Innovative farmer of the year
By Brandy Harrison
SEAFORTH It only took a one-year demo to convince Wayne Cantelon to go all-in with zone tillage, but five years of side-by-side comparisons with conventional tillage proved hed made the right call.
“There would be the odd time when looking at it early on that the corn on the zones didnt look quite as robust, but that didnt seem to mean anything at the end. The combine doesnt lie,” says the Seaforth-area crop farmer, who was named innovative farmer of the year last month by BASF and the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario for his decades-long adoption of innovative practices including zone tillage and cover crops.
About 20 years ago, Cantelon was at a crossroads: Expanding acreage meant either buying more and larger equipment or finding a way to do fewer passes, he says. Thats where zone tillage came in.
Partway between no-till and conventional tillage, zone tillage is a method of reduced tillage where only the planting rows are tilled, leaving soil between rows undisturbed.
While he no-tills wheat and soybeans, ahead of corn planting, Cantelon limits tillage to one pass of 10-inch-wide strips tilling one-third of the field with a coulter-type unit and laying down starter mix at the same time. Heavier-residue fields also get a fall zone with phosphorus and potassium applied.
Corn yields are as good or better compared to conventional tillage and soil is healthier with rich microbial life and worm activity. While he invested in specialized equipment, Cantelon estimates he has 40 to 50 per cent less money tied up in equipment than he would have going the conventional route.
Cover crops also have a part to play. Red clover following wheat has been a standby for decades. Seed is reasonably priced, the crop can be insured, and combined with wheat in the rotation, red clover has a good return.
“Anytime you have that combination, you can pretty much write in, at minimum, a 10- to 15-bushel advantage on corn,” says Cantelon, who runs Cantelon Farms Ltd. with one of his triplets, Scott, his youngest brother, Mark, and their father, George.
But in the last five years, research on cover crops has heated up. “Its showing us how little we understand about whats going on under our feet,” he says.
Cantelon has experimented with aerial seeding cereal rye into standing corn and last fall he planted an eight-species mix on 250 acres destined for corn this spring. He didnt kill it off in the fall as usual, curious to see if survival of a crop like hairy vetch could yield a nitrogen credit or if the soil health benefits create a living root bridge for microbes and bacteria to the next crop. “There are a lot more questions right now than answers,” he says.
For the better part of three decades, the Cantelons have also been fine-tuning nitrogen management by side-dressing dry urea before corn is thigh-high.
“You can do more with less,” says Cantelon, estimating they use 10 to 20 per cent less nitrogen. “We do comparison strips every year, putting on more or less to see where is the best bang for our buck. When we fool around with applying more, its a rare thing to see payback.”
Every experiment gets that same dollars-and-cents test of investment vs. return before it sticks.
Change is one of the only constants on the farm, says Cantelon.
“If youre standing still, youre going backwards. Mistakes are made and they tend to cost money too. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”