Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Managing Crop Rotations on a Dryland Farm in Alberta - Brian Otto, Warner, AB
Author: Sandra Taillieu
Date Created: October 10, 2005
Last Reviewed: October 10, 2005

On a dryland grain farm East of Warner, Alberta, Brian Otto begins planning for next year’s crop. Twelve years of direct seeding have taken Brian from a continuous cropping system to a rotation with a third of the acres in chemfallow. The environmental and economic realities of the Otto farm are the key drivers behind Brian’s cropping and management decisions.

“When I am deciding what to grow, I have to be flexible,” says Brian. “The crops I grow have to put a dollar back in my pocket.”
Brian grows barley, durum wheat, winter wheat, yellow mustard, yellow field peas with a few acres of safflower. He has also tried several specialty crops including chickpea, lentils and coriander. Brian’s flexible approach to crop rotations has helped him to respond to increasingly unprofitable economic conditions in farming.
“I started moving to include chemfallow in my rotation after 2001-the worst drought we’ve ever had on this farm,” says Brian. “I learned that continuous cropping works in this area until we have an exceptionally dry year – then you can lose a lot of money. If I go 20 miles north or west of my farm, the moisture profile improves. But here, moisture is almost always the limiting factor for plant growth. When I add together my yield potential on stubble, the cost of production and today’s commodity prices, continuous cropping is just too risky for us.”
“I decided to do things differently,” says Brian. “I gradually changed my farm to a rotation with 1/3 chemfallow and 2/3 crop. By having some chemfallow, I am able to reduce my risk in really dry years and also reduce my input costs. With chemfallow, I don’t work any ground and I don’t have to worry about wind erosion.”

Brian Otto
Brian Otto checks the settings on his air drill

Principles of Crop Rotation

Brian’s crop rotation varies depending on markets, moisture and weed pressure but he follows a few basic principles.
“I do not repeat any crop - for example, growing durum on durum stubble,” says Brian. “I try to grow an oilseed or pulse followed by a winter or spring cereal in order to reduce disease pressures.
“Doing a good job of in-crop weed control can be tough in pulse and oilseed crops. If I have an emerging weed problem in a field, I clean it up with either a cereal or chemfallow the following year.
“As a rule of thumb, I try to keep the combined cost of my broadleaf and grassy weed control at less than $20/acre.”
“I won’t chemfallow pea ground- I put it into wheat,” says Brian. “Peas fix nitrogen and I want to use that to my advantage. There isn’t a lot of residue left after peas and I am careful to avoid soil erosion. Wheat provides residue cover for the land and allows me to gain from the rotational benefits of peas.”
“My cropping choices are also influenced by what I can move at harvest,” says Brian. “I try to forward price about 25% to 30% of my crop and move it out in August and September if I can.”
“When I prepare my farm plan in the off-season, part of my decision to grow a crop is based on the pricing opportunities for that crop but I also think of what I want to follow in my rotation,” Brian explains. “Will this crop restrict me in what I can grow or benefit the crop I plant the following year? I try to get an average yield of all the crops I grow over a 10-year period to try and figure out what I can get for yield. I will grow a crop that makes me very little money if it fits in my rotation.
“When I chose field peas for this year and plugged it into my field program it didn’t look like I’d make any money on them but with the nitrogen they put into the ground, I’ll come out ahead. For example, if my peas yield 50 bu/ac they give me 30lbs of actual nitrogen for next year’s crop. At $0.45/lb for N, I’m ahead $13.50/acre.”

Brian Otto's drill
Brian direct seeds barley into mustard stubble

Brian is flexible in choosing how much fertilizer to apply to each field: “I get soil tests taken and a lot of my decision will be based on that soil test and what I need to apply for my target yield,” he says. “If the target yield doesn’t pencil out for the cost of producing the crop, then I adjust accordingly.”

Commodity prices are a key factor in Brian’s decision as to how many acres he grows of each crop: “Mustard prices were terrible last year so I substituted safflower, winter wheat and hard white wheat,” he explains.
“We run a fine line on profit margins so we have to be really aware of our fixed and variable costs,” says Brian. “Fertilizer prices can determine what we seed. We may seed more pulse crops with higher fertilizer prices. If we see a 25% increase in the cost of fertilizer this spring, we won’t be able to seed the full 2/3 of our acres. Fertilizer, chemical and fuel are the three input costs we have no control over. I don’t believe in planting a crop just for the sake of paying my fertilizer and chemical bill. There has to be a dollar left for me at the end of the day.”
Weed Management
“When it comes to making decisions on herbicides, I consider cost, weed pressure and return on that investment,” says Brian. “I won’t get trapped into believing I have to kill every weed out there.”
“My weed spectrum has changed with direct seeding from a lot of hard-to-kill weeds like buckwheat and Russian thistle to more easy-to-kill weeds like stinkweed and flixweed, controlled with a spring burn-off” explains Brian. “I’ve also noticed a significant decrease in my wild oat pressure. I attribute that to less disturbance and seeding with a narrow opener.”
“In continuous cropping, we were having quite a time with Canada thistle,” says Brian. “Now that I am chemfallowing, I am getting control of my Canada thistle. I haven’t used pre-harvest glyphosate because of the cost. It just doesn’t pencil out for me.”
Brian is careful with his use of residual herbicides in order to maintain flexibility in his crop rotation: “I avoid most residual chemicals to give me more options for what I can seed,” he says. “I will use pre-emergent Edge prior to safflower and yellow mustard but it means I have to be careful if I want to follow these crops with durum and winter wheat.”
“Moisture is a big consideration in deciding what crops to grow in my rotation,” says Brian. ““I try to seed about 700 acres of winter wheat if I have enough moisture. I need to have 1 inch of rain in the fall to get the crop started. On my farm, having enough moisture to get the crop established is more critical than having snow cover to protect the winter wheat from cold temperatures. I like to seed winter wheat into mustard ground but in a dry year, I won't – I’ll substitute barley. Residual from the Edge I use prior to seeding mustard can affect the survival of my winter wheat. In a wet year, I have my choice of seeding winter wheat, barley, or durum without any problems."
Field Selection
Brian’s cropping choices are often limited by the condition of the land he has available: “I have saline land that is best suited to barley or wheat,” he says. “I also have some hills that eroded years ago that need special attention to avoid further erosion.

”I don’t want to put peas on fields that have a high weed pressure. Last year I put peas on a newly acquired land and ended up with a mess of Canada thistle. It was a reminder of how important it is to know your field history and to use that in your cropping decisions. “
Changes with Direct Seeding
Brian is pleased with the changes he has made on his farm: “I don’t worry about wind erosion since I switched to direct seeding,” he says. “Even in 2001 with the worst crop I’ve ever grown, erosion was not a concern. 
“When you leave the land undisturbed, it’s surprising how many deer and antelope, ducks, rabbits and racoons will make their home there. That’s a bonus.“
“The biggest change with direct seeding is that I’m not wearing out my equipment,” says Brian. “I haven’t replaced my tractor in 20 years. The cost of my iron is less now that I’m not summer fallowing. There is a trade-off between reduced machinery costs and increased chemical and fertilizer costs with direct seeding. It takes a pretty sharp pencil to make a dollar either way.”
Despite the struggles of the worst economic reality since he began farming, Brian presses on: “The success I see is the improvement in the quality of my land in the last five years,” he says. “It’s alive again! When I go out in the spring to seed and see all those earthworms in the soil – it tells me we’re doing something right.”