Sunday, 30 June 2013

Day 12 of Nuffield - Oklahoma

Day 12 of my Nuffield adventure continued where I left off at the Samuel Noble Foundation, this time meeting James Rogers a grassland/grazing specialist.  We talked about the three main livestock systems in Oklahoma, all based around cattle.  Firstly the grazing of the wheat crops to provide winter forage for the cows. These crops are planted in August to produce high biomass for feeding.  Growing cattle will put on about 3lb/day liveweight on this grazing system.  Then we talked about Cow and calf (Suckler Cow production) on Bermuda grass and finally the native grass grazing systems.  This certainly got me thinking more about sheep interaction with the arable, potentially grazing forward wheat, reducing disease and potentially fungicides.  The trick is to get the stock off in good time, before the plant moved into the reproductive stage,
After leaving the foundation, I headed West to the Stuart ranch but not before I got into trouble with the local Ardmore police!  I got pulled over for taking photographs of the local petroleum plant, which I have to say was interesting especially as the policeman (nice chap) was well tooled up!  I didm't look like a threat to National Security so was allowed to carry on Phew!
When I arrived at the ranch, Jim Johnson who I had had meetings with the previous day was well into the session with local farmers.  Originally it was meant to be a couple of farmers looking at cover crops but then a few more joined and so on.  Eventually there were nearly 25 people present.  This was new territory for a lot of people present but it was very interesting for me to hear about the different cover crops grown in the area.  There's some concern about cover crops taking out vital moisture through the summer.  They would be planted in late June, after wheat, and would only grow with a rain event.
Here are some of the cover crops being planted, from left to right we have Grazing Corn, Pearl Millet, Brown Top Millet, Brassica's , Cow Peas and Sunflowers.  This way of thinking is very new in Oklahoma as it is in the UK but there were plenty of similarities.  All aimed at improving soil health, reducing erosion, (which is quite a problem here on tilled land), potential grazing and creating a better tilth for zero till.
On the way to my next stop I travelled was right through the rural heart, and heat of Oklahoma.  This area is part of the Native American Territories; areas of land that were given over to the Native Americans as there were re-homed by settlers and government well over 100 years ago.  There were cattle grazing along the roadside fields, some taking a wallow in the pools as the temperature reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit. 
My next destination was Kinder Farms to stay with Jimmy, Margret-Ann and their daughter, Whitney.  Jimmy is a pioneer in the county and well known; not only in the state but also at Washington for work on the current farm bill.  Jimmy was one of the very first adopters of zero till in the area which has proved to be a brilliant decision.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Day 11 at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

Lloyd Noble was an oilman in Oklahoma at the start of the oil business and was a pioneer back in the days of the very wild west, before Oklahoma became a state.  Today the Foundation is at the cutting edge of research, technology and extension for the farmers and ranchers in about a 100 mile radius of the research station in Ardmore, Oklahoma.    Lloyd is quoted as saying "the land must continue to provide food, clothing and shelter long after the oil is gone" and that's still the philosophy of the foundation today.  There are so many similarities between Lord Nuffield and Lloyd Noble, both pioneers, both at the cutting edge of technology and both visionaries. 

I was joined last minute at my visit here by fellow scholar Andrew Brewer and after we had both done a short presentation we headed off for a look around the very impressive site.  All the building's are linked by underground corridor's that act as Tornado shelters, and carry the main services safely out of harms way.  Robyn showed us around the under ground warren.
We met David McSweeney from New Zealand who is the greenhouse manager and heard about the novel ways to keep the green houses cool rather than hot.  One day when the power went out the greenhouse rose 44 degrees in 14 minutes!  Lots of Oklahoma wheat is grazed with cattle and not harvested, but Mark Newell is taking hose varieties near the top of the recommended list and seeing how they respond to grazing and then recovering to be harvested for the grain.  A practise using sheep, used in the UK when crops are too thick.  It might be something to try at home, thinning the over growth down, reducing disease pressure and applying some fertiliser.
After lunch I met up with Jim Johnson and Eddie Funderburg to talk about wheat growth, soil sampling, or rather the lack of it in the general state region.  We talked about the year of records in the state in 2011 when there was record cold, snow, heat, drought, tornadoes and hail!  Next it was out into the fields to visit Coffee Ranch with Will Mosely who is a wildlife and fisheries Consultant.  We looked at areas of the farm that were being used to explore more use of 'fire' as a method of pasture regeneration.  Parts of the fields were burned two weeks ago and with some rain the grasses were starting to shoot again.  This method will help control the shrub and stop it encroaching on the prairie grasses.  The main four prairie grassed are Little Blue Stem, Large Blue Stem, Indian Grass (OK state grass) and Side Oat Grama (TX state grass).

