the past several years. The uncertainty and structure of recent government subsidy programs have discouraged no-till winter wheat production in western Canada.
  2. The importance that is placed on soil conservation measures. No-till winter crops should have a high priority in any conservation effort in western Canada. However, as long as the present economic situation prevails, farm survival will receive a much higher priority than conservation.
  3. The degree to which producers can be convinced that winter crops must be integrated into planned rotations rather than considered in isolation. In the past there has been a tendency for producers to leave their winter wheat production decisions until the day before planting.
  4. The extent to which no-till management systems become accepted by prairie farmers. This will depend upon chemical costs, environmental concerns, and success with no-till in crops other than winter wheat.
  5. The frequency of June weather conditions that are typical of most of the prairie region. Normally June is a high moisture month and conditions at this time largely determine the yield of stubbled-in winter crops. For example, June drought and heat stress conditions that were high in 1988 and low in 1991 produced winter wheat yields that were 37 and 140 percent, respectively, of the 10-year Saskatchewan average ending in 1991.
  6. The occurrence of cool, wet spring weather that delays spring seeding in areas with short growing seasons. Fall seeded crops thrive when spring weather is cool and moist.
  7. The occurrence of early fall frosts. Winter wheat is earlier maturing than spring wheat and normally escapes damage from even the earliest of fall frosts.
  8. The development of improved, higher yielding, disease resistant winter wheat cultivars. Norstar is highly susceptible to most diseases. CDC Kestrel, which was released in 1991, has higher yield potential and better tolerance to stem rust than Norstar.
  9. The emphasis placed on developing winter wheat markets. For a few years winter wheat was moved to market early in the season. This provided a large incentive for its production.
  10. The interest of producer groups in developing winter wheat as a viable cropping option. A production oriented producer group interested in actively promoting winter wheat research and the concerns of producers has not emerged outside of southern Alberta. A producer check-off would be considered a positive indication of the seriousness of producers in developing the full potential of winter wheat in Saskatchewan.
  11. The continued government support of established public research programs in Agriculture Canada and the prairie universities. The Saskatchewan and Canadian governments' involvement through the New Crop Development Fund and Economic Regional Development Agreements have been critical to the development of winter wheat as an alternative crop. The political will to maintain this public effort will not continue unless there is a strong message of support from the agricultural industry.