'Friendly competition' helps to grow interest in grain yield network

·4 min read
Aaron Mills walks through one of the barley fields at the Harrington Research Station.  (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)
Aaron Mills walks through one of the barley fields at the Harrington Research Station. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)

P.E.I. grain farmers are competing for bragging rights this summer, part of a growing network in the Maritimes called YEN.

The Yield Enhancement Network helps researchers and farmers work more closely together toward improving yields — with competition thrown in to spice things up.

"It's a friendly competition for spring wheat, winter wheat, barley, and oats this year," said research scientist Aaron Mills from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

"We award prizes for the highest yield, and the highest calculated percentage of potential yield."

The Atlantic Grains Council also helps organize the network, which is in its third field season, and has now expanded from P.E.I., to be a Maritime-wide competition.

Award for potential

Mills said the winners are determined through a combination of data that researchers collect, as well as the yield.

"We go in, and we do the field sampling, and collect the data that we need," Mills said.

"When it comes to harvest time, the farmer needs an independently-verified yield, like a slip from the grain elevators. And basically the highest yield wins."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

Mills said there are also awards given for the highest percentage of potential, which is what that yield could potentially be in the ideal situation, and how close the farmers get to that.

"It's kind of cool to be the best grower, or to have the highest yield," Mills said.

"But it's really cool to know that you've done the most that you possibly could, with the land, and the rain, the sun that you've had available."

Precipitation matters

Mills said there is an element of good fortune to who wins.

"A lot of it is luck, and precipitation is definitely the driving factor for grain yields, especially for rains in June and July," Mills said.

"We're interested in figuring out, especially, what farmers can do to make the most out of the rain that they do have available," Mills said.

"A lot of times our leaders are the ones that are blessed with a little bit more rain in the summertime."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

Mills said one of the biggest surprises so far has been learning how shallow the soils in P.E.I. are.

He said they dig holes in each of the fields to measure soil depth, and it is much more shallow than in the U.K., where the idea for YEN originated.

"I think that you don't really notice the soil loss as much with potatoes, where you're bringing the soil to the potato," Mills said.

"In a grain crop, it leaves a significant amount of yield on the table when those roots can't get down. So that was a very surprising thing that's come out so far "

Silver medal winner

Ryan Hamill was a silver medal winner for highest percentage of potential yield for spring wheat in 2020, for a field in South Melville, P.E.I.

"The idea of it excited me a lot, and friendly competition is always good," said Hamill, whose home base is in Middleton, P.E.I.

"So between that, and wanting to see how our practices, in comparison to our neighbours and throughout the province, see where we align."

Alex MacIsaac/CBC
Alex MacIsaac/CBC

Hamill said he approaches the YEN fields the same as any other field, so it's more of a reflection of what they do across the farm.

"We focus a lot on our soil to begin with, so soil testing every year," Hamill said.

"Wheat responds to management, and the higher management, we find, has paid off for us."

Sharing knowledge

Hamill said there are benefits to being part of the yield network.

"As farmers, we like to try different things, and see what works, and doesn't work," Hamill said.

"It's always great to get in a room full of people, and collaborate on what people have tried. You can take that home to your own operation and give it a try."

Alex MacIsaac/CBC
Alex MacIsaac/CBC

Hamill said he also likes the element of competition.

"I mean, everyone wants to win. At the end of the day, it's just a recognition of how you're doing," Hamill said.

"There's a trophy at the end, and your office looks a little bit better if there's a trophy in it."

Alex MacIsaac/CBC
Alex MacIsaac/CBC

Mills agrees the competition has helped to grow interest in YEN.

"That certainly spices it up. We've never really had the uptake for on-farm agronomy as much as we have for this YEN," Mills said.

"Some people like to trash talk, and it's all part of the friendly competition."

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