Russel, Josh and Hope accompanied Will and me around the burn trials looking at the grasses, flowers and the, what seemed like millions, of grasshoppers.  It was great to see the cattle, many Angus crosses up close.
We headed onwards to look at Joshes mark 2 'Hog Buster'  A very clever design aimed at catching the epidemic populations of wild hogs.  The baited trap is raised and then when activated by motion Josh gets a photograph sent to his phone.  If it's deer then all can be ignored but if its hogs the trap can be remotely released.  This is resulting in much higher catch rates and a saleable product at the end of the day.  Wildlife management is taken very seriously by these guys and it was a pleasure to spend a few hours learning about their roles.  
The 'Hog Buster' was set up in a Pecan orchard, under grazed by cattle.  The trees were beautiful and still had some fruit (inedible) hanging on from last year.  It takes 15 years for a tree to reach maturity to produce a marketable Pecan nut.  
We had a great day and wrapped it off with an excellent dinner at the Conference Centre with some home made ice cream powered by a little John Deere engine.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Heading Down to Texas - Day 10

After 9 wonderful days in Canada travelling across two great prairie provinces it was time to migrate south to continue the learning.  I have say a huge thank you to all of my hosts in Canada, fellow Nuffield Alumni and everybody else, it wouldn't have been possible without your help.  A special thanks though to Barb, John, Josh, Erin, Morgan and Lyndon for putting me up for my stay in  Saskatoon, (keep practising the Mario cart - you know who you are!).  It was an early start for the flight from Saskatoon to Denver and some of the farming scenes below where completely different to those of home.  These circles are all pivot irrigation booms, creating a 'pac-man' like view as far as the snow covered rocky mountains.  Stunning and vast!
I didn't have much time to take in the sights of Denver airport as it really was a sprint to catch the next plane down to Houston in Texas.  When I got there however can anyone spot what is missing from the picture below?
Yes that's correct, no planes!  There has been a delay to our flight (and others) so I have had a lay up at Houston for longer than I thought, 6 hours at the moment which has allowed to catch up on some e-mails from home, and finally get bag up to date on the blogging.  Well you have to take the positives out of these scenarios!

