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How to Grow Grain Without Rain

How to Grow Grain Without Rain

By Andrew Joseph,

North America is amid the hot/dry aspect of the 89-year drought cycle, currently in the throes of La Niña, which has meant drier weather in Brazil, Argentina, the mid-west of the US, sometimes impacting Michigan and Ontario. Forecasts, however, suggest that Canada could be in for a stormier autumn.

While a wetter autumn may be great for late or final crop growth, the dry conditions throughout the summer have proved to have dire consequences for farmers in western Canada—with drought conditions coming more frequently? 

Wheat Pete, aka Peter Johnson, the famed Canadian agronomist, recently spoke with an engaged in-person audience at’s sixth annual 2021 Great Ontario Yield Tour in Chesterville, Ontario.

“It all comes down to water management,” stated the affable Johnson. 

Noting that zero precipitation will mean a failed crop, Johnson said one needs 10-12-inches of precipitation, but as low as 8-inches of annual precipitation to be successful, but for a good crop of corn or soybean, some 20-inches is required.

“In Ontario, a typical year of rain is 35-inches,” said Johnson. “But then why don’t we grow record soybean or corn crops every year?”

According to Johnson, it all comes down to timing and soil moisture. 

In western Canada, there was almost no rainfall in 2018—almost as dry as it is in 2021. But, noted Johnson, “In 2018 farmers got 60-bushel wheat, and only about five-bushel this year.”

He said that in 2018, the sub-soil moisture was able to be fully replenished, but not so much in 2021 where the sub-soil moisture was basically zero. 

“In Ontario with some 35-inches of rain, do we even care about subsoil moisture?” he asked. “Maybe we should care.”

Wondering aloud to his audience, Johnson pondered just how often it is that farmers get that 2-inches of rain in a week and said: “Never. So how do we get good bushels of corn or wheat? How does it work?”

Sub-soil moisture. 

Johnson related that western Canada focuses on sub-soil moisture all the time, but in Ontario, it is mostly ignored because it has never really been short of it. But he said that because Ontario is on the cusp of having sub-soil moisture issues, farmers should begin preparing now. 

Sure, Ontario farms have full moisture recharge over the winter, “But at the end of the day, if we are going into these repeated droughts, we need to know what we have available in that sub-soil. Then we need to have an idea of how to manage it, to use that sub-soil better.”   

Factors that affect the quality of sub-soil: 
•    Organic Matter
•    Soil Types
•    Residue
•    Crop Diversity
•    Compaction
•    Drainage
•    Soil Depth
•    Tilth
•    Infiltration
•    Tillage
•    Timing

All the above impact the water’s ability to get to a plant’s root system or the roots to get to the water. 

In his discussion—seen in its totality in the video below—Johnson pleads for the agriculture industry to begin studying different ways to achieve tillage. “It’s a good thing, and it’s a bad thing,” he summed up. But which tillage format is the best?

Watch the video below for the animated discussion by Canada’s Wheat Pete, Peter Johnson.  

To contact Peter “Wheat Pete” Johnson: 
T: 519-318-2040
Twitter @WheatPete

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Mark McKerrall, Crop Specialist with AGRIS in Thamesville shows the differences a variety makes, and the disease pressures in this corn field. This is day 3 of the Great Lakes Grain Crop Assessment Tour in 2021.


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