Adjusting crop varieties to match field variability, not the field average

The resolution at which farm equipment can treat a field continues to shrink, automatically adjusting rates on-the-fly to account for variability in a field rather than treating an entire field the same. To use an inkjet printer analogy, today’s equipment is increasingly capable of “printing” pixels that are only metres or even centimetres in size rather than acres.

Variable rate fertilizer is the most common application, but there’s growing interest in variable rate seeding, and new sensor technology is unlocking potential for adjusting other management variables, from packing pressure to fungicide rates.

But there’s one major input where most farmers still use a one-size-fits-the-entire-field approach: crop varieties.

A few farmers have moved to multi-hybrid planters, but by and large, crop variety doesn’t change within a field.

However, the technology already exists for doing a better job targeting varieties to field conditions, such as salinity or topography, says Cory Willness of CropPro Consulting.

One of the big challenges is getting the data and genetics to support this idea of variable multi-variety seeding.

“We’ve done a great job of breeding and screening varieties for field-average conditions,” notes Willness in the interview below. “Research farms don’t want extremes — extreme dry or extreme wet — because then you don’t get good data, but unfortunately then we’re always screening for the field-average varieties, and often missing varieties that may work well in salinity and flooding.”

“Because we’ve done that for a long time, we’ve probably tossed out material that thrived in a certain landscape, so it’s going to require a fairly big change in the way we screen and breed and add some complexity, but now that the technology is there, it should provide a lot of value,” he continues.

It’s similar in concept to what some intercropping farmers are trying with different crop types — the idea of variable intercropping based on field characteristics. Willness refers to a lentil-canola intercrop example on Colin Rosengren’s farm at Midale, SK, where lentils, which prefer drier conditions, were seeded at higher rates on hills while canola seeding rates were boosted in the lower parts of the field.

Check out the podcast below for more with Cory Willness on the concept of variable multi-variety or multi-hybrid seeding:


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