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Dec 12 2017

Confessions of a Self-taught Seed Expert

A Good Crop Starts with the Quality of the Seed: Confessions of a Self-taught Seed Expert

When it comes to ensuring a good crop and a solid yield, the quality of the seed that goes into the ground is just as important as the quality of the soil and the types of inputs that are used.

Darrell Holmstrom should know. He’s a self-taught seed expert who’s spent more than 30 years studying, researching, growing and tracking seed quality and he knows different seeds respond to different conditions.

This third-generation farmer runs a mixed farm operation with his family about 45 minutes east of Camrose, Alberta. Darrell can trace his agricultural roots back to the early 1900s and his interest in farming – and seed quality – came about naturally: “It wasn’t just about watching things grow. It was also knowing that every year was going to be different.”

An Idea Is Planted

In the mid-80s, during a period of economic uncertainty that hit farmers particularly hard, Darrell began growing seed as an alternate means of generating income. One of the biggest issues he encountered was the quality of existing seeds. “I knew I could do better.”

Taking what he’d learned from both his dad and his grandfather about soil conditions and moisture levels, he started out simply and began experimenting. He also took courses, talked to specialists about seed and soil science and attended grower meetings. The Lacombe Research & Development Centre, a federal agriculture facility, was a great resource for him at that time – and still is today.

Growing Success
Seed Smart - Headshot of Garth Donald
“When my dad was farming, 40 bushels an acre was considered a good yield. Nowadays, that’s often considered a break-even amount.”  – Darrell Holmstrom

 

To improve his research opportunities, Darrell needed available land so he set aside plots on his own farm. He works a full year in advance to plan what he will seed and study the next year. “It’s also about rotation management. Some seed varieties need to be planted early, some are better when they’re planted later.”

He’s most interested in finding out which seeds are sensitive to fertilizers or more resistant to disease and which ones can withstand tough growing conditions. He’ll work with a seed variety for two to three years to get the best quality and will try to extend the rotation for as long as he can. He allows for a four-year break between crops, alternating flax, canola, peas and a cereal like wheat or oats.

He waits to see which seed germinates, when and under what conditions. “I want to know what can be achieved when fertilizer and nutrition are applied. Depending on the variety of seed that I use, this can really affect germination rates and crop quality.” For example, he says, nitrogen will give protein but won’t necessarily improve yield.

Seeds of Change

Over the years, Darrell has spent decades measuring and monitoring the results of his work. He’s tracked all his data and built detailed spreadsheets. Not only does this give him an overview of what he’s achieved to date, it also shows him where he needs to make changes to ensure better seed quality. “You need to be able to criticize your work, to be objective about what you’re doing.”

The quality of seed that he’s produced has had a direct effect on his crop yields. “When my dad was farming, 40 bushels an acre was considered a good yield. Nowadays, that’s often considered a break-even amount.”

Besides applying what he’s learned about seed quality over the years, Darrell also notes that there’ve been many corresponding changes in farming practices as well. “Soil conditions and moisture levels are so important nowadays. Over the winter, we’ll now leave stubble in the field so that nothing dries out.”

It all comes down to continued learning for Darrell, to be able to add to what he already knows so that he can pass that information on. “These are teachable things,” he says. “We want to make sure we do everything we can to ensure future generations are set up for farming success.”