Day 9, Really Already? GIFS Today

Tuesday morning and I was back at the National Research Council building at the University, this time to meet the head of GIFS (Global Institute of Food Security) Dr Roger Beachy.  The organisation was only started in December 2012 and Roger has been tasked with setting up the organisation and then finding his replacement.  Roger, a former Chief Scientist to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; who was appointed by Barack Obama, has been in post since January this year.   Needless to say I was really privileged to get a meeting with him.  I was only supposed to stay for 30 mins but after an hour we had to stop the conversation.  GIFS has been set up with funding from Potash Corp,. of Saskatchewan Inc, ($35 million) along with $15 million from the Provincial Government of Saskatchewan over 7 years.  The idea is to bring three main streams of agriculture together to fund research and have an overall Ag strategy.  GIFS mandate is to 'Address the increasing global demand for safe, reliable food' The aims will be to help farmers cope with climate change at a time when farmers battle between improving productivity and maximising profit margins, while balancing long term sustainability.
Roger is adamant that times are changing, and food needs to be more nutritious which can be achieved with the help of the breeders.  Plant breeders, farmers, scientists and marketeers working together to develop, grow and then sell better food with less environmental impact has to be the way forward and it's great to have that vision.  It won't be easy to achieve but I have a feeling a lot of good will come from GIFS and I look forward with excitement to see what will be next.  It's just a shame that our government is unable to make those connections and link up the food chain.. Who knows if we produce better engineered, nutritious, food people will pay more for it, reducing our reliance on the CAP reform?
I drove down to Davison after meeting Garth Patterson for lunch, its about 100km south of Saskatoon to meet up with prominent farmer Gerrid Gust.  Gerrid and his family farm about 16,000 acres of wheat, canola, peas, and lentils.  The farm also owns it's own elevator, which they use as a grain store.  The elevator can hold up to 120,000 bushels of wheat and it was great fun to hoist myself up the man lift to the top to see the view of the farm and the surrounding area.  Gerrid's family have been farming here since the first settlements in around 1908.  I have been amazed at the strength and perseverance of the original settlers.  I can't image what they would have been letting themselves in for, arriving after a week and host, then a week on the train, before walking out to find their section of the prairie.  This land was free to settlers but they had to break 10 acres and build a house in the first 3 years.  It must have been hard!
Gerrid grows these crops with about 15" of rain fall which is quite dry although this year the weather has really been helping the crops with lots of rainfall, although temperature have been cool.  Gerrid's crop's grow to maturity and harvest in roughly 100 days, so when its go, it's go!  Here's the view from the top of his elevator looking down the train line with the Case dealership (centre top).  There is also a John Deere dealership across the road, as they always seem to travel in pairs!

Day 8 and It's Back to The Classroom at the UoS

Monday morning and I was back at school, not mine but the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon.  I was here to meet Bruce Coulman and Kofi Agblor at the Crop Development Centre (CDC).  We spent the morning talking about breeding techniques and history of the CDC.  Since it started in 1971 over 400 varieties have been developed and bred here and then passed on to local companies to breed on and sell to the farmers.  The focus is on breeding and genetics.  The main breeding program is looking at yields, fusarium head-blight, earliness of maturity and resistance to Wheat Midge, the same pests we call  Orange Wheat Blossom Midge.  40% of the funding comes through the government and the rest from producer groups and industry.
One of the really great assets at UoS is the Phytotron which is basically a growth chamber where light, humidity and temperature can be controlled.  This means that faster turn around of crops can speed up the breeding cycle, and considering the spring wheat's have about 100 days to mature this could potentially enable three generations to be bred in one year.  There are about 180 in total at the University and $12 million has recently been raised to refurbish them.
Part of the team is looking at the quality of the wheat and how it reacts through the backing process. The picture above is of an experiment looking at the stickiness of dough from a particular variety of wheat.  There's an interesting topic on reducing the salt levels in bread to make a healthier loaf.  The salt (sodium) reacts with the gluten affecting the baking characteristics. Current sodium levels are about 360mg per 100g loaf, which surprised me because you don't really taste it.  Imagine if we could engineer a bread that didn't need the extra added salt to the mix to create our loaves, a perfect solution to a healthier diet.
Later that morning we met up with Curtis Pozniak who heads up the breeding program.  Curtis currently has about 42,000 trial plots in his current research.  GPS technology is used on the seed planters to accurately locate all of those seed trials, and some of them might only be a foot squared.  There was also the Canadian seed bank at the University where seed goes into long term storage, where it can last between 50-70 years, when stored at -25 Celsius.  
I took a wander around the University grounds between meetings and I have to say the architecture is fantastic.  New development is happening everywhere to house and educate the 20,000 or so students here.  Of those 1,200 are being taught Agriculture.
After lunch I had a meeting with Faouzi Bekkaoui, the Executive Director of the Wheat Improvement Flagship Program at the NRC (National Research Council).  One of the big projects at the moment is the Canadian Wheat Alliance, who are targeting three main areas of investment into future wheat development.  They are looking at Accelerating Variety Development, Sustainable Yields - Cropping with Variable Climates and Increased Productivity and Sustainable Profitability.  One aspect I was very interested in was the Beneficial Biotic Interactions and using the Synchrotron light source (the only one in Canada) to try and learn more about the soil and how it functions.
Thanks to everyone who hosted me today, getting back in the classroom was actually rather enjoyable until I came to leave and found a parking ticket on the car!  Luckily the attendant was still there so I pleaded ignorance (not too hard) and was let off the $25 fine so thanks to the security guard as well who ever you are!  These Canadians eh, great eh?

