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It’s early, but a good time to fertilize

Field work was underway in some parts of Manitoba late last week as farmers began applying fertilizer applications during one of the earliest springs people can remember.

But while extension officials urged farmers to take full advantage of the province’s exemption to rules limiting fertilizer applications until after April 10, they cautioned against putting seed in the ground just yet.

Fertilizing winter wheat and forages now makes sense, but seeding not so much, say agrologists with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI).

“Why? Because it’s March,” MAFRI’s cereals specialist Pam de Rocquigny said in an interview March 23.

There’s still a strong possibility of getting extremely cold temperatures, she said.

Earlier planting usually results in higher yields, but bets are off when seeding in March. In most years, it’s physically impossible to seed before late April because fields are either snow covered, frozen or too wet.

“If the weather stays good and we flip the calendar into April it will probably be harder for guys to resist the temptation to go out and seed,” de Rocquigny said.

In 2010, 58 per cent of Manitoba’s cereal crops were seeded in April, however, torrential rains at the end of May drowned many crops, some of which were never reseeded because fields stayed wet.

On average, 68 per cent of the province’s cereal crops are planted in May.

Cereal crops will germinate when soil temperatures are 2 to 3 C and will grow well when the soil is 5 C.

Cereal crops can tolerate air temperatures of -5 to -8 C for a time because the growing point is below the surface. But if extreme cold doesn’t kill a young crop outright, cooler temperatures can delay emergence and plant growth making the crop vulnerable to disease. An early-seeded crop may end up being no more advanced than one seeded later under warmer conditions.

Now is the best time to apply fertilizer to winter wheat and forages, John Heard, MAFRI’s fertility specialist said.

“Early nitrogen is important to help it recover from winter injury and promote tillering,” he said. “I wouldn’t have any qualms about going now.”

Farmers who applied 30 or so pounds of nitrogen to their winter wheat last fall needn’t be in such a rush. They have more time to assess the survival of the crop, he said.

“If you apply (nitrogen) after (jointing, usually the end of May) you’re not going to see any yield benefit,” Heard said. “You might on protein, but really it’s the yields that pay the bills.”

After pressure from farm groups, the Manitoba government announced March 20 it would temporarily set aside rules preventing the application of fertilizer before April 10. The regulation, which also blocks farmers from applying fertilizer after Nov. 10, is designed to mitigate water pollution. Fertilizer applied to frozen soil is more at risk of running off during spring thaw.

This year’s exemption does not apply to manure applications — something the Keystone Agricultural Producers has asked the government to change, said KAP president Doug Chorney.

Farmers can apply to the Conservation and Water Stewardship Department for an individual variance. Chorney said so many are applying they can’t get through to the department by phone.

If soil conditions are suitable for the application of synthetic fertilizer, spreading manure should be all right too, Chorney said.

A Manitoba government official said in an email last week that only five farmers had requested a variance to apply manure and that the applications were being handled in a “timely manner.”

“Producers can apply for variances with their local Conservation office,” the email said.

Many farmers were unaware of the regulations preventing nutrient applications between Nov. 10 and April 10, one industry official said.

“This is quite a wake up call,” he said. “No other jurisdiction in North America uses calendar dates for standard farm practices on fertilizer. It’s quite shaking to people that government has instituted something like this.”

Ontario has restrictions, but they are based on soil conditions, he said.

KAP opposes fixed dates and wants the timing tying to soil conditions, Chorney said.

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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