Pulse Beat Individual Articles

Research from Concept to Profitability: Manitoba’s Diversification Centres

Toban Dyck, Director of Communications, MPSG – Fall/Winter 2020

Research has a value that is difficult to express to a broad audience.

“Let’s go back 15 years,” said Scott Chalmers, Diversification Specialist at the Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO) in Melita. “Farmers were unfamiliar with growing soybeans. They were experiencing high bushel loss on rigid headers. Inoculants and phosphorous uptake were relatively unknown issues. That has changed. In reality, our research has helped them get there.”

There are farmers who prefer charts and graphs. There are farmers who prefer executive summaries with a key takeaway or two. And then there is yet another group skeptical of research, but whose farms grow varieties and utilize methods/products that wouldn’t exist without some person’s or some organization’s dedication to the scientific rigours of trying, testing, repeating and analyzing.

Manitoba Agriculture’s Diversification Centres are dedicated to these things.

Chalmers runs one of four such Manitoba Agriculture Crop Diversification Centres in the province. His priority is local research. His priority is local farmers. And, from what I was able to glean from our phone chat, these things are not just priorities but also passions and ones he shares with his fellow specialists.

Haider Abbas is the Diversification Specialist at the Canada-Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre (CMCDC) in Carberry. James Frey is the Diversification Specialist at the Parkland Crop Diversification Foundation (PCDF) in Roblin. Nirmal Hari is the Diversification Specialist at the Prairies East Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (PESAI) in Arborg.

WADO and all of the other Diversi­fication Centres are strategically situated in disparate areas of Manitoba and they are focused on addressing the unique issues relevant to the farms in their respective areas, testing varieties on local soil types, testing inputs and production methods.

Each Centre has its own mandate, but they are all anchored on conducting regional research for farmers and industry and getting those results back to the farmers.

“We get the project,” said Chalmers. “Then we do the project. Do the stats. Decipher the story. Learn the takeaway, and repeat if needed.”

Together, the Centres have a website where each can post research results, its annual report, videos, and event listings. It serves as a place where farmers can access decision-making tools, as Chalmers pointed out, such as a grain drying cost calculator.

Chalmers is focused on ensuring the results and recommendations that come from the Diversification Centres benefit farmers and not just the industry, an especially challenging mandate when it’s easy for private companies to manipulate prices when data related to their products/varieties are released.

“Production practice results, such as inoculation recommendations and rotations, fertility responses, have more impact,” he said. “Farmers can personally benefit from these rather than the whole industry. I prefer that farmers have the money. Farming is a tough business.”

The Centres could be better utilized, according to Chalmers. “Farmers don’t know they can just call us and possibly change an important aspect of their farming operations.”

“I manage the activities at the Centre — the employees — the activities — accounting and payroll,” said Chalmers. “I spend time working with proposals and coordinating with the Centre’s many cooperators. It’s a lot of communication. I do the data analysis. The technician does the data entry, drives the equipment and writes the report. I get the results, make sure the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed, proofread them and validate the final reports.”

Chalmers knows the area he serves. He’s been at WADO since 2007, when it was he who was in the trenches as a technician, fixing equipment, biomassing, working with samples, seed loading and otherwise getting his hands dirty.

For a spell, after Manitoba agronomist Scott Day left the Centre, Chalmers held both the technician and specialist positions. In 2016, the province hired WADO a technician, and in 2018, the Centre hired its own.

WADO, which costs about $280,000–$330,000 per year to run, is the manifest­ation of a series of funding sources and a dedicated staff team operating under the guidance of provincial mandates and a board of directors made up of local farmers, who meet once per year to discuss research, projects and operations.

WADO and the other Centres have a relatively consistent stable of trials spanning multiple commodities and multiple commodity groups. But, there are also special projects and those take more time.

“At our last board meeting, we addressed livestock-related projects, on-farm testing, and ways in which we can meet the provincial protein need. Every year, the province revises its initiatives. Long-term projects sometimes get phased out by changing provincial mandates.”

“We have 30 acres of tile-drained land testing spacing on various crops,” said Nirmal Hari at PESAI in Arborg, a Centre focused largely on excess moisture, including seeding rates, variety tolerance and tile drainage. “It’s the second year of that study and there’s been a lot of interest among farmers with heavier soils. They want to know how it’s going.

