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Adaptability of Winter Crops

This winter, we’re exploring the adaptability of crops for winter!

In a one-year partnership study with Western Ag Innovations, Farming Smarter is investigating which crops can be best adapted for winter.

Lentils, planted in October 2021 as part of our Winter Crop Adaptability project

Currently, winter wheat and fall rye are the two biggest crops in this category. The former being a winter crop and the latter being a fall-seeded crop. For farmers looking to add a winter crop to their rotation, there’s almost no research in that area.

That’s where we come in!

Our study is looking at both irrigated & dryland plots, on three sites. This gives us a total of six site-years to collect data from. We will have a block committed to a specific crop, and within that block we’ll have multiple varieties. Additionally, we’ll replicate the trials for different seeding dates within the block.

“Because this is a one-year study, we wanted to have as many site-years as possible. Plus, we want to test the different irrigation systems available to us,” said Trevor Deering, Farming Smarter’s Research Associate.

Varieties & Adaptability

For this study, our primary focus is on winter wheat, barley, winter oats, lentils, peas, and camelina. We want to see which varieties have the adaptability to handle our winters the best. Additionally, we have a few side trials that we’re pulling research from. For example, our winter fava bean trial isn’t related to this study, but we plan to use that data to assist this study.

We have had to adapt this study from our original proposal due to seed availability. Some crops that aren’t usually grown, or new varieties of crops, are difficult to come by as most companies don’t stock these seeds in bulk. Other seeds, we could only get overseas which complicated things further.

We have at least two varieties for each of the crops we’ve chosen. As well, we have four different seeding times for the trials: we seeded earlier in the fall, we seeded again in late fall (early November), we have plans to seed in early spring (to align with ultra-early seeding times) and a final time during the normal spring-seeding times.

This will allow us to test and compare fall-seeded dates against normal dates and test the adaptability of varieties as well.

Advantages of Winter Crops

As with every change, you must weigh the advantages and disadvantages that come with it.

The biggest advantage with fall-seeding & winter crops is the moisture use efficiency that comes with it. It’s important to use water as best as possible, especially around southern Alberta where dryland farms are prominent. You can take advantage of any moisture that comes in snow or spring melt, giving the crop a greater advantage over normal seeding dates.

“Lots of time, guys around here on dryland are trying to seed as early as they can to get the most out of that moisture. It helps things germinate and adds a level of protection against the heat and droughts we experience here,” said Deering.

“Seeding in the fall is that same thing, you’re seeding into that fall moisture and you get that crop growing,” added Deering.

Another advantage of winter seeding would be the reduced soil erosion, from the roots of the crop holding the soil in place.

“This year, we had tons of wind in the fall. If you have a bare field, even where you have a good cover with residue, if that residue gets blown around, you’re getting soil erosion,” commented Deering.

Lastly, by having the crop’s living root in the soil, water can penetrate deeper in the soil. The crop can take advantage of nutrients that reside further underground. As well, it helps the soil organisms and soil health in general.

While the advantages make winter crops sound like a no-brainer, the disadvantages are headache-inducing.

Camelina, planted in September 2021 as part of our winter crop adaptability project.

Disadvantages of Winter Crops

The biggest disadvantage with fall seeding and winter crops is that logistically, it’s a pain.

“You just get done with harvest, now you have to pull out the seeder again. You really have to switch your mindset for it,” said Deering.

“I know for me; I was in the middle of getting data done and now I have to go and seed and do all of this field work. It kind of throws a wrench into things,” added Deering.

After you get the crop in the ground, the troubles don’t end there. With winter crops, you must be prepared for winter kill. The harsh freeze-thaw cycles we experience in southern Alberta leads to a high amount of winter kill on some crops.

A big disadvantage with winter crops is that currently, there’s not much research available to farmers. Because of this, there’s not much demand. Little demand means not many companies stock seeds, which we experienced while preparing for this study.

“That’s one of the things for this trial, understanding and finding some of those varieties that do really good. Hopefully this will cause companies to know which seeds they need to increase their stock of,” said Deering.

Right now, winter wheat, fall rye, and winter peas are the most available crops for winter planting. Thankfully, the increase in interest from farmers means that opportunity is on the horizon.

The final disadvantage is that adding another crop into the rotation means added complexities on the managerial side of farming.

“It gets complex,” said Deering, “because then what are you going to do in the following year without winter crop if it comes off early? Are you going to plant a crop?”

The next step for winter crops

With this study, we hope to push the envelope of winter crops and explore the adaptability of different crops & their varieties. Our hope is that our research can move forward with future studies but for now, it’s a starting point.