Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) has been slow to catch on, but the innovative production method could revolutionize how pulses are grown.

By wpengine

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When it comes to growing pulses—or any crop for that matter—every inch, seedling or drop of water counts. The more accurately you can measure and respond to crucial variables, the better your outcome. That’s one of the driving philosophies behind precision agriculture, an innovative practice that has transformed the industry through the use of geospatial tools and information systems designed to help farmers make the best decisions.

At the forefront of precision agriculture systems today is Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF). Developed in Australia some 15 years ago, CTF uses GPS guidance and matching equipment widths to reduce soil compaction and crop damage. In essence, CTF has taken the concept of no-till farming, a system that has been widely adopted, to a whole new level of efficiency and accuracy.

130915-traffic-control-the-potential-of-ctf-for-pulse-growers-higgins

Canadian agronomist and farmer Steve Larocque studied the benefits of CTF as a Nuffeld Scholar between 2008 and 2010, traveling to Australia, New Zealand and other countries that have successfully implemented the technology or variations of it. Laroque has become a leading proponent of CTF in Canada and was one of the first to convert to CTF in 2010 on his 640-acre farm in Alberta.

“CTF is a farming system that seeks to reduce the damaging effects of wheel traffic by separating the area you grow your crop on from the area you drive you equipment on,” Larocque explained. He traced the early pioneers of CTF to Queensland in Australia, a region that has a very similar soil type to that of his own farm in Western Canada, where he grows wheat, canola, peas, faba beans and other crops.

“Whenever you see innovation it usually comes out of scarcity. Scarcity drives innovation everywhere. So up in Queensland, they experience very wet cycles throughout the year. Driving heavy equipment across wet clay soil causes compaction and restricts crop growth in those areas.

Farmers began to see the yield loss caused by wheel traffic and decided to do something about it. The solution was to match axle and equipment widths so all traffic could run down the same tracks with each pass, a technique called Controlled Traffic Farming.”

Despite reports of up to 150% yield responses, CTF has been relatively slow to catch on in Australia and even slower in Canada. Many farmers, Steve says, are deterred by CTF’s potentially high startup costs, equipment modification requirements and involved management system.

“Even in Australia you’re talking 15%, maybe 20% of farms that utilize CTF. It’s not because the benefits aren’t there. It’s because it’s fairly rigid and takes more management than a random system. You have to go down your tramlines—you can’t just drive willy nilly wherever you want. CTF takes a lot of thought and planning, and not everyone’s willing to go that extra mile.”

Peter Teasdale, a grain farmer in Victoria, Australia, says that, despite these challenges, CTF is “worth it.” He converted and modified the equipment on his farm to a CTF system in 2009 and has never looked back.

“Controlled traffic farming is agriculture’s inconvenient truth. There is nothing pretty or enjoyable about it. It makes tractors look ugly, and there is a lot to get your head around. But, this strategy has no adverse effects. You just have to do it,” Teasdale told Victoria’s Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

One of the biggest advantages of using CTF as opposed to a standard random traffic system is it increases a grower’s ability to withstand adverse climate conditions—namely drought and heavy rain—by improving soil structure. In a really dry year, Larocque explains, CTF farmers can achieve an average crop by relying on subsoil moisture alone.

“It was amazing to see Australia in both a drought and an absolute flood because the CTF system shined in both areas, whether it’s really wet or really dry. That seems to be the way our weather patterns are going. We either get no rain or we get way too much, and that’s where the CTF system really shines.”

Teasdale describes his experience:

“I may not be able to grow the heaviest crop in the district when conditions are perfect on my wider rows, but the fact is I can grow lentils and other crops in between the cereal rows the following year, and other guys won’t be able to. This should mean the troughs won’t be so deep in the adverse seasons.”

Controlled Traffic Farming 101

The basic premise of Controlled Traffic Farming is to reduce soil compaction by confining all seeding, spraying and harvesting tracks to the least possible area of permanent traffic lanes. On large fields, farming equipment is extremely heavy with some combines and tractors weighing upwards of 50,000 tons. When these machines drive over the soil, that excess weight causes soil compaction, which can lead to all sorts of problems like yield reductions, disease issues and increased fuel use (up to 40% according to Soil Association).

