Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Making the Most of Every Crop’s Special Features - Doug Wright, Nobleford, AB
Author: Helen McMenamin
Date Created: January 22, 2002
Last Reviewed: January 22, 2002

 Doug Wright might be said to take rotation to extremes. He has at least 12 crops most years, as well as something new he’s trying.

“It’s basically a cereal-oilseed-cereal-pulse rotation,” says the Nobleford farmer. “But, I like to make the most of as many crops as I can. Every one of them has some sort of special advantage.”

Pulses are at the heart of Wright’s rotations. He grows chickpeas, both desis and Kabulis, lentils and peas. If he had a few more heat units, he’d probably try dry beans.

“Pulses are the most important crops on the place,” he says. “All of them increase the biological activity of the soil, the mycorrhizae and other things. Some people say the nitrogen they leave behind doesn’t amount to anything, but even if they don’t build up the soil nitrogen, they’re not using it the way most crops do.

“Choosing which pulse to grow is partly a matter of economics, but also rooting depth, especially for dryland. It’s one of the most important things when you’re building a rotation. If you can make up the water the crop has used, there’s no difference at all in the crops following peas, chickpeas or lentils. But we don’t often get that much moisture.”

“Chickpeas are an obvious choice for economic reasons, but I wouldn’t like to have the whole place in them. Peas don’t take as much moisture out of the ground and they can handle extra moisture if it turns out to be a wet year. Lentils can tolerate wet or dry weather, but they’re not very efficient in their water use.

“I like to vary the rooting depth and the root structure of crops to use soil moisture and nutrients as efficiently as possible. Chickpeas, especially Kabulis, really dry out the soil. They’re such a long season crop and they have a big taproot. Peas only draw moisture out of the top two feet of soil.”

Wright says desi chickpeas, the type with smaller seed mainly sold to poorer countries, may replace peas in his rotations. They don’t seem to have the same disadvantages as the kabuli chickpeas. As well as being slightly less susceptible to disease, they use less water.

Desis yield less than peas, a maximum of 40 or 50 bushels per acre compared to 70 or 80 bushels for peas,” he says. “But 14 cents a pound for desis is much better than $6 a bushel for peas.”

Kabulis don’t develop mycorrhizae in the soil, but both peas and desi chickpeas are associated with large populations of these specialized fungi around the roots of the plants, extending out quite a distance into the soil. They function almost like extra roots, bringing nutrients and moisture to the plant.

This year, Wright found a surprising advantage to chickpeas. He treated all his chickpea acres with Sencor pre-emergence and had no problem with stinkweed.

“Usually, after canola, the land is lousy with stinkweed,” he says. “But with the early Sencor, we had no stinkweed at all on the chickpea land.”

Wright applies his thinking on root types to his placement of oilseeds in his rotations. Flax is shallow-rooted, so it leaves some moisture at depth where a following wheat crop can use it. It also develops large numbers of mycorrhizae. Apparently, the fungi enable flax to use soil phosphorus rather than depending on fertilizer. Canola has a deep taproot but no mycorrhizae. Earthworms seem to thrive equally well under canola and flax, though.

“I’m not sure whether there are benefits to increasing soil mycorrhizae populations or what they might be,” says Wright. “But it seems smart to take advantage of nature if we can. I rate the mycorrhizae as one of the benefits of flax. Something about flax shows up in better wheat the next year. Durum does really well after flax on the irrigated land.”

This year, one of the new crops Wright is testing is ESS sunflowers. These early, short season varieties are suited to dryland. They’re used whole as feed supplements for dairy cows to increase their calorie intake and to raise levels of cancer-preventing oils in beef.

“I have high hopes for sunflowers,” he says. “You can seed them as late as the first week in June, and you can harvest them any time. Fall weather doesn’t hurt them at all. They have very deep roots so maybe they’ll give some advantage to the next crop too.”

Wright grows most cereals but some are closer to the top of the list when he’s figuring what to grow where.

“Durum brings the best premium for high protein,” he says. “And it seems to get the biggest kick from following a pulse crop. Barley seems to do best after canola for some reason.

Wright’s also impressed with some of the new varieties of winter wheat. They have better yields, slightly higher protein and better disease resistance than the older varieties.

“They’re shorter, too,” he says. “They don’t lodge as easily and you don’t have to deal with all that straw. It’s important that we grow the new high quality winter wheat, like Tempest and Bellatrix. The Wheat Board is starting to some around with their IP program for those two. The markets for them will come, but we’ve got to grow them so our customers can be aware of the quality that’s available.

“I like the winter cereals as a way to throw the weeds out of whack. I hardly ever see any wild oats in them, so we only have to

spray for broadleaves. They’re competitive with weeds too, especially Pika fall triticale, it’s a great competitor.”

Staying on top of weeds is a continual battle that Wright fights with all the knowledge he can find. He says there’s no such thing as weeds that are too small to spray and he shaves rates when he thinks he can. He has a network of contacts around the world to help him keep up with the peculiarities of chemicals – which is sensitive to light, which has an edge of what type of weed and the like. He hopes to use rotations including crops with different growth patterns – winter wheat, sunflowers, millet – to get at problem weeds.

“Perennial weeds are really the only downside to direct seeding,” he says. “I’m looking at using more diversity in my crop rotations to get a handle on them. With zero till, you’re always learning, trying new things and looking for ways to grow a healthier crop.”