With increasing costs of inputs combined with decreasing returns on grains, pulses and oilseeds, farmers everywhere are pressured more than ever to achieve higher yields. The single number that tends to influence management decisions and cultural practices, is the number that farmers use as a benchmark of either
success or failure for any given crop in any given growing season. The drive to achieve a higher yield is what contributes to innovative thinking at the farm level. As agrologists, it is important to recognize these innovations as a learning opportunity and to share this knowledge with our stakeholders.
An initiative between the Atlantic Grains Council (AGC), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), andADAS (UK), is working to create a cereal yield competition to drive on-farm innovation. This project will allow farmers to tap into a peer-to-peer knowledge sharing network, and it will allow researchers access to real world data to validate growth models and to look at the influence that environment and cultural practices have on yields in the region.
The “Yield Enhancement Network” (YEN) is an approach currently being employed by ADAS in the UK. Roger Sylvester-Bradley and Ruth Wade (ADAS) have been running the yield competition there and are working with Aaron Mills and Dan MacEachern (AAFC) to evaluate the model in Prince Edward Island. The
driving philosophy behind the YEN is to capture the on-farm innovations for higher yields and to use those data as a powerful tech transfer tool.
In the UK, farmers enter their fields in the competition, and they have to submit their management plans for the fields. At the end of the growing season, each participant submits a “grab sample” of 100 plants randomly selected from the field, a grain sample taken from the combine, and their tickets from the grain elevator to validate their yields. The grab samples and the combine samples are used to calculate test weight, thousand kernel weight, as well as some grain chemistry.
At the end of the growing season, a report is generated for each field and an awards ceremony is held where gold, silver and bronze are awarded for the top yields as well as the greatest proportion of the calculated yield potential for each field. Potential yield calculations are based on a plant growth model and take into account the soil available water based on soil textures, precipitation, and the amount of light intercepted through the growing season.
For the PEI-YEN, a slightly different approach has been taken. As the growth models from the UK are based primarily on winter crops and do not account for things like snow, ice and soil pH below 6.0, the pilot project here is a data-heavy endeavour that is designed to capture as much information as possible from each field. As there is a smaller number of fields in the PEI-YEN (40 entries vs. 350), with the help of an able summer student we are able to collect much more field data than would normally be collected in the UK. The greater the resolution in the dataset, the more likely it will be that we can identify what is driving yields in the region.
Funding for the project comes from farmer check-off dollars administered by the AGC and matched by AAFC under the current Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP). In the UK, farmers are sponsored by a chemical, seed or agronomy company to enter a field into the YEN competition. The project will run for two more growing seasons, and there is growing interest from New Brunswick in participating in future years. It is unknown how this project will be funded in future years, but it appears that the corporate funding model may be the best approach.
The top winter wheat yield in the UK for 2019 was 16.3 t/ha with a potential yield calculated as 19.2 t/ha (85%). The top yield for spring wheat on PEI was 6.2 t/ha with a potential yield calculated as 9.93 t/ha (63%). The most interesting part of the project is working out the yield potentials for each field, and growers
will be surprised what the yield potentials could be for their respective fields, based on what they have to work with.
Although participation in the competition makes this project interesting for farmers, how those yields are achieved might not be applicable to every field for every farmer. It is one thing to “throw the groceries” at a single field for the sake of competition, but if environmental conditions are not conducive to efficiently moving nutrients into the plant in order to realize the yield potential of the crop, then it is likely that the farmer will lose money on that field. The goal of higher yields at any cost is not realistic and can have major negative economic and environmental impacts.
The real power in this project is the tech transfer potential that it holds as a farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange network. With a little bit of oversight and facilitation from the scientific community, farmers will benefit from sharing data and the industry will be one step closer to improved production efficiencies in the region.
Aaron Mills, Ph.D., PAg
Research Scientist, AAFC, Charlottetown