Cloudy skies? No worries. Farmers use technology to take bad weather in stride

By Matt McIntosh

Cloudy skies- No worries.Not so long ago, the beginning of the spring planting season was upon us, and many farmers in Southwestern Ontario were gearing up to plant corn as soon as they could. Weeks later and much to their disappointment, though, some farmers still don’t have any seeds in the ground.

Yes, it’s been one of those years for some farm families; although not particularly disastrous, cool and wet weather in various parts of the province this spring meant some grain farmers were not able to plant their corn crop at the most ideal time. That means a shorter growing season, or a smaller window of time for plants to grow and mature before the return of our famous –and infamous – Canadian winter.

Less-than-ideal weather is an age-old problem for farmers, however, and we’ve learned how to use modern technology to adapt to changing environments.

Corn, for example, comes in many varieties, each with different traits making it better at different things. Using our modern understanding of genetics, some farmers – when faced with the prospect of a shorter growing season due to cold, wet spring weather – trade the seeds they originally wanted to plant with other varieties that requires less time to grow.

It’s all about “Crop Heat Units” and “Growing Degree Days,” you see.

Crop Heat Units and Growing Degree Days, in a roundabout way, refer to the amount of time a plant needs at a specific temperature to grow and mature properly. Different crops, and different varieties of the same crop, can require different temperatures for a different number of days. In the case of this year’s corn crop, for example, a farmer planning on sowing a corn variety requiring lots of time at a higher temperature might have decided to trade his seeds for one needing less time at a lower temperature.

The trade-off, however, is that varieties requiring less time and heat to grow have a tendency to not produce as much grain. That is to say, if a variety requiring fewer hot days was compared in ideal growing conditions to one that required more hot days, the former would produce smaller corn cobs or fewer kernels.

Given how many things factor into successfully growing crops, though, it’s still possible for varieties requiring a shorter growth period to produce more. Indeed, if the growing conditions are ideal, it’s very possible the more cold-hardy plant will out-produce its more warmth-inclined cousins.

However, it’s impossible for farmers to know exactly what will happen weather-wise. Every grower is a weatherman in some form or another, and as we all know, even the professionals on television make wrong predictions every now and again.

When it comes down to it, growing grains, vegetables, fruits and other crops really is a gamble with Mother Nature, but technology helps minimize risk in a number of ways. Take examples like climate controlled environments in greenhouses, the use of fungicide to control leaf blight, or the incorporation of giant orchard fans to help fruit farmers try to keep deadly spring frosts at bay. All these things, and so many more, help give farmers an edge in creating a more beneficial growing environment for their crops.

Regardless of what Southwestern Ontario grain farmers have thrown at them, though, something always grows. While some years are definitely better than others, technology helps us ensure there’s always a crop of some kind – and that’s an important thing to remember when planting prospects still look cloudy.

The old adage often repeated – so I’m told – by my great grandmother Isabelle might be a useful reminder here. Indeed, “there’s always a planting season.”

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