Farmer panel discusses 4R nutrient stewardship

There could a fifth ‘R’ in sustainable nutrient management — the right economics

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship program aimed at promoting nutrient management on Canadian farms is short an R.

The four “Rs” are using the right source of fertilizer, applied at the right time, at the right rate and in the right place. The fifth “R” is the right economics.

“Economics determine the rate of change,” Virden farmer Jonathan Hodson said during a panel discussion at the 4R Nutrient Field Day here July 4. “Everything has to have an economic reason to do it. Farmers are always trying new things, but at the end of the day it has to make economic sense. And to make economic sense it has to make economic sense with the environment. That’s what our goal is.”

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tractor fertilizing a crop as seen from above

At first blush one might conclude following the four Rs is the most economic approach, because it’s the most efficient way to use nutrients. But that isn’t always the most economic. For example, spring banding fertilizer is one of the best ways to get nutrients to crops with the least risk of them leaving the soil. But it’s also time consuming. Bigger farmers are broadcasting fertilizer because it’s faster, but it makes nitrogen vulnerable to volatilization, contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The biggest impediment to sustainable agriculture is regulation, according to Curtis McRae who farms at St. Andrews and is vice-president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP).

“I think regulation stifles innovation and we need innovation to keep moving forward,” McRae said. “Once we get a playbook that only has three or four rules we have to abide by we can’t develop technologies and things become stagnant.”

Regulations exist, driven partly by concerns over excessive phosphorus loading in Lake Winnipeg. Winter application of fertilizer and manure has been banned and the rules around hog production have made new barn construction uneconomic, according to the Manitoba Pork Council.

But even if there are no new regulations “the market” might drive farmers to employ practices that might otherwise have been regulated. The old saying goes “the customer is always right.” And more farm customers are asking for commodities produced in an environmentally sustainable way, said Don Heaney, a soil fertility specialist working with the Canadian Fertilizer Institute to promote the 4R program.

“Keep that in mind,” he said. “There is a push from the customers of farmers — the guys who are going to buy and process and finally retail the products — for the adoption of the four Rs.”

The panel, which also included Ed Peters of Mitchell and Frank Prince of Deloraine, agreed adopting new techniques will be critical to keeping their farms environmentally sustainable.

Herbicide-tolerant weeds are a threat, Peters said.

“We have come to rely on certain chemicals a lot and if we aren’t very careful, I think our long-term sustainability is going to be very difficult if we can’t make use of those,” he said. “So I think we have to really seriously think about rotations.”

Both Prince and Hodson said they are moving away from minimum till — a practice that made sense when they were trying to maintain every drop of moisture for their crops, but less so now when too much water is the problem.

Both also grow corn in western Manitoba and need blacker soils to get more heat, they said.

“We don’t want to go back to the way it was, but we’ve got to do something different to manage the new reality,” Hodson said. “The new reality is a lot more moisture in a shorter period of time than we used to have.

“It’s sort of going against everything we’ve been trying to do, but as farmers we evolve and evolve the way the weather dictates.”

KAP, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the Canadian Fertilizer Institute are co-operating on the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program. Agronomists and farmers can take a short or longer course to get a 4R designation, Heaney said in an interview.

Trained agronomists can then work with farmers to get a 4R designation. KAP will record the farms and crops grown under the program. KAP will also track how many acres are under the program in each eco-zone of the province.

Each farm starts out with the practices it currently uses and works how to use nutrients better, Heaney said.

“The environment and economics are not in conflict on a lot of nutrient management practices,” he said. “If you’re doing things that get the product into the plant it’s an economic benefit.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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