December 17, 2003:
Last month, Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens wrote about the
work they’ve been doing with the consultants at Agricultural
Consulting Services in Rochester, NY to determine the factors
that enhance and suppress small grain yields in New York.
They expressed the hope that they could eventually match the
yields of farmers in Europe, which are often double those
of producers in the U.S.
One of our readers, Ian Campbell, wrote to question that
assumption. We thought it was worth sharing Ian’s question,
and Klaas's response.
In a recent "New Farm"
article, Mary pointed out that they were trying to find
out how they could match European cereal yields. Not likely--the
difference is in the LATITUDE!
Look at a map of Europe--most
of France is north of the 45th parallel. Great Britain is
at the same latitude as Hudson Bay!
This means longer hours of sunlight
during the critical, cooler time of late Spring. We can
see this here in the Province of Ontario, which stretches
from the 42nd parallel north to the Arctic. While there
isn't much agriculture in the more northerly reaches, government
trials show dramatic increases in oats and barley yields
as you move north. Oats often yield 150 bpa plus in the
more northern areas.
Europe also has the advantage
of a more moderate climate, tempered by the Gulf Stream.
They can plant Spring cereals early (February/March) while
we are still waiting for winter's end. Early seeding is
probably more important to cereal productivity than any
I also question whether those
big European wheat and barley crops are grown under organic
Klaas Marten responds:
We have heard similar responses to this idea here in New
York, too. We believe we can reach much higher small grain
yields than we do now because we have seen it happen occasionally
on individual fields. Oats do yield 160 bpa or more occasionally
in the USA. Our next door neighbor had a crop of 112 bu/acre
of organically grown wheat two years ago. He used no fertilizer
and can't tell us why it did so well that year. Fields that
produce 140+ bu winter barley crops turn up every once in
a while, too. The problem is that they don't occur regularly
enough and we don't know what we did to make them happen.
Nobody pays that close attention to their small grain management
There may be something to the lattitude argument for some
varieties, but all of our small grain species originated and
were domesticated at much lower lattitudes than where we live.
The same trend is true for corn yields within any given variety,
providing that you still have a long enough growing season
to mature it as you move it further north.
That is why we need to do more local and regional plant breeding.
As we look at oat yields reported in university trials, we
see that some varieties don't perform as well relative to
plot averages when tested at southern locations as they do
in the north. Conversely, the best yielding oat varieties
in the south seldom do as well when tested in the north.
We are closely watching our grain's growth in a large number
of different tests this year. There is no one single magic
fertilizer, seed variety, or cultural practice that will instantly
give us the higher yields we seek. But there are probably
many little things that will each give us a small yield increase.
When all used together, we hope that these improved management
practices will increase our yields dramatically and consistently.
There is a lot we can learn from the Europeans about growing
small grains. They have learned how to evaluate yield potential
of grain crops much as we do with corn or soybeans. They know
how deep they want to plant for each crop, what stand density
they want, what fertility levels are optimum, even what degree
of tillering is desired.
We have set up many trials on our farm using McGregor barley,
a six row winter variety that has produced some 140+ bu yields
even well south of here. Already, we can see large differences
in growth from plot to plot. To improve our planting accuracy,
we bought a Great Plains drill with double disc openers and
depth wheels. We used a unit to dig up the wheel tracks and
reduce the compaction behind the tractor wheels. Even with
these measures we counted a 20% to 40% stand reduction in
the wheel tracks. This difference can't be seen from a casual
pickup truck window evaluation, you need to get out and count
plants. How much yield will that cost us? We'll be checking
that next summer. Many European farmers put the drill behind
a harrow with a basket roller to avoid this stand loss. Even
if it only makes a 2 or 3 bu/acre difference it could amount
to an extra wagon load of grain from our farm next year.
Our no fertilizer plot looks very nice until you compare
it with the other treatments. Just using 100# of dried pelleted
poultry compost (5-5-3) per acre banded with the seed gave
us about 10% more tillering. Where we applied a large amount
(3 tons/acre) of poultry compost we got even heavier tillering.
The big surprise was that in the highest fertility plot and
with the highest rate of compost, the 100# of banded fertilizer
still gave us a nice increase in tillering.
We'll let you know whether the big growth differences we
see in the fields this fall will translate into yield differences
next summer. Even if we see no yield differences at all, it
won't mean that we can't improve our yields, it will just
show that what we tried didn't work. We are sure to learn
plenty of useful things from our experiments and will pass