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Apr 23

Plan now to understand and apply variable-rate management

Posted on Apr 23 By: Ian Doig

Most Alberta farmers have by now made their game plan for the 2015 crop season. While it may be too late to embark upon on-farm research or variable-rate management this season, soil-variability research proponent Ken Coles suggests that now is a good time for producers to think about it long-term.

“I know a lot of farmers who have conducted on-farm research have truly seen the value of it and continue to make that a part of their farming system,” said Coles, an agrologist who runs a mixed-grain farm near Coaldale.

Coles is the general manager of Farming Smarter, a southern Alberta farming organization that supports agricultural innovation, stewardship and profitability. On top of that, Farming Smarter conducts cutting-edge, small-plot and field-scale agronomic research and recently a number of soil variability management projects. The biggest involves layering data gathered by electrical conductivity sensors, optical-organic matter sensors and soil core samples.

The goal is understanding how to conduct on-farm research in a meaningful, scientific way that helps farmers make more informed decisions on practices, product use, and so on, explained Coles.

Given its potential rewards, he suggests farmers shouldn’t fear variable-rate management, but take baby steps into applying the technology.

With this in mind, Farming Smarter has created a protocol available to producers for doing on-farm research, though Coles suggests it will remain a work in progress for many years given the scientific complexity of variability research.

“It’s not final, as we’re always learning new things and tweaking,” he said, “but we have gained knowledge that’s going to be helpful in general.”

The first step is to understanding variability, he said. There are many ways data can be gathered. This can be as simple aerial imagery or a farmer’s knowledge of the land’s productivity.

Additionally, there are many other complementary means of collecting data including combine yield monitors, satellite imagery and unmanned UAVs. GPS technology can link positional coordinates with yield data and can also be used to create digital elevation maps. The next step is quantifying and utilizing it.

“The problem is having to take that process and apply it to every field out there,” Coles said. “So, I would rank your fields from most to least variable.

If you know you have a field that’s extremely variable, you’ve got a yield map that proves it and you feel like it’s worth the effort to manage it on the fertility side of things, that’s the field to start managing first.”

At the other end of the scale, a field that produces evenly is the best place to test new products.

“Then do some overall goal setting,” he advises. “What do you hope to accomplish with your farm? Is it based on expansion or on fine tuning and getting better at what we’re doing?”

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