Could no-till push up annual wheat yields by as much as four times what they were a decade or so ago? When you juggle some math, that’s exactly what has happened in an area of eastern Montana.

That’s just one of a number of interesting stories that I heard last week while spending 3 days in Canada attending a dealer meeting celebrating the 50th anniversary for Versatile Farm Equipment. Dealers from all over North America attended the Winnipeg event to get the latest on new products in regard to the company’s line of tractors, self-propelled sprayers, tillage tools and combines.

Here are a few insights gleaned from talking with Versatile dealers and company staffers that should be of interest to no-tillers.

  • An eastern Montana dealer credits extensive use of no-till in his area with doubling wheat yields over the past decade due to its ability to more effectively utilize limited amounts of moisture. At the same time, no-till has eliminated the need for most farmers to summer fallow ground every second year in an effort to conserve water in this limited moisture area.

 As a result, no-till has enabled area growers to increase annual output by 400% due to reduced costs, conserving moisture and avoiding the costly need for summer fallow every second year.

This dealer reports that only about 1% of the wheat grown in this area is being conventionally tilled today. The remainder is either farmed with no-till or minimum tillage practices.

  • This same dealer explained how his son’s no-till spring wheat operation received no rainfall from seeding until 3 weeks prior to harvest in 2016. Thanks to the moisture-conserving benefits of no-till, he managed to harvest wheat that averaged 46 bushels per acre while area growers using more extensive tillage had to settle for considerably lower yields.
  • Huge acreage operations are the norm in many parts of western Canada. No-till plays a critical role in the success of many of these operations when it comes to saving time, trimming costs and making the most efficient use of limited moisture.

A western Saskatchewan dealer told me their average customer farms around 10,000 acres. The dealership has one customer farming 90,000 acres.

  • The width of the air seeders used in western Canada continues to climb. A Saskatchewan dealer told me 60-foot air seeders are being rapidly traded for units as wide as 96 feet. When I asked how often big-acreage growers trade air seeders, he said it used to be every 3-5 years. However, trading is now occurring much quicker since growers are moving to wider air seeders.
  • Several dealers in western Canada indicated the sale of self-propelled sprayers is on the rise among no-tillers. These growers want to be able to apply chemicals during critical time periods instead of having to wait for custom applicators to fit them into their schedules. In addition, running their own high-capacity sprayers has led these highly efficient, large-acreage no-tillers to do more extensive and timely split fertilizer applications, post-emergence herbicide treatments and fungicide and insecticide applications as needed — often multiple times during the growing season.
  • Where summer fallow is still practiced in western Canada, there’s more extensive use of chemical fallow rather than relying on several tillage trips to keep weeds under control and to store available moisture. The result is more moisture for next year’s crops.
  • There are instances in the Winnipeg area where a few growers have moved away from no-till in favor of minimum tillage. Due to higher levels of fall and spring rainfall creating wetter soils, these farmers feel they need to work the soil prior to seeding in an effort to get crops in the ground in a timelier manner.
  • Both U.S. and Canadian Versatile dealers indicated growers are more concerned with weed resistant issues than in the past, particularly with glyphosate. As a result, an increasing number of no-tillers in western Canada are planting Liberty-resistance varieties that are being developed for more northern areas of North America.
  • The production of specialty crops is gaining the attention of more no-tillers. As an example, one dealer explained how a grower in his area is growing 250 acres of Kamut, which is an extremely ancient grain that’s exported to Italy for use in pasta products.

Containing 20-40% more protein than other grains, this Khorasan-style wheat is a distant relative to modern wheat and is believed to have originated in the time of King Tut.

While yields are in the 20-to 25-bushel-per-acre range, Kamut normally sells for around $23 per bushel in the export market.

With no herbicides approved for this crop, a cover crop program is used to control weeds in these fields.

  • A Versatile dealer in western Alberta finds area growers are deeply concerned with a lack of herbicides to effectively control some weeds in wheat fields. Among these problem weeds is wild buckwheat, which isn’t controlled with normal glyphosate applications.

In fact, wild buckwheat is considered the No. 1 weed problem in Alberta based on grower surveys and is also known in western Canada as black bindweed, climbing bindweed and corn bindweed. Grain buyers will refuse to buy crops such as canary seed if any of the weed’s distinct, triangular-shaped seeds are found in shipments.

The weed has been listed since 2010 as being resistant in parts of Alberta. The weed can reduce cereal yields by up to 12% while flax yields are often trimmed by 10-20%.

For some no-tillers facing serious wild buckwheat concerns, tillage has unfortunately been the best control measure.

  • Versatile introduced its first vertical tillage tool during the dealer meeting. With a brand name of Viking, the unit is available in 28-, 32- and 36-foot widths and is designed to effectively manage heavy residue under some of the most difficult conditions. With residue management becoming more of a concern, several dealers indicated no-tillers in their areas would be candidates for the new vertical tillage unit.

Designed for use as either a spring or fall tool under no-till conditions, gangs can be adjusted anywhere from 0-16 degrees for use under heavy residue conditions at speeds of 8-10 mph. It can be used to cut, level, spread and condition heavy residue to speed up residue decay and reduce insect and disease concerns.

Versatile staffers indicated that the new tool doesn’t work like a disc — it moves residue up and down rather than moving it horizontally under the soil surface. They also pointed out that the definition of vertical tillage differs greatly among growers in different parts of North America.