Inaugural Great Lakes YEN pilot project a cross-border success

Data gathered from the inaugural Great Lakes YEN pilot project has provided some key insights into how growers in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the U.S. achieved higher wheat yields. 

Results show that total biomass, number of heads per square metre, total nitrogen applied and nutrient uptake were associated with higher yields, which this year were about 150 bushels per acre for the top participants. Early planting dates were also common amongst those with high yields. 

The Great Lakes YEN (Yield Enhancement Network) was launched by the Grain Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), Michigan Wheat Program, Michigan State University, and the University of Guelph to help farmers and the industry build insights and knowledge about practices and other factors impacting wheat yield. 

Why it matters: Yield enhancement networks (YEN) offer a greater depth of data on the factors affecting yield, which will ultimately help growers increase wheat yields over time. 

A YEN uses computer modelling and actual farm data to determine what a wheat crop’s potential yield could be, and the yield that was achieved. The YEN concept was first developed by ADAS, a U.K.-based independent agricultural and environmental consultancy and is gaining ground in Canada. The first YEN project in Canada started three years ago in Prince Edward Island, and has since been expanded into a Martime-wide competition. 

Farmers involved in a YEN are part of a process that focuses intensely on a wheat production site, and parameters such as grain biomass, total biomass, grain nitrogen (N) and crop N uptake (all measured in lb./acre) as well as crop and soil characteristics are monitored and measured to determine barriers to greater yields. A detailed report is provided at the end of the process that includes test results and benchmark comparisons with others in the project. It’s a friendly competition between growers, but ultimately the goal is to learn from others and gain a better understanding of what factors affect yield. 

A key indicator from the YEN is the percentage of potential yield achieved by a site, taking into consideration the individual characteristics of that site. For the Great Lakes YEN pilot project, 43 locations or fields across the region participated, with 23 located in Ontario, 18 in Michigan, and two from Ohio.

At the end of the project year, awards are given for the highest yield, and the highest calculated percentage of potential yield. The top three highest yield winners were all from Ontario. The gold award for grain yield went to Kevin Van Netton from Simcoe, who harvested 152.8 bu./acre. Ken Smith of Wyoming won silver for a yield of 151.3 bu./acre, and Jeff Cook of London was the bronze winner with 148.6 bu./acre.

The gold winner for highest percentage of potential yield was Jeff Krohn from Owendale, Michigan, 73.7 per cent. Gordon Briggs of Scottville, Michigan, was the silver winner with a score of 67 per cent, and Adam Pfeffer from St. Thomas, Ont., won the bronze with a score of 66.6 per cent of potential yield. The average achieved potential amongst all participants was 52.5 per cent.

The winners were announced Nov. 23 during a virtual meeting where all participants and industry group coordinators had the opportunity to review and compare results, what correlations could be made and how the model could be improved for next year. 

Calculating yield potential

Josh Nasielski, a plant scientist from the University of Guelph reviewed how the model calculates yield potential. It uses farm weather data collected from NASA, and estimates the date of spring “green up”, which Nasielski said is the first seven consecutive growing degree days above 0 C. 

Field observations of total rainfall and sunlight between green up, date of anthesis (GS60) and maturity (GS87) is measured, and then the model is run to determine the yield potential of a farm. 

To measure yield, soil, grain and plant tissue samples and measurements were taken at various stages at each farm site and entered into a database by project coordinators. Growers were responsible for entering their agronomic information into the database, such as planting rate, depth, seed variety, crop inputs and use of fungicides. At the end of the project, growers are given a report that shows them how their field site compared with their peers and projections from the model. 

Joanna Follings, OMAFRA’s cereal specialist, said the goal is to build on the dataset year over year, as well as look at more complex relationships between plant growth and the environment. 

“Over time, we’re hoping to layer on critical values for nutrients and planting dates and different things like that,” she said. 

Achieving higher yields

Dennis Pennington, wheat extension specialist at Michigan State University, highlighted some of the findings from the inaugural pilot between the high-yield and low-yield growers. 

“High-yield growers planted an average of 3.7 days sooner, planting a little less seed per acre, about 140,000 less seeds per acre, planting a little bit deeper, they put on a little more nitrogen, a little less sulphur,” he said. “They were doing more [N] splits than the below average group.” 

High yielders also spent a little more on crop protection. 

The difference in yield potential was nearly 16 per cent higher in the higher yielding group. This equalled nearly 27 bushels, which is not a big difference “but when you think about it, it does add up.” 

It has to do with the difference in grain weight. “When you calculate that out on a per bushel, or on a yield basis, on a per acre basis, the number of grains per head was slightly higher, the number of heads per metre squared, that was quite a bit higher, and the number of grains per metre squared was also higher,” he said. “Those are your yield components.”

The project team was surprised that weather variables didn’t play more of a role, however they noted that as more data is gained over future years, they will have a better handle on how weather plays a role, as well as other variables. 

Plans are underway to expand the project to 100 participants for the 2022 growing year and the Great Lakes YEN Project is currently accepting applications. Spaces are limited, so farmers are urged to sign up now. For more information on the Great Lakes YEN project visit