Plotting the Prairie Crop Rotations of the Future

By Tim Kalinowski


While farmers in Canada are extremely familiar with rotational cropping systems, most of the elements of those rotations are based more on prevailing market forces and prices than on ideas of soil revitalization or disease prevention, says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist Yantai Gan, who is based at the Swift Current Research Centre.

Gan is currently one of the lead researchers on a four-year study which will go beyond the bottom line to try to determine what kind of crop rotation is best integrated to be profitable, lower a farm’s carbon footprint, prevent disease, increase soil health and microbial activity and address nutrient balance.

The study will take place at seven different sites across western Canada, and Gan hopes it will definitively answer the question of what is the best integrated crop rotation a farmer can plant to cover all these areas.

“At the end of the experiment in 2022, we should have six sets of scientific data,” explains Gan.

The experiment will grow the same types of test rotations in all seven study areas, says Gan, and will include a rotation which is oilseed intensive, one that is completely market-driven based on crop price, another which encompasses “high risk, high reward” crops, one that prioritizes soil health in its planting choices, one which is a multiple commodity diversified system with a nutrient balance model as its guide, and yet another which will serve as a standard control rotation to compare the others against. Gan hopes by pitting each of these rotations against one another the data will yield a conclusive winner.

“At the end of the four-year, seven-site trial, we should be able to determine what is the best rotational system for each of those seven sites,” states Gan. “When we say the best, we are looking at all six areas, productivity, farmer income, nutrient use efficiency, lowered carbon footprint and long-term soil health and resilience.

“We put all those variables together to evaluate that.”

While farmers commonly use well-established crop rotation models, Gan says very seldom do farmers take the time to ask such fundamental questions like why we plant the way we do? Or is our method the best possible one for the long-term sustainability and health of our farms?

“Some farmers already use a good rotational system, but others may not be looking at larger picture things like long-term soil health, or microbial feedback to plants— those are poorly understand in modern agriculture,” Gan says. “New technology coming into the stream, new cultivars, new chemicals and new ways of planting such as use of GPS. “We think in order to maximize profitability and create longer term resilience and sustainable systems, we need to integrate all those factors in. “We are examining through this research to create the best rotational system.”

Gan says like any good research scientist he doesn’t have a dog in this hunt. He will wait and report his conclusions after receiving the results.

“You never know. Maybe that market-driven system is the best,” he says. “And if that is the best one, maybe we need to go back to the beginning and ask: Do we need a complicated rotational system (in today’s agriculture)? Or can we simply it?

“How to grow crops isn’t the issue,” he adds, “but how to put crops in an integrated way to maximize productivity and minimize risk? That’s the question we should ask.”