Lessons from Australia on controlled traffic farming
A Canadian team went 'Down Under' to learn about the benefits of this unique approach first hand.
Posted: 29 January, 2013
By: Brad Brinkworth, Meristem Media
Peter Gamache, Project Leader at Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta
Is controlled traffic farming (CTF) a viable option for Western Canada?
One of the best ways to get a window on the benefits of this unique approach to farming is to visit Australia, a world leader in CTF where about 20 percent of cropped production is now under some form of this system.
That's why a team of 11 Alberta farmers, agronomists and government persons, with support from the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF), spent two weeks in eastern Australia learning about CTF from farmers, manufacturers, agronomists and researchers.
"The trip was undertaken to advance our knowledge of CTF and jumpstart the process of assessment of the system for our own production here at home," says Peter Gamache, Project Leader at Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta. "We wanted to see first-hand how this was working and hear directly from the Australian producers and others who had bought into the concept. We thought, 'We don't have to re-invent the wheel. We don't have any experience ourselves, so let's go and see what we can learn from the leaders.'"
What resulted was an eye-opening experience and a new appreciation from the team for an innovative approach worth exploring further for Western Canada.
CTF is a concept that has been around a long time but in the mid-90s was researched and adopted largely by the Australians, though there is rising interest in a number of other production areas around the world, most notably in Europe.
In simplest terms, CTF is based on the idea of minimizing the impact of field vehicles on the land by confining them to the least possible area of permanent traffic lanes. At a basic level, this can mean simply reducing random traffic in the field or shifting to inter-row seeding. At the other end of the spectrum, producers fully embracing the approach have implemented full CTF cropping systems using the permanent parallel wheel tracks called "tram lines."
"Much of the time and energy we put into soils is to undo the compaction damage we have caused by driving machines all over them," explains Gamache. "As machines are getting heavier and heavier, this damage is more extensive and is extending deeper and deeper into the soil profile. The more we can minimize that damage, the more healthy and productive our land base will become."
While the concept may be simple, it does take a lot of thought and good planning to implement, says Gamache. "As with most benefits, there is some price to pay, and with CTF this is largely associated with the need for an improved and more sophisticated level of management."
In addition, some modification of machines will be necessary. For example, this generally means altering wheel gauges, adding markers, or perhaps extending unloading augers on grain harvesters. Eventually it will mean matching implement sizes to the tram line. "Good long-term planning can help the producer ensure these costs are kept to a minimum, and that machinery replacement is in line with the new needs of the farming system."
At least in theory, the opportunity for benefits with CTF appears substantial. "All the main benefits are related to reduced compaction," says Gamache. "With a CTF approach, it is possible to leave 80 to 90 percent of fields permanently without compaction, rather than the other way around."
CTF slashes equipment and fuel costs, and is a big time saver for producers. It also boosts soil health and productivity, resulting in higher yields, lower inputs and healthier, higher-quality crops. Additional practical benefits of having permanent traffic lanes include the ability to get in sooner after a rain and operate more effectively under a number of tough conditions.
Following the tracks is the backbone of the CTF approach.
The approach is also a logical fit with various forms of precision guidance systems. The combined approach further improves efficiency and accuracy, while adding to typical precision systems the core CTF benefits related to reduced soil compaction.
"At the end of the day the goal is to boost farm sustainability and farm profit," says Gamache. "Like with anything, the decision to get into this system depends on the situation of each individual producer, the investment requirements and the specifics on the anticipated returns. Certainly the Australians have had some success with it. We believe it's an option that at the very least makes sense to explore."
Separating crops and wheels
One way to look at CTF is as a whole farm approach to the separation of crops and wheels, says Gamache. Appropriate agronomy and management is used to maximize the potential of both the cropped and wheeled areas for their specific purposes.
As much as possible, producers practice repeated use of the same wheeled tracks for every operation. Over time, that means aiming for equipment with the same wheel track, but perfection off the top is not expected.
Gamache points out that even with two different track and implement widths, the percentage wheeled can be reduced 30 to 40 percent. "CTF is one of those things where you can approach it in degrees and get more into it over time. There is a benefit to whatever degree you can reduce compaction."
The Australians have identified a number of specific estimates of the benefits they have realized under CTF. These include:
- 10-15 percent increase in yields
- Up to 50 percent better yields during drought
- Up to 15 percent improved nutrient use efficiency
- 10-25 percent reduced pesticide and crop protection costs
- Up to 50 percent reduced fuel usage
- Lower machinery capital investment
- Positive impact on crop grades over time
"One thing we came away with, if we can get any kind of results similar to what Australia is seeing, we'd be foolish not to have explored and tried this approach," says Gamache. "The principles of reducing compaction, improving soil productivity and boosting precision all make sense and there is a lot we can learn from the CTF options, regardless of how far we ultimately go down that road."
Opportunity for Western Canada
Exploring the viability of CTF is the reason Controlled Traffic Farming Alberta was implemented. The project started with funding support fromACIDF and now has funding for three years from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's CAAP program administered by the Ag and Food Council.as well as additional support from a range of industry organizations.
Over the past several years, CTF Alberta has coordinated research and data collection on CTF options, including working with a number of cooperating producers in the province who are exploring the use of this approach. To date, CTF is at a very early exploratory stage in Western Canada. About a handful or two of producers are known to be using it in Alberta and there is rising interest, says Gamache.
"Our purpose is to get a handle on the basics of CTF and how it might be best applied here. A big focus is looking at the economic viability of it and learning as much as we can so our knowledge can reduce some of the risk for early adopters and give them greater confidence in the how to go about this.
It's an early time, but also an exciting time, he says. "In some ways, it reminds me of when we were first looking at direct seeding.
"We don't know how big the potential will be for CTF, but we know it's important to keep up with the latest knowledge and have a solid look at this."