Doing The Right Thing – for Aug. 19, 2010

Governments, although they usually mean well, make mistakes. And when those errors are incorporated into policy, they can have lasting repercussions.

Such was the case in the mid-1990s when the Manitoba government made the ill-fated decision to regulate manure applications to farmland on the basis of nitrogen content. The error was an honest one. The connection between phosphorus overapplication and downgraded environmental quality wasn’t well known at the time.

But now we know better. Omitting phosphorus from the equation was a critical lapse, one that would contribute a buildup of residual phosphorus in some farm soils to beyond their capacity to store it.

Phosphorus buildup in the soil has been described as similar to water in a bucket. When the bucket is full, it overflows. In the case of phosphorus, that overflow tends to be into run-off that finds its way into rivers and lakes. That run-off can occur through soil erosion, but thanks to groundbreaking research by the University of Manitoba, we now know that it also occurs in a water-soluble form through spring snowmelt.

Although phosphorus is a necessary nutrient and a nonrenewable one at that, crops use far less annually than they do nitrogen.

Given the incompleteness of the science at that time, any attempt to limit phosphorus would have been met with heavy opposition and accusations that the province was unduly restricting an important rural economic development initiative.

Nevertheless, the province made a mistake. And that mistake caused harm to the environment.

When errors are made, the right thing to do is to correct them, which the government is attempting to do through measures designed to prevent overapplication of phosphorus.

In a nutshell, as soils approach their holding capacity, you can apply less manure. Reaching the first threshold means you can only apply as much P as the crop can absorb in a year. Soils that have reached holding capacity cannot receive manure until those levels subside.

The province has addressed the environmental problem by changing allowable manure application rates, but its obligations don’t stop there.

It must also come up with a plan to mitigate the human cost.

These new rules mean affected farmers – primarily located in two southeastern municipalities, will not only face the cost of exporting the manure to phosphorus-deficient areas. They may also need to import manufactured nitrogen to produce the crops that will use up the excess phosphorus.

As time goes on, livestock operations in other parts of the province, including cattle, dairy and poultry, will face the same hurdle, except producers are more likely to have a land base large enough to accommodate the requirement.

Regulations requiring small operations of 300 animal units or less to build winter manure storage facilities are equally onerous and likely to force producers out of business.

The operators affected by these changes made business decisions and significant investments in full compliance with the regulations of the day. The new rules dramatically change their operating environment, adding insurmountable costs to some.

Further delaying implementation, as has been suggested by some, only delays the inevitable and further adds to the environmental impact.

But producers should not be required to carry the burden of these changes alone. Indeed the province promised to help when it first announced the changes in the fall of 2006, but its silence on the issue since has been deafening. We can only speculate that it has something to do with the cost.

The province can’t be blamed for errors of the past, but that doesn’t release it from its moral responsibility to correct the wrongs without imposing undue hardship.

A “phosphorus recycling fund” should be available to either defray the cost of moving the manure or moving these operations to areas where livestock densities are lower.

And it should not be presented to taxpayers as more aid for farmers, but rather an important investment in this province’s future.

Because this wouldn’t be just another short-term measure to help hog producers. This province needs their phosphorus – 70 per cent of our soils are phosphorus deficient. World phosphorus stores are becoming depleted. Every tonne of grains and oilseeds exported and every part per million washed out to sea further erodes this province’s food security, not to mention its economic future.

Livestock plays an integral role recycling these important nutrients. That’s enough justification by itself for investments that foster a long-term view of the environment.

It’s the right thing to do. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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