Editor’s Take: Simple solutions

The agriculture industry is — rightly — proud of its track record of adoption of cutting-edge technology and techniques.

From GPS positioning and auto steer to data collection and prescription soil mapping, information is the lifeblood of the farm of today and tomorrow.

Which is why it’s so perplexing that relatively few farmers avail themselves of a simple and time-tested technique proven to give them clear insight into their soils and how to manage them.

The soil test has been around as far back as the late 1800s, when U.S. land grant universities began probing the soil and measuring key nutrients.

Its history here in Manitoba stretches nearly as far back, beginning with the Manitoba Agriculture College, in 1905. The practice really took off in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Over the years it’s only become a better-refined technique as researchers have honed in on the art and science of sampling, analysis and interpretation.

With fertilizer being one of the largest outlays of any farm, it would seem like a bit of a no-brainer to spend a few dollars every year to know exactly where to place those precious resources.

While the business case for such testing has only got stronger, it’s not clear the adoption curve has turned upwards much in the ensuing years.

A lot of farmers do soil test year after year, but they’re not the majority. In a 2016 survey, just 46 per cent of Manitoba farmers said it was an annual practice for them.

It’s a stronger business case because of the brave new world of data-driven precision agriculture. Which relies on exactly that — data — of which nutrient levels are a very important part of the picture.

Having that information can allow producers to create management zones, and even take acres out of grain production that make no economic sense due to low production.

And the social case for it is getting stronger season after season as well, as there’s a growing push to ensure farmers do what they can to minimize their environmental footprint.

Central to these efforts is the ‘4-R’ approach to nutrient management, widely promoted by soils experts around the globe, and here in Manitoba. That refers to ensuring nutrients are placed at the:

  • Right source,
  • Right rate,
  • Right time, and
  • Right place.

Even to a layperson such as myself, it would seem that at least three of those four targets would be pretty elusive without regular soil testing.

There’s also the question of why you’d leave a competitive advantage on the table.

You’re farming in a region where the long and cold winters are frequently a disadvantage. Just think of the challenges of getting your crop off the farm, to the elevator, into a rail car, over the mountains and onto a ship, all in the dead of a Prairie winter.

In this case the climate is handing you a gift. At the end of the growing season, your soils freeze, effectively locking nutrients away from sublimation and leaching, until you need them the next spring.

There’s not a lot of other growing areas that can say that, and it gives you the luxury of being able to get a snapshot in the late fall, plan ahead, manage your nutrient needs and even shop around for a better price, if that’s possible.

And those are just the reasons that one can enumerate during a ‘normal’ year, if such a thing even exists anymore (or ever did).

As our Geralyn Wichers reports in our Sept. 23 issue, the season just past has made a good soil test all the more important. There’s some evidence that the drought and hot temperatures that hit crops hard may have at least left some nutrients behind when they did so.

When two of the province’s leading soil scientists say that they’re extremely interested and curious about soil test results this fall, that should probably tell you something.

Making the most of this silver lining, however, is going to mean knowing exactly what you’re dealing with. Do you have 60 pounds of residual N? Or the 220 pounds that one grower discovered? The answer to that question is going to change your management strategy and your bottom line.

Add on to that the reality that fertilizer prices have gone up, and show all the signs of going even higher in the spring, and it becomes a very compelling case for soil testing.

And getting these tests performed is simpler than it’s ever been. These days there’s a small army of agronomists for hire ready and willing to hit the fields before they freeze, interpret the results for you and furnish a recommendation for next season.

There’s little doubt that the fall is a busy season for you, but spending a little time and a bit of money now could set you up for success next spring.

Clearly if you were ever going to jump on the soil testing bandwagon, this is the fall to do it.

About the author


Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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