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How early is too early for planting? That was the question

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Last April, provincial oilseed specialist Anastasia Kubinec was living the dream -- a farmer's dream, that is.

She was out in the research plots at the University of Manitoba's Ian N. Morrison Research Farm near Carman seeding early -- super early -- trying to gauge whether there is a limit to the old adage "the early bird gets the worm" when it comes to spring seeding.

It's well documented early seeding is better than late. There are measurable declines in yield for every day past the optimum seeding dates, usually around mid-May for most crops we grow in these parts.

But how early is too early? Thinking back to the spring, March was exceptionally warm and dry, so much so farmers were itching to hit the fields. When it's dry like that, many believe it's better to give those seeds access to the available soil moisture for germination. Adding to the hype was the whole question of climate change; maybe the seasons are indeed moving forward.

Farmers were calling provincial extension workers for advice everyone knew they were going to ignore, as the patchwork of fields around the province now shows. There were lots of early-seeded fields that had to be all or partly reseeded because of patchy germination, frost or wind damage. Driving around the province, you can see canola fields with some sections already forming seed pods, with squares in the middle that are still in full bloom.

Manitoba Agriculture staff decided to run a trial for the annual Crop Diagnostic School in July that demonstrated the effects of super-early seeding, for better or worse.

Sunflowers, corn, soybeans, canola, wheat, flax, peas and beans were sown on four dates: April 5 and 19, and then during the normal seeding window of May 4 and 17.

But what many of those early-bird farmers didn't factor in was soil temperature. Despite the air temperatures, the soil hadn't warmed up enough to allow those April-seeded crops to germinate. So they sat there and waited for up to three weeks, which left them exposed to all sorts of soil-borne perils, ranging from insects to bacteria to just plain rot.

Meanwhile, the seeds planted in May leapt out of the ground in just over a week.

While yield data at harvest will tell the full story, Kubinec said the state of the trials so far would suggest the "tried and true" seeding dates offer the best hope of success with much less risk.

While some of the plots did get a bit of a jump-start on conventional seeding dates, the way the season has gone it doesn't appear they will perform as well.

The Crop Diagnostic School, a joint venture between the provincial government and the University of Manitoba, has been delivering this non-biased whole-perspective approach to farming since the 1990s.

Research that isn't tied to a specific production system or product, but simply helps farmers make better decisions, is incredibly valuable, yet increasingly rare as governments pull back from publicly funded research.

It takes a dedicated and highly motivated team of individuals who are just plain curious to pull it together.

This year's school also explored whether farmers can weatherproof their farm through the kinds of crops they put into their rotation. Some crops are more drought tolerant, while others like moist conditions better.

Choosing crops according to how deeply they root is one strategy. For example, sunflowers are a moisture-loving crop known for their long, well developed tap root.

They can be put to work in areas of the province that have had problems with excessive moisture to draw down the soil moisture levels.

Meanwhile, if it's dry, a crop such as flax or navy beans isn't as thirsty and its roots are shallow.

How deeply crops send their roots also factors into weed control. Planting crops that root to a different level than the weeds commonly found in the field will give them a better opportunity to compete.

Over in Alberta, agronomic research is shedding light on what time of day farmers should be spraying herbicides. It turns out while many farmers believe early morning before the wind gets up is best, they are better to hit the snooze button and then work through lunch. The trials by the research group Farming Smarter found the best results for weed control for all herbicides were achieved between noon and 1 p.m.

For most of us, this is nothing more than geeky trivia. But for farmers with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, this kind of knowledge can make the difference between profit and loss.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792--4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 B4

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