Single changes won’t cut it if producers really want their best possible yield.
Jarrett Chambers, president of ATP Nutrition, wants producers to be radical when it comes to testing management tools.
“We have to figure out in a grower, what is their maximum yield for their farm and figure out, what is the potential? Where are they today? — and then based off risk and their comfort, where’s the right answer?” he said.
The “comfort” aspect is where many producers default on the conservative side, according to Chambers. Many producers are changing one facet of their production at a time, watching for impact and then moving on to the next facet, a strategy seemingly in line with scientific studies, which try to keep all variables constant, except those being tested.
But while that might work in the research plot, Chambers says it will also keep producers perpetually behind the curve, particularly as new varieties with new genetic yield potential, nutrient uptake and management quirks, come in.
“We only get, in our career, about 40 times to grow a crop,” he said. “So if you think that it takes you two to three times (to find a good practice) and then you want to replicate it to be sure — based on different conditions, different years, you want to confirm it — next thing you know, we’re seven or eight years into a 40-year career.”
His company does not approach a maximum yield plan by thinking of management tools to be added, he said. Instead, the company imagines all possible tools that operation could turn to, and then considers which to remove, based on a farm’s risk profile and situation.
What goes into max yield?
Rigas Karamanos, senior agronomist for Koch Fertilizer, counts four factors that determine a maximum yield; solar radiation, genetic potential, water (both available groundwater and precipitation) and soil fertility.
Farmers miss out on full genetic potential without early-season moisture, he said, something that has producers concerned this year after the dry 2017 season and little snowfall since.
Farmers have little control over solar radiation and water, barring irrigation, and genetic potential for each variety is set, although producers can, of course, decide which variety to plant.
“What you have control of is the nutrients and that’s where the 4R nutrient principle comes into it,” Karamanos said.
The 4R strategy refers to a more deliberate approach to applying product. Product should be applied at the right rate, right time, of the right type for that circumstance and in the right place.
In some seasons, like the one just passed, getting the placement right can be critical, Karamanos said.
“If it’s a really dry year and you broadcast your fertilizer, that’s goofy,” Karamanos said, pointing to crops this year that dove deep for water, therefore missing nutrients in the top inches of soil.
Instead, that product should’ve been placed close to the roots or to the side and below this past season, he said.
Right time, meanwhile, will be a function of crop development and weather.
“You start with what your knowledge is about the soil… you put your bet (in) and you can win or you can lose,” Karamanos said.
A cross-section of industry groups, companies, and the International Plant Nutrition Institute have embraced 4R, arguing that it marries environmental concern with cost savings for producers. Fertilizer Canada has thrown its weight behind 4R Nutrient Stewardship, an initiative that actively promotes 4R to both producers and agronomists.
Getting those Rs right year to year, however, may be a moving target as conditions change.
“Saying the four Rs is superficial,” Chambers said, pointing out that each of the four is complex enough to fill a book. “Digging into each of those four Rs, that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s what takes you from being part of the average yield to being the high producer.”
Chambers compared crop nutrition to human diet. Food choice depends on a person’s individual needs and goals, the same as a crop he said.
Chambers cites 140 variables that might impact yield.
Greg Patterson, president of A&L Laboratories, says nutrient balance needs to be a larger conversation and must move past what he describes as the “love affair with nitrogen” in Western Canada.
“High crop yields is all about balanced fertility and it’s all the elements,” he said. “All the essential elements have to be available to the plant and in struggling with production agriculture, we have to identify what is the limiting factor and work towards that.
“The poorer the fertility, the more nitrogen you need to grow the crop,” he added. “As we become more balanced, we become more efficient with even nitrogen use.”
The soil test expert says more focus on phosphorus and potassium is critical to moving towards that balance. The problem must be fixed before attention to micronutrients, such as the copper and zinc cited by Chambers, can pay off, he added.
“There are bigger fish to fry. Make sure they’re in place,” he said. “The biggest concern I have in production agriculture everywhere is in North America — with all the fertility knowledge we have and all the information we get from research institutions or universities — we talk about soils being the same. They’re not the same. Sands and clays are different. We should be treating them differently. We should be fertilizing them differently, and not many people do that.”
A&L Laboratories has tagged boron as a critical element for rhizobia health.
Biology adds another wrinkle, one Patterson’s company and other testing laboratories hope to bridge through bumped-up soil health and microbial respiration tests, which measure the level of biological activity in the soil.
“What we’ve seen from our research is this whole, ‘balanced nutrition being able to support a plant and being able to provide the balanced fertility it needs,’ allows that plant in turn to turn around and produce the right carbon sources to feed the right selective organisms,” he said.
The average farmer has a long way to go in terms of meeting crop potential, both Patterson and Chambers said.
Chambers estimates that both peas and canola are sitting at about half their possible yield max, compared to the same crops around the world.
Unlocking that genetic potential features strongly in the Canola Council of Canada’s plans to bring yields up to 52 bushels an acre by 2025.
“We believe that the growing genetic potential of the crop is capable of getting us to 52 bushels per acre of sustainable production by 2025 with the right agronomy,” they said in their Keep it Coming strategic plan.
Many producers will have to do their homework before they can take advantage of the speakers’ messages. Chambers estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of soils have test data collected.
“That kind of makes me feel uncomfortable,” he said. “What happens is you start developing a nutrient management plan without knowing where your baseline is.”
Chambers says his company commonly runs into a client with yield increases in mind, but who does not have tissue test results or soil quality data.
“When we look at our soils and then we look at what we’ve put onto our soils in terms of nutrition, then the tissue test, in most cases, should not be a surprise,” Chambers said.
The method has helped his company tag nutrient deficiencies in crops that looked good, but failed to ultimately perform.
“This is why we’re tissue sampling the young leaves and the older leaves and that is showing what is actually happening in the plant, because nutrients will always move to the youngest part of the plant,” he said. “If we only sample the youngest part of the plant, we don’t know what’s in the rest.”
Producers will need two to four tests to make tissue sampling worthwhile, he added. The method also hits a time management problem, since the test takes three to four days to turn around, but tissue sampling is done usually just before equipment enters the field.
The company advises tissue sampling at key stages, such as a week before spraying or right before flowering.
Chambers and A&L Laboratories are working together to address a number of issues, including a better idea on optimal seed nutrition.