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Day 7 - A Day of Rest? Nope

Pancakes for breakfast with maple syrup which I have to say is a great way to start the day. After a catch up on the terrible flood at Calgary and Canmore (where we were on Monday) a neighbour of Ian's came over to say hello.  We chatted about crop marketing after the dissolution of the Canadian Wheat Marketing Board.  A move that was well over due and has freed the market up substantially.  Farmers are now able to grow what the customer desires.  Jeff is growing milling wheat specifically for the local mill, can organise the price, transport and when he wants to sell it.  Previously the movement period was dictated by the CWB, and only 80% of the expected value was paid on delivery.  The balance paid at the end of the season.  Seems a crazy really, farmers were even put in prison for selling wheat across the border to the US.
Here's a new crop for me, lentils.  These has some ascochyter developing on the lower leaves due to the wet humid weather.  The crop should be flowering in about a week and will, like everything else grow very quickly.
The crop below is a crop of 'Roundup Ready' Canola.  There are three main types of herbicide resistant Canola used in Canada, Roundup Ready, Clearfield and Liberty.  Each of these varieties are resistant to their specific family of herbicides.  This makes great sense to me.  Take our crops; they could potentially receive 4 different herbicides, with 4 different application timings and here they do just one.  Think of the fuel savings; in the pocket, but also a saving for the environment, of application fuel and manufacturing petro-chemicals.  To me there seems no problem with 'Biotech' crops from an agronomy point of view.  There is resistance to watch out for but we have that to manage now anyway.  There are over 100 different varieties of biotech crop.  The first stage in planning is to work out which family you want to use (best practise is one different to last time, so the volunteers are susceptible in the next crop), then you can choose for different traits, drought, yield, cold hardiness, shedding resistance etc, just as we would for conventionally bred varieties.  Imagine if we could use these crops in the UK and have them resistant to fungi, rusts, slugs or insects, we could cut down or reduce the amount of chemicals we currently use.  Imagine that no insecticides! Why should we take the moral ground in the EU and allow imports of selected GM produce, and have farmers elsewhere in the world growing them.  If it's safe for them to grow then it's safe for us.
Back to this crop.  It was planted on the 15th May and after 39 days it was at stem extension with green bud showing.  The stand was very even and the field just went on for a far as the eye could see.
When I got back to Saskatoon after fixing a puncture on the way; and driving 50Km very slowly on my mini wheel, all part of the Nuffield experience, I headed out with my host John Cote to a large auction house. Ritchie Bros has fairly regular auctions all over the province.  It was an incredible sight with 38 combines, 33 large sprayers, 24 swathers, trucks, trailers, augers, backhoes, rollers, seeders and the list goes on.  It was a very impressive sight.  I made it back to the auction on Monday but unfortunately missed the main items being sold.
I quite fancied a bid on the little McCormick below, obviously there were no green ones there, and I guess the haulage home might be a little inhibitive, never mind there will always be another time and place.