Tillage depth in mm

Extra draught needed when trafficked (%)

100 (4”)

60

200 (8”)

20

 500 (20”)

18

Source: Soil Association

Nutrient use is far more efficient with CTF. Non-compacted soils, for example, have 15% better nitrogen recovery. This was one of the drivers behind the development of no-till farming. Steve Larocque explains how this concept applies to CTF.

“In conventional random traffic systems we used to drive all over the field and cover up to 50% of it with wheel tracks each year. The first pass of a wheel track does 90% of the damage so within two years you’ve got some degree of compaction across the entire field. The damage caused by compaction reduces root growth, water infiltration, phosphorus and potassium uptake, nitrogen mineralization and soil oxygen levels to name a few. The cumulative effects of compaction cause yield loss and can be managed by controlling where you drive your equipment.”

In addition to improving crops at the chemical level, CTF encourages consistent plant establishment and growth by laying down a more uniform seed bed. Soil tilth and quality is greatly improved when compared to a random traffic system, Larocque explains, and this allows the machines to do their job more accurately and consistently.

“With CTF you have really even seeding depth because there’s no restriction to the soil any longer. Normally when your seeder meets an area that’s compressed, it will try to jump over the hard soil or break through it and leave a lumpy seed bed. But if you have a soil firmness that’s fairly even, all of a sudden those shanks and openers that are placing seed in the ground are meeting the same level of soil resistance all the way across the seeder, which means your seed placement is a lot more accurate.”

Though not essential, most CTF farmers—Larocque included—use advanced GPS systems to maximize the accuracy of their equipment. Larocque uses Real Time Kenematics (RTK) satellite navigation on his farm, which he says is a critical component of his system and allows him to calculate within a very small range of a given track.

“I can go back to the same spot and be within an inch anytime of the year. That just gives you an incredible degree of accuracy when you’re seeding or spraying and you’re trying to go down the same lines year after year. GPS just allows us to operate our equipment in a straight line—that’s the basics of it.”

Practical Benefits of CTF

In addition to improving soil quality, Controlled Traffic Farming provides many practical benefits for pulse growers. In a CTF system, stubble—the stiff stalks remaining on a field after harvesting—is kept tall, which creates a natural trellis for lentils and peas. Larocque says this stubble makes harvesting pulses easier and reduces the risk of damaging equipment.

“What they’ve noticed with lentils is that when you plant them in between the tall stubble, it increases the podding height. You just move your drill over a little bit and it will seed between last year’s rows. In a random traffic system you have to cut quite short because the seeding implements will plug up if you’re ripping out a lot of tall stubble. But with CTF you don’t have to cut as low to the ground and the chance of picking up a rock—which can tear your combine rotor and chopper to pieces—is greatly reduced. All it takes is one rock the size of your fist and it could cost you 40,000 or 50,000 bucks.”

Larocque says CTF also works wonders when it comes to weed control as it allows farmers to improve the timeliness of their spraying. Most pulse crop herbicides have a very narrow window of application (for field peas it’s usually less than two weeks from the first node) and are very temperature sensitive. The conditions have to be just right—not too wet, not too cold—for the herbicide to be effective. With CTF, the timeliness of applications have improved because the hard packed tramlines dry up quickly and farmers can travel soon after a rain event.

“Because you’re running tramlines, if you get some rain, you can be on your fields probably a day or two sooner in some cases than a random traffic field. So it dramatically improves your timeliness on everything, whether it’s seeding, spraying or harvest. You can get in there.”

Despite these benefits and the growing interest in CTF, Larocque says widespread adoption in North America is unlikely for the time being. Farmers are creatures of habit after all and rarely adopt a new method unless their current technique is failing them.

“There’s a high aversion to risk, and I understand that because nobody wants to put their business in jeopardy. If you’re making a lot of money or you’ve got really good government support through subsidies and crop insurance, why would you change? Versus if you’ve got an environment where there’s very little government support and really unpredictable weather. That sums up Australia to a tee, and they’ve adopted 15% to 20 %. It’s still a high number, really.”