If you must summerfallow, make it chem.

Eric Oliver and his father farm nearly 1,800 acres near Aneroid, SK, where moisture is usually the limiting factor restricting crop production. Oliver, a professional agrologist, began his move to direct seeding in the 1980s, gradually changing from high-soil disturbance to low-disturbance seeding on his predominately durum wheat/pulse rotations. Although he prefers to continuous crop as often as possible, when fallow is used he controls weeds chemically.

By moving to these conservation farming practices Oliver knows he is saving time and money. A chem fallow pass takes less time than a tillage pass, and he can use a smaller tractor. This lowers fuel costs, extends equipment life and reduces hours spent on the tractor.

“Chem fallow is a risk management tool commonly used in this area,” says Oliver. “In dryer years you will get better yields than on stubble. This is largely because chem fallowed fields don’t lose as much moisture.” And the risk of soil erosion, he adds, is much less than with traditional summerfallow.

After three drought years and a dry spring last year he had neighbours tell him their summerfallow fields yielded better than his direct seeded fields. While this may be true for that one year, Oliver feels it is important to look at yield averages over the long term.

“You need to look at performance over a longer period, which will show that direct seeded fields perform better. And it is important to remember that for the same land base, I’m farming twice as much land as someone farming 50/50,” Oliver explains. “Over the long term my production system of low-disturbance direct seeding, continuous cropping or if fallow is used, chem fallowing, and diverse rotation, has proven to be much better. I’ve noticed a real improvement in soil quality. The soil organic matter has increased since we started using low-disturbance direct seeding and chem fallow instead of tillage.”

Oliver, a true advocate for soil conservation, has worked for the Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association and is currently president of the Wheatland Conservation Area Association. “I’m involved with these organizations because they are farmer based,” says Oliver. “They promote agronomic practices that help to improve the farmer’s bottom line and also conserve the soil as a resource now and for future generations. I firmly believe that we are just temporary stewards of the land and when we pass it on to the next generation, it should be in better condition than when we received it. These organizations provide producers with information they can apply directly to their farming operations that will benefit both their pocket book and the environment.”

In Saskatchewan, over 70 per cent of farmers are now using conservation tillage practices and direct seeding, says Oliver. “The amount of tilled summerfallow is probably at its lowest point ever. Although there are always major challenges for producers, the future is still bright for soil conservation.” FF