Day 6 - Saturday 22nd June

Nozzles; probably not an interesting topic to some people but to Tom Wolf they are a science and an art form.  Getting the right spray droplets at the right pressure with the correct forward speed, all make for better applications of pesticide, which is sensible considering the environmental damage they can cause and the financial of pesticide being sprayed over the fields.  Tom gives advice to growers about application technology and through a Nuffield connection (thanks Steve), Tom very kindly agreed to meet Andy and myself at very short notice, and what an interesting and very informative time it was.  We looked at nozzle performance under different pressures creating different spray patterns.  We discussed technology, part of Andy's Nuffield topic, which was fascinating.  I learnt about Aim Command that allows you to control individual nozzle's which is terrific news.  Savings over and above auto sectional control are between 6-10%.  Then there was Capstan Ag pin point control system linked to turn compensation, meaning nozzle flow variation when turning on the headland.  It really was a great morning and very educational.
After lunch Andy headed out to the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border and I headed an hours drive West to meet up with Nuffield Scholar Ian McPhadden at a small town called Milden.  Ian's farm is now let out to neighbours but he still keeps a very close eye on the industry and works hard with lots of Ag groups, including being on Nuffield Canada's Interview panel for scholar selection. Ian was very welcoming and although I hadn't planned on staying a bed was soon made up and a toothbrush located. 

We headed into Milden for supper at the small hotel/pub.  Milden was built on the side of the railroad.  Small towns are every 6 miles, which was as far as the settlers could go, (there and back) with a horse and cart in a day.  Milden has a population of about 200 people and the hotel/pub is the main attraction.  The ribs were great and served in a buffet style.  After dinner we sat on the veranda, having a beer and I listened to tales from Scotty Bell, a regular at the pub, telling stories of  his childhood.  Scotty was quite a character!
After dinner we headed back to Ian's farmhouse before turning in for the night.  Here's Ian in the back of Jeff's truck the following morning going out to the fields to look at some crops.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Day 5 - The Road to Saskatoon

Andy and I headed East in the rain and drizzle from Three Hills, Alberta heading to Saskatoon in Saskatchewan.  The trip was just over 500 kilometres.  We stopped along the way a few times to take some pictures. One of the most outstanding memories of the trip so far was the amazing rich coloured, wide open, clear sky's, with clouds uniquely dotting the horizon.  It was truly beautiful.
For most of the road trip, our destination was straight in front of our noses with a few very important intersections marked for our attention.  Any bend was greeted with a cheer as we pushed on through the day.
Naturally we had to stop at some of the towns along the route, for gas for the car, or for us!  One place we stopped at was a town called Kindersley and inevitably there was an Agricultural dealership; and not just one.  There was be a John Deere dealership on one side of the road and a Case IH/New Holland on the other, all with vast numbers of tractors, sprayers and combines regimentally lined up on display.  The workshop space was incredible; great amphitheatres with technicians gladiatorially battling with their spanners (or laptops!)
By the time we arrived at Saskatoon we headed to the Western Grains Research Foundation for a meeting with Garth Patterson, the Executive Director of the not for profit organisation.  Amazingly we drove straight into Saskatoon and straight to Innovation Place for our meeting.  After meeting Garth and Gina Feist (Research Program Manager) for some quick introductions; we headed down to Boffins Club where we were joined by Garth's wife Carole-Anne.  We had supper and discussed a range of different aspects of food, farming, genetic modification, breeding and end user concerns.  Andy and I even got up to have our photograph taken with the band, Whiskey on a Sunday, fortunately we were not asked to perform for our supper!
After leaving Garth and Carole-Anne Andy and I headed south around the city to find Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, the chair of Nuffield Canada who had very kindly offered to put us up during our stay in Saskatoon.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Alberta Day 4 - Beyond Agronomy

