Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 065 November-December 2006 - North
WEEDS AND YIELDS THE GM SCORELINE n Standing in his crop of canola, Canadian grower Ian McPhadden can see for miles and miles across the prairies he calls home. The prairies – in the middle of Canada – are flat, naturally treeless grasslands. Ian farms in Saskatchewan, the landlocked middle province of Canada’s three prairie provinces. Here the climate can vary from 40°C in the summer to minus 40°C in the winter, making the growing season short – about 90 to 100 days. “On 1 May growers start seeding,” Ian says. “By the end of August, the combines (headers) will be out.” Although the season may be short, the winter offers growers a form of pest and weed control that most Australian growers would find hard to imagine. As Ian says: “The winter helps with weeds. Nothing survives at minus 40°C.” Ian’s farm is a stop for many Nuffield scholars and innovative farmers from Australia and other countries, travelling across North America to see how the competition operates. Canada shares many similarities with Australia, including similar crops and comparable economic and trade challenges. Canada, however, has been growing genetically modified (GM) canola for a decade. About 83 per cent of the canola grown in Canada is now transgenic. This makes Canada and McPhadden Farms an interesting case study for Australian growers. Ian crops 6000 acres (2428 hectares) at Milden, about an hour’s drive west of the city of Saskatoon. Employing a full-time farm manager – George Hanna – Ian crops lentils, peas, chickpeas, spring durum wheat, Canadian Prairie Spring Wheat, flax, malt and feed barley, and a few winter crops. For the past seven years he has also grown GM canola – a mix of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® canola, Bayer’s LibertyLink™ canola and Nexera©™, a new GM variety from Dow AgroSciences, which produces a healthier oil. LibertyLink™ has traditionally performed better than Roundup Ready®, he says. “Last year we had a very good LibertyLink™ yield, but its weed control is not as good as Roundup Ready®.” In 2006 his canola yielded about 35 bushels an acre (two tonnes a hectare) on average. “This was a little disappointing,” Ian says. “It’s because we had very hot weather at flowering time, although the price is going up a bit.” That said, GM canola has been hugely beneficial for weed control: “We can now plant canola on our worst land and it acts as a clean-up crop. Its clean-up capabilities also carry over for the next two crops.” Ian says the first GM crops did not yield as highly as conventional crops, but as breeding improvements continued they eventually caught up and passed conventional varieties. “When the yields improved, the percentage of GM canola grown in Canada jumped. It has become the fastest adoption in our cropping history,” he says. GM canola’s popularity is also seen in research and development terms. “The amount of R&D spent on GM varieties is a lot higher than conventional crops, which has helped increase the yields. Hybrids are also becoming more popular because of their yields.” Canadian growers are paid on yield and not oil content, so grower interest in new R&D is often directed towards yield. The move towards healthier consumer products has been felt back to the farm gate with growers like Ian being encouraged to grow Nexera©™ canola (see opposite page). This is the fourth year Ian has grown Nexera©™, which he grows under an Identity Preservation (IP) contract – typically a contract between a grain handler and a grower. For the grower it usually means buying certified seed; thoroughly cleaning equipment and machinery before using it on an IP crop; ensuring the IP crop is kept separate from other crops; keeping records and being subject to audits. The effort, however, is generally rewarded with higher prices. Ian says that this year’s Nexera©™ yield was a little lower than usual, because of climatic conditions. He says growing Nexera©™, as with any variety, is all about economics. “If it isn’t profitable, I don’t grow it. If it isn’t high yielding or easy to use, I won’t grow it.” Two contentious issues often raised in relation to GM canola are control and Technical Use Agreements (TUAs), two unrelated issues that have become intertwined since Monsanto first released GM canola. For McPhadden Farms, neither issue has ever been a problem. Farm manager George Hanna says it comes down to good management. “It is not hard to control GM canola as long as you manage your rotation Canada observed GROUND COVER NOVEMBER -- DECEMBER 2006 16 Before genetically modified canola was introduced to Canada 10 years ago, many graingrowers there envied Australia because sheep and pastures helped manage weeds and herbicide resistance. Today, Australian growers look to Canada with longing because its growers have access to GM canola. These varieties, used as part of a systems approach, offer another weed management tool, and along the way have also lifted yields and reduced costs. Ground Cover deputy editor Rebecca Thyer was in Canada recently to ask Canadian growers directly about their experiences with GM varieties. She begins her report with an interview with Canadian Nuffield scholar Ian McPhadden and his cropping experience in Saskatchewan. McPHADDEN FARMS Soil type: Dark brown, silty clay loam. Annual rainfall: 12–14 inches, of which two inches is snow (304–355mm of rain, with 50mm of snow). Equipment: Cereals are planted on 12-inch (304mm) spacings using shanks (tines) on an airseeder. Canola seed is broadcast using a Valmar pneumatic spreader, mounted on an airseeder, and followed by a Harrow packer. Pulses are planted on seven-inch (17cm) spacing using tines. Nutrient needs: Phosphorus (P2O5) is applied to all paddocks at a rate of 20 pounds/acre (9kg/acre or 22.5kg/ha). Nitrogen is applied to canola and cereal paddocks at different rates: For canola, 80–90 pounds/acre (36–41kg/acre or 90–102kg/ha) of nitrogen is applied. For cereals, 60 pounds/acre (27kg/acre or 67.5kg/ha) of nitrogen is applied. On average, McPhadden Farms receives a C$20 net benefit an acre (AS$24/acre or $60/ hectare) from using GM canola, compared to conventional canola. This takes into account costs of C$42-43/acre for seed and chemical (and Technical Use Agreements where applicable) and a 20–30 per cent increase in yield. Ian McPhadden says input costs have increased with GM canola (“you have to feed them lots of nutrients”) but the returns are exponentially much higher. RURAL RUN-OFF Driving with Ian across the prairies, he points out homes where other graingrowers and their families used to live. Today, most of these families are gone. Just an hour’s drive from Saskatoon, numerous farms are left vacant and uncared for. Like parts of Australia, bigger cities and a booming resources industry are pulling the younger generation away from rural communities. “When we first started here in the 1970s, Canadian farming was at its boom time – input costs were low and grain prices high. Today, farming is becoming too expensive for many peo- ple to even enter. ” He says that 70 per cent of farms in Saskatchewan now rely on some form of off-farm income. “About 80 per cent of the cropping business is done by 20 per cent of the growers. ” Ian McPhadden Windrowing canola at McPhadden Farms.
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