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High-tech fertilizers offer great promise

More expensive fertilizer likely cheap compared to future N20 pricing

The fertilizers farmers use will one day be manufactured from algae or hydrogen fuel, not natural gas, and they’ll be ‘SMARTer’ too, said a speaker at St. Jean Farm Days last week.

These will be long-lasting sensor-based nano fertilizers, not likely to be nearly as easy to handle as current products, and which may reside in the soil for multiple crops, making annual field applications a thing of the past.

Mario Tenuta

Mario Tenuta
photo: Shannon Van Raes

“You’re laughing,” said Mario Tenuta, professor of applied soil ecology in the University of Manitoba’s department of soil science at the reaction of some audience members last week. “You’re going to be buying it.”

Or at least a next generation of farmers will. These products are still in development. But we’re already moving to enhanced efficiency sources and precision N use is becoming increasingly critical.

“The future is this,” he said. “Environmental issues will be a big driver of nitrogen use, sources and production technologies.”

Big emitter

In Manitoba about one-third of GHG emissions are from agriculture, and one particular GHG — nitrous oxide (or N20) — is emitted into the environment every time we add nitrogen to soil, said Tenuta. Regulators are bound to turn their attention to this as governments move to meet their emissions targets reductions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled a plan in early October to put a price on carbon, starting at $10 per tonne in 2018 and rising to $50 per tonne by 2022, for example.

Agriculture in Canada accounts for about 10 per cent of all this country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The two large sources of emissions of GHGs related to nitrogen fertilizer stem from manufacturing it from natural gas and using it on the fields. Each time nitrogen is added to soil, a complex chemical process results in a fraction lost as N20 to the atmosphere.

“If we have any hope of reducing GHGs in Manitoba, who do you think will be counted on to contribute?” he asked.

What farmers should be more concerned about, instead of paying higher costs to buy fertilizer, is the impact a tax on emissions from N20 could have, he continued.

His analysis of the impact carbon costing would have on the price of fertilizer is that at a carbon cost of $50 a tonne, a 100-kg bag of N would increase by $10.

That’s not much compared to the volatility farmers already experience in fertilizer prices, he said.

“The carbon tax on manufacturing a fertilizer is actually going to be a fraction of the cost of buying the fertilizer,” he said.

But should government decide to impose a tax based on N20 emissions it will be a very different story.

“The carbon cost of the N20 that was emitted from using that fertilizer is closer to $50 per hectare for using that 100 kg of nitrogen,” he said.

“What is most important, actually, is reducing the N20 emissions from the field that comes from using that fertilizer,” he said.

“That’s what we should be concerned about.”

Prepare now

And that’s why adoption of best management practices that will help reduce N20 emissions now is so critical, he continued.

“We’re going to have to be a lot smarter about how we use our nitrogen and how we put it in our rates,” he said, adding that that’s where the 4R nutrient stewardship program can help.

The 4Rs stand for right rate of fertilizer (to match crop needs), right time of application (so nutrients are available when plants need them) right place (keeping nutrients where crops use them) and right source (the type of fertilizer is matched to crop needs).

“Precision nitrogen management is going to be more important as we move forward,” he said.

Other tools available to farmers include soil testing for residual N, three-inch-deep banding, and applying as late into fall as possible.

Tenuta said the whole aim of their research is to show growers already using these practices the real advantage in what they’re doing.

What farmers can certainly expect in future is that their farms will eventually be monitored on their N usage.

“You’re probably going to have to be certified someday to use it,” he said.

“Nitrogen rates definitely are going to be scrutinized moving forward and the sources of fertilizer you’re using are going to be scrutinized.”

One of the advantages farmers will give Manitoba, enabling the province to meet provincial GHG reduction targets, is growing more soybean, Tenuta also said.

Soybeans don’t require added nitrogen and research shows the N it produces does not convert to N20.

“It (soybean expansion) won’t just help us reach our targets,” he said. “It would actually be unmanageable if we didn’t have soybeans. Manitoba is in a situation where we’ll be able to reach reduction targets easier than other provinces because we have increasing acreages in soybean.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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