Our second day out with Steve started with a visit to Al Jones, who's family has been farming in Alberta since 1903.  Al runs about 5,000 acres with his family.  A herd of 200 Herefords (Herfuds) cattle also run on the farm.  We looked at some of Al's crops after a tour of the workshop.  Steve and Al are trialling precision rape seeding with very low seed mortality compared to the usual air seeding.  The photograph above shows the young canola seedlings growing fantastic root structures very quickly.  Al doesn't practise CTF (controlled Traffic Framing) but has been zero till for a long time.  Again what stood out was the lovely soil, very well structured even after a lot of heavy rain.
Al is also trying a field of Faber Beans this year to see how the crop develops and to get a handle on its Agronomy.  The crop was just starting to flower and in need of a herbicide, but weather delays, due to rain are frustrating the operation. (Sound familiar?)  Beans would be a fairly new venture in the area to add further diversity into the rotation.
I put this picture in of a huge tractor, used for seeding to demonstrate the low ground pressure that they are using when travelling on the fields.  These tires would run at 7psi on the front and 8psi on the rears. It helps that the tractor is duelled up but the attention to traffic and soil protection is a credit.  Getting the soil wrongly managed can be a disaster especially on the soils around Alberta.  Here's what we saw when driving to Saskatoon the following day, not a customer of Steve's!
After an agronomists lunch we headed out to visit Spencer Hilton who has land spread over a 100Km  strip end to end.  I bet it's quite a sight at harvest moving men and machines along the highway.  Spencer had a great business, succession and planing are the key.  Weekly family management meetings and regular staff meetings all made for a very well run business.  The staff were empowered that if they weren't happy, for a safety reason, they could shut the operation down, the management would sort it out and they would move on.  With the removal of the Canadian Wheat Board new markets were developing and Spencer was taking full advantage.  They are contracted to grow malting barley for an American brewing company where the risk was shared between the two parties, in the form of an area value rather than a bushel value.
A huge thanks to Steve and Vanessa for putting us up and showing us around the Three Hills area of Alberta, it really was a terrific visit!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Alberta Day 3 - Three Hills with Steve Larocque

Day 3 and we've been very well looked after by Nuffield Scholar Steve Larocque who runs his own company with wife Vanessa called Beyond Agronomy.  Steve lives and works around the town of Three Hills in Alberta.  The town has a population of 2,500 and somewhere 19 churches!  Most of the farms in the area are about 3,000-4,000 acres and have been zero tilled for about 20years.  The soil is loamy, almost sweet smelling and with the great advice Steve is offering to his clients, yields are moving on up.
I was very interested in the planting methods used for zero till so we headed to the local John Deere dealership Evergreen's at Drumheller.  In the yard was a Seed Hawk planter with a seed hopper for fertiliser and seed that could carry 20T.  Bearing in mind nearly all of the fertiliser for the crop is applied at seeding, these rigs were huge.  All pulled by over 500hp of tractor either on duals, triples or tracks, with widths of up to 66'.  Even transport widths were hovering around the 5m mark!  We also looked at the John Deere ConservaPac opener which placed the fertiliser and the seed almost down the same drill row, seeding tine behind fertiliser tine, reducing soil disturbance creating a very even drilling depth and capable of following uneven topography, with short leg length.  Drilling speeds of around 4.5mph are common, so relatively slow compared to our drilling speeds but reduced soil disturbance is key to the system.  
After some lunch we headed out to visit a Hutterite Community at Starlands.  The we were met by 'Farm Boss' Peter Stahl.  It was a very slick operation and Pete was keen to show us around the farm.  The investment was huge with 3 big drilling rigs each worth somewhere near $750,000.  Each of these systems is capable of planting 350 acres in a 24 hour period, and with 14,900 acres (of all crops to plant), seeding can be completed in 14 days.  The infrastructure was impressive too with grain store, hog yards, dairy, beef and chickens.  The community share everything between each other, so all 93 souls get a share of the wealth.  At the communal kitchens we met Pete's wife and daughter who were busy preparing the fresh chicken for super that evening.  It's a shame I couldn't take any pictures but the I will certainly remember Pete for his warm welcome, generosity and openness into the way they live.
We called in to look at some of Pete's crops and the picture above show wheat plants being planted between the rows of Canola stalks.  This is using the guidance on the tractors (RTK) to the fullest and means the new roots and follow the old crop root channels down without all the stubble stalks being ripped up.  It also acts as protection to some degree to the young shoots as they emerge.  Another great day; meeting interesting people, more tomorrow.