Dec 14, 2010 by Lee Hart

A sane voice of science, or moanings of a dinosaur



It wouldn’t totally surprise me one day, to see a news report that the body of a certain Alberta Agriculture soil specialist was found dead, under mysterious circumstances, in a grain field.

(Don’t get me wrong I am not wishing any ill will what so ever on long-time soil scientist Ross McKenzie – I like Ross, may he live long and prosper. But this bit of black humor ran through my head the other morning as he was speaking to a group of farmers, consultants and crop advisors at a southern Alberta conference.)

This is how I visualize the report:

“Police say, the body of Ross McKenzie was found by a crop consultant, while scouting a field of winter wheat near Lethbridge, Alberta. 

Ross McKenzie.jpg

“It was a mysterious situation, says the report. There was no obvious signs of trauma to the body, but tests later showed unnaturally high levels of boron, zinc, iron, manganese, nickel, molybdenum and copper in McKenzie’s system.

“Adding to the mystery, the body was covered by variable rates of some unknown crop foliar spray, that not only helped preserve the body, but appeared to give a real boost to the wheat crop surrounding the corpse, say police.

“While several nearby residents report seeing several sets of headlights in that field the night in question, police are further confused by the fact there is only one set of wheel tracks leading to and from the crime scene, causing no other soil disturbance or soil compaction, fueling a theory that somehow several vehicles must have used exactly the same set of tracks.”

This bit of nonsense popped in my mind as McKenzie’s talk lowered its sights on several popular aspects of “improved” farming technology. He even had the audacity to include in his presentation a photo of a recent cover story in Grainews and told everyone “don’t believe everything you read.”  And I admit that is partly true, unless we’re talking about my stuff and then it is all to be considered the God’s honest truth.

McKenzie talked about three types of science – good old fashion evidence-based science (proven by proper research); conjecture science, which is a practice or treatment that makes sense, but hasn’t been properly proven; and pseudo science, which he considers, for all intents and purposes is bull shit. 

McKenzie is an evidence-based science guy. He will entertain treatments that come under the conjecture science category, but he does want to see them proven; and he really has no time for the pseudo science. In a previous life he might have been the guy “driving the money changers from the temple”.

Evidence-based science, can be a range of treatments, replicated over various conditions, which can be properly measured. Variable rate technology (VRT), which makes sense in theory, but with benefits still to be proved, falls into the conjecture science column, says McKenzie. And, under the pseudo science heading he looks at a growing list of micronutrient seed and foliar treatments, which in his view don’t make sense, and certainly haven’t been supported by Western Canada-based, evidence-based science. He launched his talk with a criticism of Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) which is getting lots of hype, but he figures there are enough holes in this concept to drive a class 8 combine through.

First, he says, there is no evidence-based science that shows soil compaction in Western Canada is a widespread issue, second while CTF may be great in Australia we can’t compare Australian soils to soils in western Canada — they are different; and thirdly, engineers who study tractor fuel efficiency say claims of reducing fuel consumption under CTF farming by 40 percent “aren’t bloody likely”.

Pointing to some of the claims of micronutrient products, he questions how low levels of product, like .01 grams per acre, can have any benefit on plant growth what so ever.

On crop advisors, yes, they do provide a useful service, but he urged producers to be careful on the service or person they chose. Why do you need one to begin with, are there production problems, how often do you need one – weekly, monthly, or just at certain times of the year? McKenzie suggested farmers do a proper interview process. Interview several consultants, look for their credentials, their education, and importantly their experience. What services are they offering, what is their availability when you need them, do they sell any products, and what kind of support system do they have?  Are they using other specialists or research developed in Canada, or are their recommendations based on studies involving celery production in India. 

McKenzie urged farmers to be “critical thinkers” regardless of whether it was a product, or farming practice, or consulting service. The one exception being —  critical thinking or any thinking for that matter is not needed when you’re reading Grainews. If you see a product or a farming practice which appears interesting, try it on a test strip. Think twice before investing $10,000, $15,000 or $20,000 on some new technology that hasn’t been shown to produce a benefit. 

He knows what works, according to evidence-based science. But the rest is still an unknown, and maybe even questionable. Even though variable rate technology has merit in principle, McKenzie says it needs more study, and questions whether there is even the technology yet to measure and compensate for the wide range of production variables.

He didn’t comment on motherhood, religion, or the role of the Monarchy, but then the guy only had 45 minutes on the program.

While it would have been nicer if he had used The Western Producer as the media example, rather than Grainews, McKenzie makes many good points about new farming technology. Some of his critics call him a dinosaur, and a micronutrient pitchman the other day said “critics may know soil but they don’t know plants”. I’m blissful. I don’t know anything. 

To complete my mystery murder scenario:

Police have closed the case on the mysterious death of Ross McKenzie, without making any arrests, saying it was just too complicated, there were too many suspects.”

Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]

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Lee Hart

Lee Hart


Lee Hart is a long-time farm writer, and honorary member of the Alberta Institute of Agrologists, with many observations on the agriculture industry, who never hesitates to admit he is wrong (should that ever happen.)


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