An adventure in complex, interdisciplinary problem solving
Brent VanKoughnet, Project Facilitator, AgriSkills Inc. – Spring 2022 Pulse Beat
The three main provincial grower organizations, Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers, Manitoba Crop Alliance and Manitoba Canola Growers Association, came to the realization that there is no greater threat to crop production in Manitoba than extremes in moisture — both too much and too little. Even modest incremental steps in progress toward solutions can translate to millions of dollars in farm revenue, considerable risk reduction and a positive impact on the economy. It was also recognized early that no one farm or region will be able to resolve their extreme moisture challenges with a single farm management solution.
We needed to create a way to address this complex interdisciplinary issue with a systematic, flexible and substantial response. The approach included the engagement of over 75 different researchers and stakeholders. The task was not to find “the answer” but to experiment and broaden the toolbox of the many potential answers and tools that producers may require to manage and mitigate production risks associated with too much and too little moisture.
NOT YOUR NORMAL STUDY
Complex problems like extremes of moisture, particularly those that cross so many different disciplines, require a different kind of project management and a different way of thinking compared to more traditional, isolated challenges. It is even more rare for projects this diverse and complex to be rooted in the development of practical tools for farmers.
Our compliments go to the many researchers and workshop participants who have stretched outside of their normal comfort zones to contribute to both new ideas and new ways of combining disciplines. That multi-disciplinary, multi-tool philosophy has led to the creation and delivery of a bundle of 11 diverse research projects. Nine projects have been underway and will be completed by March of 2022 and two other projects will continue for one more year, to be completed by early 2023.
Over time, the project has become more focused on clearly defining four different classifications of toolboxes with different groupings of tools (drawers within each toolbox) to make the findings from these experiments applicable on the farm. Think of it in the way that tools are typically used: some measure and assess, some are universal for multiple tasks, some are specialized with only one function, and some are expensive and need to be used many times to recoup the investment. There are tools that you can borrow from your neighbour and tools where you are on your own. Having a system to organize it all helps us find what we need, when we need it. That is our goal for the outcomes of this extensive study — to set up a practical shop of toolboxes and drawers for managing extremes of moisture (Table 1).
Our projects that are underway and nearing completion attempt to create tools for extreme moisture management. Anticipated discoveries will each fall into one or several of the toolbox categories.
A soil moisture monitoring and modelling project led by Paul Bullock and Hartmut Hollaender of the University of Manitoba (U of M) is offering an in-depth analysis of a specific watershed. It is providing new insight into the scale and intensity of moisture monitoring systems required to support meaningful models and producer decisions, directly contributing to toolbox A.
David Lobb (U of M) and Curtis Cavers (AAFC) are just completing a three-year project evaluating landscape restoration techniques to rebuild the productivity and profitability of eroded land. With the understanding of the important contribution of organic matter to moisture management, this work could provide an important management tool to toolbox C.
There are many important dimensions to crop rotation research. Moisture management and water resilience may be one of the most beneficial. Martin Entz, from the U of M, has been able to add much more intensive moisture evaluation to a long-term rotation study that was already underway. The combination of these initiatives is a great example of the efficiencies of a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. This project contributes directly to toolbox B.
The option to grow more than one crop per season through cover or relay cropping opens interesting possibilities for using plants to help manage extreme moisture situations. Yvonne Lawley (U of M) leads a project that explores those possibilities as a practical Manitoba solution. It would also be an important contribution to toolbox B.
A project on optimizing nitrogen under extreme moisture includes the leadership and support of Ramona Mohr (AAFC), Don Flaten, Paul Bullock (U of M), John Heard and Timi Ojo (Manitoba Agriculture). The determination of optimum nitrogen rates is closely linked to current and anticipated rainfall. This project contributes to both toolboxes A and D by incorporating moisture probability frameworks to inform best estimate management practices.
One of our projects has been focused on our ability to assess the economic costs and benefits of farm-level management of excess moisture. It helps establish decision frameworks and evaluates assessment tools. Alexander Koiter of Brandon University’s Rural Development Institute leads this project that contributes to toolboxes A, B, C and D.
Tile drainage has received much more attention on light land compared to heavy soils in Manitoba. Sri RanJan from the U of M is working with Nirmal Hari of Prairies East Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (PESAI) at Arborg to assess tile drainage characteristics in heavy soils in a way that will better support our understanding and evaluation of tiling in soils of all types. This is a contribution to toolboxes A and C.
We annually evaluate varieties of major crops through the Manitoba Crop Variety Evaluation Trials (MCVET). Curtis Cavers and Nirmal Hari are leading a project where they are attempting to evaluate moisture resilience as one of the varietal comparisons. This will be an important addition to our B toolbox.
There are believed to be genetic markers that indicate genetic resilience to extremes of moisture. Ana Badea (AAFC) and Claudio Stasolla (U of M) are attempting to demonstrate that phytoglobin levels may be an important indicator of moisture resilience in breeding lines. This, too, would be a welcome addition to toolbox B.
Much of our historical attention to drainage, including tile drainage, has focused on low-slope terrain like the Red River Valley. A project led by David Whetter of Agri Earth Consulting and Bruce Shewfelt of PBS Engineers looks specifically at beneficial practices for soil and water in undulating soil landscapes. The outcome of this project will contribute to toolboxes A, B, C and D.
Just because you can travel on a wet field doesn’t mean you should. The impact of compaction and soil structure destruction is important in assessing the benefits of low ground pressure traffic systems, particularly on heavy clay soils in wet years. A team from PAMI, including Lorne Grieger and Charley Sprenger are leading this project that will add to our understanding of toolboxes A and C.
MORE TO COME
Future articles will dive more deeply into specific project results and will make the case for what work needs to come next to continue to advance our ability to adapt and respond to extremes of moisture. ■
Special appreciation to the Government of Canada and the Province of Manitoba for their important contribution of matching funds to this initiative through the CAP funding agreement. The total investment in these projects exceeds $2 million in direct investment, plus incorporates considerable in-kind contributions. It is an important acknowledgement and welcomed support in addressing the most significant and complex farm management challenge of our time.
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