Just because it's different doesn't mean it's not a better way of doing things.
David Takeda's farming philosophy is "you don't learn anything if you don't try new ideas."
Not all changes pan out 100 percent, says Takeda, who along with his family runs a mixed farm and feedlot near Picture Butte in Southern Alberta. But, most new production practices introduced over the past decade are helping reduce input costs and improve production, while at the same time presenting a good environmental fit.
"Our main goal is to find ways to reduce input costs and reliance on chemicals," says Takeda, who manages the third-generation farm with brother Jamey, cousins Richard and Blaine Takeda, and employees Alan Yoshida and Diedrich Guenther.
"If someone wants to call us environmentalists, that's fine too," he says. "But we're farmers and beef producers looking for production practices that cost less and still produce a good product. We are not looking to develop an organic farming operation, but if we can reduce chemical and commercial fertilizer inputs by making use of more natural systems, and it's good for the pocketbook, that's better for everyone."
Takeda Farms, which has been operating east of Picture Butte for around five decades, includes about 1,750 acres of mostly irrigated cropland, along with a 5,000 head beef feedlot and some native pasture used for summer grazing. The farm, which straddles the Oldman River, includes about 300 acres of dry cropland and pivot corners, which, he says, serves as a reality check in a region where irrigation is important.
Conservation and cost savings measures over the years included a switch to a minimum till, direct seeding system several years ago. The farm, which has areas of very sandy soil, was conventionally tilled for many years and prone to wind and water erosion.
"We experimented with an older zero till drill for three years before we bought a Concorde air drill," says Takeda. "By replacing the hoe drill with this direct seeding equipment we were also able to eliminate the chisel plow and the vibra shank cultivator. It was a good move, which also made it possible to sleep at night without worrying if soil was blowing."
Direct seeding helps conserve soil moisture and build soil organic matter. "People ask why we think about conserving moisture when we have irrigation," he says. "But, if we can reduce water consumption, that's better too. For one thing those pumps don't run themselves, so it helps reduce wear and tear and energy requirements.
"Reduced tillage and increased organic matter also help improve seed bed moisture which is important to get crops, especially shallow-seeded crops, off to a good start in the spring," he adds.
The crop mix in their four-year rotation includes about 400 acres of a barley/triticale blend to be used for silage. About 200 acres of this is also underseeded with Italian ryegrass. In the double cropping system, after the silage is harvested, the rye grass regrows to provide September grazing for feeder calves.
Other crops include about 150 acres of hybrid canola seed production, 160 acres of silage corn, 160 acres of grass and alfalfa hay, 160 acres rented out for potato production, and the balance in feed grains.
Takeda is using several less conventional products on the farm with a goal to reduce chemical use and overall input costs. He has been testing soil amendment products designed to reduce the need for commercial fertilizer, and also organic treatments, which improve the manure composting process.
Changes in cropping and livestock production systems fit well with objectives set out in the Takedas' Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) developed two years ago. He was one of several producers involved in an EFP pilot project prior to the launch of the full program in early 2004.
On the cropping side, Takeda has made on-farm comparisons with soil amendments supplied by the Coaldale-based Bio Ag Ltd. They are true biological agents and organically certified compounds that include granular and liquid fertilizer as well as humate. The products are intended to stimulate microbial activity in the soil.
"The idea is to stimulate or add to the natural systems so they produce more nutrients, such as nitrogen, on their own," he says.
With corn silage production, for example, the crop usually requires about 250 pounds of nitrogen, 90 pounds of phosphorous and about 250 pounds of potash per acre. Of the nitrogen portion, about 60 percent or 150 pounds is supplied in the form of commercial fertilizer — typically anhydrous ammonia.
In one year of corn silage trials, about 70 acres of corn were supplied the full conventional fertilizer blend, while another 70 acres were treated with the Bio Ag product and about 50 pounds of commercial nitrogen, a two-thirds reduction of added nitrogen.
The conventional corn yielded 18.3 tonnes per acre, while the Bio Ag treated corn yielded 20.4 tonnes per acre, an advantage of 2.1 tonnes per acre.
A similar one-year trial with about 150 acres of barley, however, showed a 10 percent yield reduction with the crop grown under the Bio Ag system. The conventional barley yielded 106 bushels per acre while Bio Ag treated barley yielded 96 bushels per acre.
"Lower yields may have been due to the fact it was a cool spring, and the biological product needs warm soil to fully activate," says Takeda. "We also saw significant plant-count reduction from emergence diseases as no fungicide seed treatment was used. We've only tried the product on a limited basis, but we'll continue to see how it performs over the next year or so."
From a cost perspective, the organic treatment initially isn't much different than commercial fertilizer. The idea, explains Takeda, is to use relatively high rates for the first couple of years to increase microbial activity in the soil. Once microbial populations are established, treatments can be reduced in subsequent years.
Another organic compound is used to improve nutrient management by enhancing the manure composting process. The Takedas have been partially composting manure for about five years and conducting on-farm trials with a manure additive for two. The Manure Digester product developed by Medicine Hat-based SHAC Environmental Products Inc. is applied to raw manure in the feedlot before it is bunched and piled in late summer.
Later, the 5,000 to 6,000 tonnes of piled manure is placed in windrows. The windrows are turned once or twice over winter before the partially composted material is applied to crop land in the spring.
"The manure isn't fully composted, but the digester product is intended to stimulate microbial activity and speed up the process," says Takeda. "Even partial composting reduces manure volume and moisture and also kills the majority of weed seeds.
"We feel it's an improvement from a cost and environmental standpoint," he says. "There is less manure to handle, it's being applied in the spring rather than on frozen ground and that reduces the risk of run off. And because there is less volume we can afford to haul it farther to areas where it is most needed." The combination of composting and handling also produces a uniform small particle size, and eliminates large chunks of manure in the field, which can interfere with seeding and harvesting operations.
Takeda also applies an organic treatment to the 100- x 200-foot spring fed farm pond, which reduces development of algae. The treatment doesn't eliminate algae but it does inhibit algae growth. "It's a natural product which doesn't hurt the fish or livestock," he says.
Changes in their crop and livestock management are geared to encourage more natural systems that he hopes are more economical.
"The goal is to get the natural system of microbes and bacteria working more so we can reduce input costs," he says. "We don't want to buy more land, but if we can get the land working harder, get it to be more productive, without additional costs that's to our benefit.
"Some things we try don't fit with conventional thinking, but they are treatments worth looking at," he adds. "Some benefits may be measurable and others such as improved crop vigor or color may be more of a gut feeling. I've always enjoyed new techniques that can improve farming practices. Economically they have to make business sense, but if they also benefit the environment or animal care that improves the public's view of our industry."
The information on this website is available for reprint with credit to "The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan, www.albertaEFP.com".
Article development courtesy of The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan Company