Learning What We Need to Know

Learning What We Need to Know

Farm coalition seeks to benchmark opinions of food and farming in order to understand where more work needs to be done.

Triticale: Poised for the future

Triticale: Poised for the future

With the wrap up of the Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Initiative (CTBI), growers and industry are investigating innovative ways to move triticale forward.

Compromising borders

Compromising borders

Insect invaders and windborne diseases are common foes of the average farmer but invasive weeds usually don’t take centre stage. Expect that to change.

Cobb enters three-year research agreement with the Roslin Institute

Cobb enters three-year research agreement with the Roslin Institute

Cobb Vantress Inc. and the Roslin Institute have announced a 3 year agreement to facilitate collaboration on avian disease resistance, genome analysis

$4 million investment by AAFC for poultry research

$4 million investment by AAFC for poultry research

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz today announced an investment of $4 million to the Canadian Poultry Research Council

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North American Manure Expo comes to Canada...
For the first time ever, the North American Manure Expo is being hosted within a Canadian province. The annual show is being held August 20 and 21, 2013, at the University of Guelph’s Arkell Research Station, located near Guelph, Ontario. So, what's a Manure Expo and why should you attend? This video will provide all the dirt.
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Expert Dr. Susan Watkins discusses Water Sanitatio...
Expert Dr. Susan Watkins discusses Water Sanitation
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The population explosion...
With the world's population increasing exponentially and farmland staying the same, BASF took to the streets to ask consumers if this trend is sustainable.
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Lily Tamburic...
Lily Tamburic

Protection

Western Canada’s warming trend will come with much more variability in moisture conditions. Changing climate challenges crop producers

A successful crop is Mother Nature’s alone to give, but it is also hers to destroy – sometimes in just a few violent, hail- or flood-filled minutes; other times over weeks of drought or excess moisture. With climate scientists in agreement that Canadian Prairie winter and spring temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 4 C within the next 30 to 50 years, expect Mother Nature’s weather whims to be increasingly unpredictable. She’ll give more – there’s already been an average gain of more than 12 frost-free days per season since 1940 – but she’ll take more too: increasingly frequent extreme precipitation events like droughts, floods and hail will add a lot more uncertainty to Prairie crop production. “How a changing climate will affect you depends on where you are,” explains Dr. Paul Bullock, head of the department of soil science at the University of Manitoba and a presenter at the Manitoba Agronomist Conference in December 2013. “Here in Western Canada, a warming trend will help us on the one hand because we are currently limited by the length of the growing season and the number of available heat units. But, hand in hand with the warming trend will come much more variability in moisture conditions. We’ll have much longer drier periods spaced out between extreme moisture events. Variability is very difficult to manage, there’s no question about that.”  According to Andrew Nadler, an agri-meteorologist with Weather Innovations Consulting and co-presenter at the Manitoba Agronomist Conference, there are definitely some potential advantages to the warming trend. “A longer, warmer growing season will certainly benefit ag production, and we may be able to grow crops that we haven’t grown before, like corn and soybeans in increasingly northern locations,” he says. “But with warmer temperatures, the air holds more moisture, which means there is more available to fall to the ground. Globally we’re seeing more extreme weather conditions and our expectation is that will only continue to increase. So, when our warmer temperatures are coupled with more droughts and more flooding, will that counter the benefits? There are definite unknowns at this point.” These unknowns are especially big in Alberta, where drought is already a major issue for many producers. While Saskatchewan and Manitoba currently suffer only occasionally from drought, Alberta has little wiggle room for moisture, and any additional dryness could bring severe consequences. “The levels of moisture stress in Alberta are much higher than in Manitoba. Our uncertainty about future moisture stress makes any forecast for soybean or corn, especially in Alberta, very speculative,” says Bullock. “Right now there are places in southern Alberta with heat units comparable to southern Manitoba, yet little or no grain corn is produced in Alberta. The reason is because of the drought risk.” Since 1950, the maximum and minimum air temperatures across much of the Canadian Prairies have increased by about 2.5 C during the winter and about 1.5 C during the spring. Over these same years, snowfall has decreased across Western Canada; however, spring rainfall has increased. Projecting forward, scientists expect the rate of change to occur more rapidly.   “The reality is the climate has changed dramatically over decades, centuries, millennia. Change is normal. There’s no question change is happening in the form of a significant warming trend. Will it continue? Will it speed up or level out? Those are fair questions,” says Bullock. “There are dozens of general circulation models that take the known conditions of the past 100 years and roll them forward based on conditions and circulation patterns, and none of these models project any cooling off. Some are projecting tamer changes, some are projecting much more extreme changes. A 2.5 to 4 C increase for the Canadian Prairies is not an extreme projection.” Keep in mind that climate trends never move in a neatly linear, step-by-step manner. Though the temperature trend is on the increase, the only really important weather is the given year’s highly variable reality, not a multiyear trend. “The trend is positive in terms of frost-free days, and as heat units creep up over time, you’ll find people willing to risk growing some crops that aren’t traditionally grown,” says Bullock. “But, if you look at historic year-to-year variability, frost-free days can vary by 20 to 30 days. The year-to-year variability is twice what the warming trend has offered. So, the trend in no way guarantees that you’re going to have success in a particular year. You could get lucky or you could get whacked.” The addition of new-to-us crops is an important and welcome tool in the risk management toolbox. A season that starts late due to flooding or cool temperatures, for example, might be salvageable with more traditional, shorter-season crops. However, in a season that starts early, a producer would be wise to plant multiple longer and shorter season crops with varying flower and harvest dates to spread drought and hail risk. To further manage risk, producers should begin thinking now about water management strategies, for both times of flooding and times of drought. Currently, few producers impound water upslope in the spring to save for later in the growing season, but doing so effectively and efficiently may prove the difference between success and crop ruin 30 years from now. Interestingly, the biggest stumbling block to this kind of necessary management strategy change may be producers’ attitudes. “When producers are asked what the biggest limitation is on growing, they bring up genetics, growing season length, price, disease. But no one seems to be talking about the fact that the very biggest losses for individual producers, especially in places like Manitoba, are flood and drought. People are concerned about the length of the growing season, and they need to be, but what might really hurt you in the long term comes down to moisture. We can talk about climatic trends, but what farmers have to deal with, and what they need to find ways to mitigate to the best of their ability, is year-to-year variability. At the very least, they will certainly need to increase their tolerance for risk,” says Bullock.  

