Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Efficiency, Moisture Conservation, Only Way to Keep Farming - Brian Hildebrand, Skiff, AB
Author: Helen McMenamin
Date Created: February 12, 2002
Last Reviewed: February 12, 2002

Farming at Skiff, 30 miles south of Taber, well out of reach of irrigation systems, Brian Hildebrand conserves every drop of the scant rain and snow he receives.

The main ways to save moisture are “Don’t till, don’t till and don’t till,” he says. Crop residues have been particularly sparse in the last two years, but without much moisture, straw from the last three crops is visible between the crop rows in many places.
This year, Hildebrand switched to a disk drill to minimize disturbance and he’s impressed with its performance.
“I like the low disturbance aspect of the John Deere,” he says. “You’re not stirring up the soil and germinating weeds when you’re seeding. And, you’re opening up the soil just enough to place the seed. Less disturbance means better moisture conservation.”

Brian in a field of corn
Brian Hildebrand in his corn field

The bugbear of disk drills, maintenance, hasn’t been excessive according to Hildebrand. He used the drill to seed about 7000 acres before he had to repack a bearing. And, all the crops had good emergence with even stands.

The drill probably won’t make a difference to Hildebrand’s stubble height.

Stubble protects winter wheat
Stubble protect winter wheat

“We haven’t had a chance to use the new drill in tall stubble yet,” he says. “We cut just below the heads, most years that leaves us with stubble that’s about knee-high, maybe 18 inches tall, quite a bit shorter the last couple of years. The more trash we can keep on the soil surface, the less evaporation we’ll have.”

“It’s no problem to seed through tall straw as long as it’s anchored. It’s the stuff that’s lying down that causes you grief as it comes along with you.”
Late summer and fall is important in the weed control program. Hildebrand starts his fall spraying program even before harvest is done, if there’s a break in combining. If he sees a problem with perennial weeds, he’ll spray pre-harvest.
“You’re not helping yourself if you let weeds keep growing and increasing until frost,” he says. “A fall application of glyphosate will usually get the winter annuals and grasses, things like downy brome. It might not kill perennials like Canada thistle, but it doesn’t help them either.”
Other fall weed control measures depend on the next crop and signs of weed growth. “This year, with no rain, there wasn’t a lot of weed growth,” he says. “If things would have greened up, I’d have sprayed again.”
Keeping weeds under control is vital to continuous cropping in such a dry area. Between winter wheat harvest at the end of July and seeding the next crop, there’s eight or nine months for soil moisture conservation, says Hildebrand. Rather than adopting a rigid rotation, Hildebrand likes to stay flexible in his crop sequencing decisions. After a dry year in 2000 and almost no precipitation over the winter, Odyssey residues on the pea stubble were a risk that limited his options.
“I decided to stop fighting herbicide residue problems and start working with them,” he says. “At the best of times, disease isn’t a big risk here and it was really dry last year and this year, so I seeded peas on the pea stubble. I only had to spray for grassy weeds.”

Peas on pea stubble

Crop water use and efficiency are major considerations in crop sequencing. After this year, peas and lentils are Hildebrand’s preferred pulses. He’s tried chickpeas for a few years, but doesn’t plan to seed them again until moisture conditions look much better.

“They’re a high moisture use crop that can go a long way to find water,” he says. “The prices seem good and a crop with a later harvest would spread our late summer workload. We have winter wheat to combine, canola to swath, peas to combine and then spring wheat ready in just a few weeks. But chickpeas have too much downside, especially if it’s dry.”
Although his area is generally considered too hot and dry for canola, Hildebrand grows some. He seeds it very early, by April 1 last year, so it can bloom before the worst of the summer heat and wind.
In the last two years, he’s participated with AAFC and SARA (Southern Applied Research Association) in trap crop trials to control cabbage seedpod weevils. He seeded Polish canola around the outside and when it bloomed before the main crop, the weevils were attracted to its flowers. Spraying the pest while it was concentrated in the outside borders seeded to reduce the amount of insecticide needed to keep them under control.
Hildebrand grows durum and spring wheat, but he likes winter wheat for its competitiveness with weeds. “It gives you an edge against weeds,” he says. “I put it in anywhere that’s reasonably clean of cheatgrass and if there’s any late August-September rains, it’s off to a good start. All it needs is a little 2,4-D in October to get rid of stinkweed and flixweed.
“Winter wheat’s the crop we’ll lose least on this year. It often gives us the best net return because it’s inexpensive to plant.”

Clean winter wheat ready for harvest

When running a busy farm seems to be one crisis after another, it’s important to distinguish what’s urgent from what’s critical, says Hildebrand.

“You have to react and fix urgent things like breakdowns,” he says. “You have to get them done, but you still have to focus on the critical things like seeding depth. These things have to be done right or it really won’t matter about the urgent problems that are always coming along.
“To me, one of the biggest challenges on the farm is planning to ensure you stay focussed on the critical things in your operation.”