PESAI also conducts a lot of variety testing and has seen an increasing interest in forage trials.

 

At the PCDF in Roblin, James Frey and his team also work on variety trials for a diverse selection of crops, but with an additional focus on intercropping and forage systems.

“The forage projects, in particular, are designed to address the unique characteristics of the Parkland region, which has many livestock producers,” said Frey. “With WADO, we are doing one pea intercropping trial with Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG).”

The CMCDC, in Carberry, falls in line with this commitment to conducting research under local conditions to benefit local farmers. This area of Manitoba is synonymous with potatoes. According to the Centre’s Specialist Haider Abbas, “Our strategic areas include sustainable irrigation, sustainable potato production, improving the environmental sustainability of intensive crop produc­tion and crop diversification.”

Over the course of four growing seasons — 2017 to 2020 — the CMCDC collaborated with Dr. Ramona Mohr, AAFC–Brandon, on an MPSG-funded research project evaluating different residue management practices before growing soybeans. The aim of this study was to evaluate if residue management can improve soil conditions when planting soybeans earlier in May vs. soybeans planted later in May. Look for more information on the lead-up to this project in MPSG’s next Science Edition magazine. “In this experiment, early seeding increased yield, suggesting the potential benefit of early planting, “said Abbas.

Farmers can submit proposals, as well. In some cases, according to Chalmers, there are specific agronomic questions that farmers want to see WADO address — such as, say, is one way of farming better than another. Diversification Centres are set up to accommodate or, at least, listen to such proposals.

According to Chalmers, some projects are approved just so a product, method or whatever is being proposed can be myth-busted, who was reticent to use a term we’ve all heard on our farms — snake oil.

“For any new proposal, we consider the cost, the economic value to the farm, the relevance, the uniqueness and the interest levels,” said Chalmers. “Say it’s Roquette. The province is interested in supporting its needs because of the province’s current investment and its desire to further support its needs and the province’s protein initiatives, therefore making the decision to support them much easier.”

Currently, Chalmers is working at coordinating a project with the University of Alberta that tackles intercropping and soil health. “What’s the design and cost?” said Chalmers. “And what are the treatments? Who’s doing what?”

Chalmers recounted working with a local grower interesting in testing intercropping buckwheat, oats and faba beans using mixed row and alternate row seeding methods.

Some of these trial ideas land up being better suited for the farmer to conduct on their farm. “It can work, as long as the farmer is a good communicator and good at getting the job done when it’s needed.”

When Chalmers started at WADO, GPS was becoming popular and quite accessible. That was a game-changer, he recounted. And now, he’s flabbergasted at the amount of data he’s able to collect using drone technology. “It’s unreal,” he said.

“The scale of development in tech — I’m just blown away. It’s unbelievable. The pace of progress is overwhelming.”

Chalmers tries to keep up-to-date with the happenings of the ag-tech world, but his perspective on it is similar to how he manages research: “You got to find out if it’s relevant or not. Embrace it or let it go.”

“Soil health technology is a black box I want to tackle,” he said. “It’s complicated and complex. I ask myself, ‘Is this going to be something I can understand and implement or is it over my head?’”

Soil health is a fraught issue, according to Chalmers. It doesn’t have a proper definition and it doesn’t yet have a universally agreed-upon set of metrics/technologies on which to measure it.

“What are the bugs doing below ground?” Chalmers asked, rhetorically. “Is what we’re doing to the soil healthy? If not, how do we get to that point? Is no-till helping? How do we embrace the right approach?”

The answers to these questions, according to Chalmers, represent a common agricultural impasse between economics and environment. He sees climate change as something the ag world needs to take seriously, citing how southwestern Manitoba farms quite differently than it did in the ’80s and how that is largely due to a shift in weather patterns.

MPSG had pea trials at WADO this summer, as well as dry bean trials, one of which was through the organization’s Agronomist-in-Residence program at the University of Manitoba led by Kristen MacMillan.

“If we don’t conduct research, we fall behind globally,” said Chalmers. “Then, another country will take our spot and potentially beat us. Research is a way for ag in Manitoba to thrive and stay alive.

“It’s exciting to think about where we’re going to be in another 15 years,” said Chalmers. “I’m trying to do the right thing and put humanity in a better position — it keeps me coming to work.”