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Summer fallow, almost forgotten.

- Saturday April 25, 2015

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David Walker
Edmonton, AB
phone: +01 780 434 7615
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The decline in the Prairie practice of summer fallowing has been a silent but very significant technological development resulting in environmental, conservational and economic gains. (620 words)

The most significant trend in Statistics Canada’s 2015 Seeding Intentions survey was the continued decline in summer fallow area - the area that farmers plan not to seed. This has, of course, been a continuing trend over the last 35 years with the decline in actual summer fallow only interrupted in years when it was too wet to do all that was planned.

The springs of 2010 and 2011 and to a lesser degree 2014 were examples of this, see Chart 1. Plans to crop had to be shelved due to excessively wet field conditions. The converse was probably the case in 2005 and 2006 following the drought of 2002 and 2003. Only after adequate spring rainfall was commitment made to seed. But more often than not in recent years, actual summer fallowing has been close to, but exceeded somewhat, earlier plans.


Canadian Summer fallow - intentions and actual

There is, of course, no secret as to the cause of this silent revolution of the continuing decline in the practice of summer fallowing – minimum tillage and glyphosate tolerant canola seed. The result has been improved moisture conservation, cleaner crops and a healthier environment. Paradoxically StatsCan has recognized this by omitting all reference to summer fallow in the summary of its seeding intentions survey report this year.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s Prairie farmers would typically summer fallow about 25 million acres with the economic/agronomic justification relating to market prospects, moisture conservation, weed control and even enhanced fertility, see Chart 2. This was also a period when marketing opportunities were often limited and prohibitive amounts of grain being carried over on farm. Famously, or infamously, the area of summer fallow peaked in 1970 at almost 37 million acres under the federal government’s LIFT (Lower Inventory for Tomorrow) program when farmers were paid not to plant a crop.


Canadian summer fallow, long term

When the area of summer fallow began to decline in the 1980’s, improved market prospects were undoubtedly the main stimulus. But by the 1990’s minimum, or zero, till practices began to be adopted. This process was enhanced by the availability of glyphosate tolerant varieties of canola which aided the challenge of keeping crops clean, thereby reducing the need to summer fallow. It also reduced the need for cultivation to the same end with the added benefit of conserving moisture and energy.

From a technology standpoint it seems that the cultural practice of minimum or zero till is mature, or now regarded as conventional practice. But the area of summer fallow continues to decline. There are almost certainly areas on the Prairies which are too dry to consider continuous cropping even with reduced tillage. At the margins of these areas soil moisture conditions at seeding and market prospects probably play a large role in farmer decision making. Following two season of above average precipitation in the southern Prairies favourable soil moisture conditions are almost certainly more of a driver in these areas this year than market prospects.

In view of this, it seems likely, other things being equal, that the downward trend in summer fallow area on the Prairies is likely to level off. There will continue to be the occasional spikes, as has been the case in the past, when spring conditions have been too wet to allow seeding in some areas, or, on the other hand, too dry to consider the risk of investing in a crop that might not make it.

But, of course, when technology delivers a means of using moisture resources yet more effectively summer fallow area will again diminish, or land previously used for grazing will be cropped. Agriculture will be yet more sustainable.

David Walker
April 25, 2015

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