Soil Management

Balancing Best Practices For Agronomy and Fertilizer Management in Western Canada

eKonomics News Team

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As the spring season approaches, farmers across Western Canada will make many key decisions to optimize crop yield, quality, and economic returns for the 2020 crop year. None of these decisions are best made in isolation, especially when it comes to soil nutrient needs.

“There’s an entire chain of events that must all be managed to get the best utilization of fertilizer products,” says Ross McKenzie. Now retired, Ross spent his professional career in soil and crop research with Alberta Agriculture, and most of that time was dedicated to soil fertility and developing fertilizer recommendations.

“When we talk about soil fertility and fertilizer management, it’s important to consider every aspect of crop production,” he says. It goes back to basic best practices and it’s a message that McKenzie sees the need to reinforce every year. 

There are a number of agronomic practices that must be done well, every year, to grow a quality crop that yields well – from crop rotation, varietal selection, seed quality, and planting at the optimum time, rate, and depth. But for McKenzie, it all starts, every year, with soil testing to accurately evaluate the soil nutrient status. Only then, can you develop a sound nutrient management plan.

Start with a soil test

“I am very big on soil testing. It’s a very useful tool but it’s not used as much as it should be,” says McKenzie. “We had a saying years ago, and it holds just as true today – don’t guess, soil test.” For most annual crops, McKenzie recommends annual soil testing in late fall or early spring. For many growers, it’s easier in late fall close to freeze up. But if there is a winter with mild temperatures and little snow cover, nutrient levels could change over the winter and warrant a spring sampling. When sending soil samples for analysis, make sure the lab uses the recommended testing methods for your province.

Develop a plan

With soil tests in hand, it’s time to work with a local agronomist or fertilizer dealer to develop a fertilizer recommendation plan. “It’s important to talk to someone familiar with the soil types and crops in your area,” says McKenzie. “If you are farming in the black soil zones, or brown soil zones, you need fertilizer recommendations based on your region and the moisture conditions in your area.” Be sure your advisors are using the most up to date soil nutrient recommendations for crops in your soil zone. You can also consult websites for agricultural department resources in your province.

Check spring moisture

Another critical piece of information to feed into your fertilizer management plans is the amount of soil moisture. “I always encourage farmers to check soil moisture in the spring,” says McKenzie. “I know very few actually do this, but there can be tremendous variation across the prairies in the amount of moisture available to plants in spring. Soil moisture can even be quite variable across a variable landscape. And that has a direct impact on nutrient requirements.” Consult with your local advisor on the best methods for evaluating soil moisture on your farm.

To determine an economical fertilizer plan for a wheat crop, for example, it’s helpful to know how much moisture is stored in the soil at planting time, what the growing season precipitation expectation is for the area, and the crop yield potential in your area. This information will help you make a more informed decision about balancing nutrient needs based on what the crop actually requires. “When you know the nutrient requirements and the soil test values, you can develop an economical fertilizer plan that is based on yield potential for that crop,” says McKenzie.

Follow the 4Rs

“Applying the right nutrients at the optimum rates, at the best time, using the best placement will result in the best crop response,” says McKenzie.

Read more about the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship

Put boots on the ground

McKenzie has another best practice from an agronomic standpoint. “Scout your fields every week from seeding to harvest,” he says. He acknowledges that satellite imagery provides useful information, but boots in the field are best. “Monitor soil moisture conditions, and be checking for nutrient deficient areas, abnormal growth areas, as well as weed, disease, and insect pressure. You’ll be very aware of what’s going on in the field and be able to make the best decisions based on what you see,” he says.

Sources:

Fitting Agronomy and Fertilizer BMPs into an Optimum Crop Production System, Ross H. McKenzie, retired agronomy research scientist, Lethbridge, AB

Manitoba Soil Fertility Guide
Alberta Fertilizer Guide
Soil, Fertility and Nutrient – Saskatchewan