Research

Christopher Saffron (far right), with MSU Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering students. A Viable Alternative to Coal

April 15, 2014 - Michigan State University's 5,200-acre campus is primarily powered by the T.B. Simon Power Plant, which burns coal, natural gas and biomass to produce steam that is used for heat and electricity. Coal has been the plant's fuel source since it's inception, but research within the past two decades has shown the harmful byproducts of this energy source. As a result, the university has begun to increase the use of natural gas and biofuel at the plant, and has installed equipment to reduce emissions. The Energy Transition Plan adopted by the MSU Board of Trustees in 2012 aims for the university to eventually be 100 percent reliant on renewable energy sources. The plan outlines a requirement of 15 per cent campus renewable energy by the year 2015 and 40 per cent by 2030. To help meet these goals, a group of MSU researchers and students are collaborating to explore efficient ways of converting woody biomass into viable coal alternatives. Christopher Saffron, assistant professor in the departments of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering and Forestry, is leading the project aimed at transforming bulky woody biomass into dense, compact forms that have low ash content to minimize the risk of fire, can be easily transported, are water-repellent and can be stored outdoors for extended periods of time. "It's a replacement for coal," Saffron explained. "Although it's completely derived from biomass, it burns like coal. It is brittle like coal. It behaves like coal, so it's a drop-in coal substitute that we're attempting to make." The first step in converting the biomass into a renewable energy source is putting the wood chips through a process known as torrefaction. This process, which Saffron calls a "mild pyrolysis," takes place in a torrefaction reactor, which heats the biomass in an oxygen-free environment to temperatures between 250 and 350 degrees Celsius for up to 40 minutes at a time. Saffron is overseeing a team of undergraduate students who are designing a densification system to transform the torrified biomass chips into a more compact, denser form that can be economically transported. Following the torrefaction process, Saffron said the brittle, lightweight chips are ground into a fine powder. "Then we must densify the ground torrefied biomass to a level where it's affordable to transport," he said. "It's important that transportation vessels be load-limited and not volume-limited to reduce hauling costs. Volume-limited transport results in hauling light loads, which will require many trips. We aim to avoid this expense by densifying biomass into briquettes, pellets or pucks, which reduces the number of trips between the regional torrefaction facility and the power plant." Saffron notes that having biomass cultivation near torrefaction facilities would also offer an economical advantage. In fact, some of the woody biomass he plans to eventually burn at the university power plant has been planted on the southern part of the campus. Fellow MSU AgBioResearch scientist Raymond Miller is in charge of the hybrid poplar plantings, which are expected to total 60 acres. "This collaboration really underpins the conversation. Those trees can be harvested every 6 to 9 years, and they grow on land not used as agriculture to avoid the food versus fuel debate," Saffron said. "In addition, there are a lot of landowners no longer supplying material to the paper industry because of its decline in the Upper Peninsula. Something like this could come along and give them another product to produce and help stimulate the economy." Saffron said his lab is examining the use of small, pellet-shaped forms of the torrefied material as well as larger sizes in the shapes of briquettes and hockey pucks. "There are a lot of groups looking at torrefied material," he said. "The new piece is going to be the operating conditions required for the densification system to generate stable pellets, briquettes or pucks. That may involve a number of things from different temperatures during the densification process to binding agents that can hold the pellet together. Making the final material stable is really the new part of the equation, and that's where our research program is headed." Saffron said he is confident that this technology can compete with other alternative energy sources, especially given Michigan's increasing inventory of biomass. "It's very difficult to compete with fossil sources of energy because of the costs," he said. "Coal is probably about half the price of torrefied biomass, and natural gas is even less expensive nowadays. However, with the new mandate in Michigan, we no longer have to compete head-to-head with coal. We compete with other alternative sources of energy — wind and solar — and we think we can be competitive with those, especially when you put them on equal footing." A pilot burn of the torrefied biomass is expected to take place at the T.B. Simon Power Plant this spring.