August 30, 2011: “Who’s going to start the show this year?” Every year farmers in the Schleitheim valley could count on Hans Jürg Meier to be the first to seed canola. The village is still reeling from the death of this young farmer and father of two, after a fall from a high roof several weeks ago. So this year Hans Tenger started the seeding operations.
Farmers have been busy cultivating and plowing the last week or two, preparing for seeding. In western Canada almost every farmer does some form of minimum or no till soil management. We repeatedly tell our Zambian farmers not to plow. And yet even the young progressive farmers in Schleitheim still plow. Why?
My 89 year-old father-in-law’s answer was, “In the heavy Schleitheim soils it is best to plow and leave the soil to dry out a bit again.” The answer from the younger farmers isn’t much different. Schleitheim soil is a very heavy clay. Here they say, “Canola thanks you for plowing”. The yields are almost always better than with just cultivating.
One problem with minimum tillage is straw management. Canola doesn’t germinate well if there is too much straw cover. Slugs, often a big problem, like to hide in straw.
Some consultants will recommend plowing to control diseases. Another farmer, who tried no-till methods, went back to plowing to control weeds.
It’s not that the Schleitheim farmers are regressive or ultraconservative. Many farmers have tried it at some time or other. They purchased equipment as a cooperative, and farmers occasionally give it a try again, if conditions seem ideal.
Markus Stamm plows less than many others. He mulches the field after harvest to break down the straw, then cultivates. Doing so gives him extra points towards one of the government subsidy programs – biodiversity. It seems to work well for him most of the time.
Yesterday I went out to check where a farmer was cultivating a plowed field. I wondered how anything would ever grow in those big heavy lumps behind the cultivator. But they do – the grain crops around here are usually excellent. Markus tells me they cultivate two or three times after plowing. If they’re lucky, they’ll get some light rains in between, then the soil breaks down better.
It just goes to show that you can’t make the same rules for everywhere. There’s a time to plow, and a time not to plow.
Canola is a winter crop in Switzerland and seeding starts around August 20 with the open pollinated varieties which have a longer growing season. Hybrid varieties are seeded a week or two later. Markus Stamm plans to seed the next day or two.
I wish the Schleitheim farmers good luck as they seed – and the Canadian farmers safety and favourable conditions as they harvest their canola!